Friday, June 22, 2012

Driving Mrs. Daisy

All my life I have been told by would-be friends and acquaintances that I have an off-putting and slightly odd demeanor.  My humor and interests have been called dark, macabre, and even disturbing.  As a small child I was obsessed with the entombment rites of ancient Egypt, mummified corpses found in the remote regions of Earth – at the tops of mountains, preserved in ice for centuries; or common folk buried in shallow, sand-filled graves in the Nile delta.  I wanted to be an anthropologist and study ancient civilizations to learn why they no longer existed.  From a very young age I felt secure in my own knowledge that everything in this world is finite; civilizations come to ruin, buildings crumble under the wrecking ball of a ticking clock’s pendulum; a human life being the most fleeting of events given the long course of history.  So fleeting, in fact, that a life is measured not by the length of time it lasted, but by the events enacted by the owner.

As I grew older and learned of this thing at the library called the non-fiction section, I began to expand my knowledge of and interest in the human condition by learning about vast pandemics of disease and human violence over the course of our species' existence.  I read books about epidemics like Cholera, the discovery and production of various poisons and medicines – often the same substance with a variance of recipe, human migration patterns over the course of history, religion and global mythologies.  Reading all these reinforced my strangeness, of course, but it was the books about the historical and contemporary treatment of the dead and the dying that really creeped people out.  I was fascinated by the way that people treated, and found uses for, their dead.

A dearly loved graphic novel series I own called The Sandman, written by Neil Gaiman and penciled by Sam Kieth, features one book in which various random characters find themselves stranded in a pub at the end of time during a storm.  They take turns sharing stories about themselves and their lives to pass the hours until they can return to their respective homes.   My favorite story was that of the Undertakers guild, who have cared for the dead since the beginning of time and who pride themselves on their familiarity with every death rite of every culture that has ever existed. I was rapt.  Yes, it was gruesome; but the point was excellently illustrated: that which is abhorrent to one culture's people is absolutely essential to the well-being of another.  This is as much, if not more, true for the individual as it is for the society.  Death wishes are the ultimate expression of that particular need; and to ignore or diminish any aspect of an express instruction or desire for care of the dead is to diminish the respect for that individual life entirely.

That is my attraction to the care of the dead, to whatever end or use the decedent selects for their earthly remains.  All dying wishes for the care of a body are all burial rites; including the wishes of those who prefer to continue to be of use long past the time when they can command their own flesh by will.  Individuals who chose to donate their remains to the uses of others after their demise show, perhaps, the grandest form of respect for their own bodies and lives.  It is a strange form of heroism for many whose time for heroics has ended.

In my early twenties I was preoccupied with searching for the perfect career, as many of that age are wont to be.  I had never been fantastically successful in school, often being ridiculed by instructors for not living up to my potential, and by classmates for being aloof and – as I later learned – for their perception of me as a teacher's pet; a truly ironic experience in that both groups had essentially the same issue with me, albeit for opposing reasons.  I did not attend college directly out of high school, as the overwhelming majority of graduating-age children seem to do these days, but rather sought full-time employment to support myself in a small apartment.  Like many “young professional” contemporaries, I have since had closets larger than the kitchen area provided in my first flat.  Life - otherwise known as paying the bills – carried on from various flats in various parts of the city for many years.  The search for the profession that would make all the bullshit magically disappear continued when I had a few spare moments of not dealing with said bullshit.

It was during one of those rare breaks that I had the opportunity to job shadow a local mortician.  For those who have not had the pleasure of meeting a mortician, they tend to be jovial and active people who despise wasting time and energy on events and interests other than those which enrich their short human lives.  Dealing with death every day, all hours of the day, only serves to remind one that every moment lived is a choice in how you spend it; so these few choose to spend those moments wisely as they are all too aware the choice will someday be taken from them; and that 'someday' could come any day, and without warning. 
Unbeknownst to me at that time, I have a cocktail of neurological conditions which make complex motor functions involving movement - like driving or riding a bicycle - very difficult for me.  I walk or take the bus nearly everywhere when I am alone, so I walked from my small downtown apartment to the funeral home where I was to meet the undertaker.   This is before everyone had a cellular phone plugged into their brain every second of every waking hour so when I arrived and we had said our hellos the gentleman owner, whom we shall call “Jim” for ease of storytelling and the protection of his privacy, informed me that he had just received a first call.  This is what undertakers term that first telephone call from the family or hospice letting them know that someone has died and needs to be picked up.  I was welcome to either wait at the funeral home until his return or I could come along on his pick-up.  I was dressed rather nicely, as I generally am – it is not uncommon to see me out in a dress jacket with my jeans or even a casual suit - and Jim informed me that I was perfectly presentable for a first call pick-up; and besides, the family would not be there so I would not be put in a position to have to say anything.  I replied that of course I would be delighted to accompany him and we climbed into a very nondescript baby blue van with darkly tinted windows as Jim finished tying his tie in a quick half-Windsor.

We chatted on the way to the nursing home and got better acquainted.  As it turned out, the orderly at the home was happy to help Jim move his ward into the van and the three of us got underway back to the funeral home.  The orderly had taken back his ivory-colored sheet used to cover the body for transport, so the lady, whom we shall call “Mrs. Daisy” rested in the back wagon with her mouth gaping open and eyes staring at the roof.  Unlike in the movies, when people die they do not generally have peaceful expressions on their faces. We are much more like our animal cousins who die with their eyes open, exhaling that last breath of life before we move on to whatever end.  She did not look undignified exactly, just uninhabited.  Jim and I talked about chemistry and the coursework needed for certification as a mortician, as well as the state exams required.  We talked about the long hours and middle-of-the-night calls.  Our new passenger relaxing quietly in the back didn’t chime in with her thoughts. 

Jim looked momentarily startled and asked me, “Say, I almost forgot – would you mind if we made a quick stop at the printers?  I’ve got to get these proofs over there by noon and I brought them along since we would be so close.  We’re expanding our business and we’ve just finalized the plans for a new funeral home.”

“No, not at all.  Congratulations on the new building, that's very exciting news!  You must be doing very well to afford a second location like that.”

“You know what they say… death and taxes.  This is a pretty steady business.  We have our competitors in town, but there is enough business for everyone here.  I won’t be long.” 

We detoured to the south a couple of blocks and pulled into a tiny parking lot at the back of a shop in the middle of a mixed residential and industrial area of town.  He threw the shift into park and grabbed a packing tube wedged between his seat and the center armrest of the van.  “I’ll be right back.”

So it was just Mrs. Daisy and I while we waited for our mutual chauffeur to return from his errand.  I looked around the van for a minute or two and then it became apparent that Jim, friendly and outgoing man that he was, had probably gotten into a discussion with the printer and would be a while.  I settled in and turned in my seat to check on my road-trip companion.  She stared out the tinted window, seeing nothing, thinking nothing, smelling slightly of disinfectant and the ammonia smell of urine – as we all will when we finally go.  My thoughts inevitably turned to the human soul and I wondered what denomination this elderly lady held in life.  Is her soul in heaven, being weighed on impossible scales; is her family lighting candles and crying in a synagogue in the center of town?  Does she even have a family left? Who is she; what did she die of; was anyone there?  “Who are you, I wonder.” I asked her aloud.  Later that day, Jim would meet with Daisy's family and remaining friends to plan the service and gather information for writing the memorial brochures.  Morticians are multi-talented people in their professional, as well as private, lives.

Jim returned and apologized for taking so long.  I replied that it was just fine, but couldn’t help wondering if this was some sort of test he plans for prospective interns; leaving them alone in the van with a fresh corpse for countless minutes to see how they handle the one-on-one time.  He glanced at me and seemed to approve, confirming my suspicion, and became immediately the same high-spirited man who had leapt from the driver's seat with his architectural prints 20 minutes earlier.  Conversation resumed, and we were back at the funeral home in what seemed like seconds.

Jim pulled the van around back and wheeled the cot – the same kind they use in ambulances that have pressure-sensitive folding wheels underneath for a minimum of fuss and a smooth, quick load and unload – through the basement doors of the funeral home.  The preparation room was strait out of the 1950s.  Mint green tile and sparkling white grout covered every inch of the walls and a high steel table stood in the center of the room; sinks lined the walls underneath oak and glass cabinets.  Rubber hoses ran from tubs in the sinks to the center slab and then back again into the sinks.  The table itself had a neat little headrest built in and was tilted ever so slightly so that running water – or whatever – would drain through a hose at the foot of the table.  Hand-held spray nozzles hung from the ceiling above the table.  Two clear plastic smocks, almost like you would wear if it were raining, hung from pegs on the far wall.  This was a room designed for a purpose. 

“Wow.” I said aloud before I could stop my own tongue.

Jim laughed.  “Yeah, it’s a bit much the first time you see a prep room.  This is one thing that those CSI shows actually get right.”  He chucked again, clearly enjoying my awe.

He gently moved Mrs. Daisy from her cot to the table and I realized why the majority of people in this traditional profession have been men: it takes a great deal of strength to move an inert amount of mass like a human body.  Mrs. Daisy was old, and like many older folks, not very large.  Still, she had to weigh at least a hundred pounds.  This man half slid, half picked her up from her resting place on the cot and transferred her to his slab easily; without even a sound of effort or change of his kindly facial expression.  He didn’t look like a strong man but then I thought back to how lithely he had sprung from his seat in the van earlier.  Even though his hair was more silver than brown Jim here was probably in better shape than I was, and he was easily thirty years my senior. 

His voice broke my self-deprecating reverie, “Say, you don’t have to get suited up or anything, just stand over there or have a seat,” as he motioned to one of several ice-cream shop style chrome bar stools with a cracking, brown leather seat.  “You shouldn’t get messy from that far away, even if I splash a little.”
I took his suggestion and sat down.  The stools were well-used but very comfortable, as things made before the mass-production era of the 1980s tend to be.  My thoughts, again, turned temporarily to Mrs. Daisy’s mysterious life and I wondered if she had ever worked in a factory making sturdy, American-made products back in the ‘40s when so many women had taken over men’s factory jobs during WWII.

Jim then proceeded, accompanied by a running monologue about the mortuary profession and his memories of being an apprentice taking night calls in his twenties, to do the single most startling thing I have ever seen in my life.  He took a pair of scissors and cut up the center of Mrs. Daisy’s nightdress, half sat her up, and removed the ruined garment from beneath her.  At the time I was utterly shocked, although I think I did a relatively passable job of disguising my surprise.  Of course, the body would have to be washed and embalmed, as is required by state law – even if it is to be cremated, and no one would want the garment that an old woman died in.  Well, there was probably someone out there who might want it, but this was a mortuary not a specialty interest club with international shipping policies and discrete, no-name label packaging.  By the time I had stopped rationalizing my surprise at seeing an eighty-year-old dead woman disrobed under fluorescent lights, and my culture-shocked blood pressure had settled down, Jim had deftly washed her body with state-regulation disinfectants and was inserting one of the rubber hoses into an incision he had made in an artery.  From another incision, red blood flowed as he cleansed and disinfected the internal portions of the corpse.  His monologue continued, explaining to me what he was doing and why, as her blood began to flow clear.  Jim then switched to embalming fluid – not the formaldehyde people are familiar with, but a concoction of other preservatives much less harmful to the groundwater and soil. 
“Most states outlawed the use of formaldehyde years ago,” he clarifies for me, “due to its harmful effect on the environment.  We don’t use it anymore.  One more thing those CSI shows always get wrong.”
Jim seems to have a grudge against modern media’s portrayal of his profession's practices.  The more I watched him get Mrs. Daisy ready for her last outing, the more I could understand his frustration. After she had been washed, disinfected, drained and embalmed with Jim’s special concoction of just the right combination of color additives to give Mrs. Daisy the glow of health, Jim propped up her head on the head rest and took out a jar of moisturizer. 

“I like to use pure lanolin,” he tells me.  “Dead skin is very dry and after the embalming fluid goes in it gets even dryer.” 

He slathers the lanolin all over the body’s face and neck until she looks a bit like she’s got cold cream on for the night, like some aging starlet in a vintage film getting ready for bed. 

“You’ve probably heard that old wives’ tale that hair and nails grow after you die; it's not true.  That’s just the dry skin receding back from the cuticle.  Happens to the teeth too,” he explains to me as he stuffs the body’s mouth with cotton fibers like a taxidermist stuffing the family dog.  “The cotton gives the cheeks the roundness of health and life - counteracts gravity a bit.” 

He then takes some wire and staples her teeth shut.  I know she can’t feel it, but with each thing Jim does to restore her to the image of health she would have had had her life continued uninterrupted by death’s inevitable touch, I think of her less and less as Mrs. Daisy, and more and more as a corpse.   Jim then uses glue to seal her lips closed, and she no longer has the slack-jawed gape of a corpse but just looks very bored, staring at the ceiling waiting for her nightcap to arrive in this unlikely boudoir.  He then takes two spined, white, rubbery contact lenses and applies a small amount of adhesive putty to the concave side of each.  He applies them to her wide-open eyes and closes the lids.  He carefully adjusts the lids to the most peaceful-looking position.   He takes out a convenience store razor and shaves the hair from the corpse’s face so that when the skin shrinks she will have the downy peach fuzz natural on all women’s faces instead of looking like the bearded lady.  He takes some more cotton and gently inserts it into her outer cheeks, coaxing a wise smile from her lifeless lips. He smooths down her tree-knot hands onto her stomach, erasing the remaining evidence of her painful last few minutes on Earth.  Wiping off the residual lanolin lotion, Mrs. Daisy now look natural and restful; her sunken orbs padded out with soft rubber contacts, her skin soft and healthy looking, her smile peaceful and a little wry.  It suits her very well, that smile. In less than an hour, Jim has taken this recently vacated corpse with its death grimace and clutching hands, buckled knees and smell of disease and fear and erased all signs of hardship or worry.  Despite her obvious lack of life and complete nudity, she looks dignified on his prep room table and ready for whatever lay beyond.

“Well,” he breathes, as he removes his gloves, protective glasses, and smock.  “Like Mexican food?  I’m starving!  My treat…” 

I can’t help but laugh as I reply, “I love Mexican, and I would be honored.”

We hop back into the blue van and have a delightful lunch at a local family-owned restaurant.  Jim watches me keenly and seems to approve of my retaining an appetite after seeing all that he has just shown me; the secret world of morticians.  I begin to get the feeling this professional caretaker of the dead had seen more than his fair share of would-be apprentices come and go after getting a clear view of what, exactly, is involved in the care of our dearly departed.  I also suspect that Jim is highly self-aware and attuned to human emotion, as he suddenly returns my curious stare with a slightly sad one of his own.  

As if I am some radio-noir hero and he has tuned in to the late-night station broadcasting my inner monologue, Jim says, “Most people who show interest in this profession, I never hear from them again.  It’s hard work and the hours are long.  You don’t take your work home with you; your work is your home.  It’s good for insomniacs, though!” and he laughs his hearty laugh again, and then sobers slightly.  “The schooling isn’t easy either.  You have to be good at chemistry and have a real good memory to get through the bar; but the business is good, and it’s the most rewarding work I have ever done in my life.” 

We finished our meal, I thanked him for his time and for the opportunity to see him at work, and we went our separate ways.  That was nearly 8 years ago.

I did not enroll in course training for mortuary science.  I did not take chemistry classes or study for the state bar.  Perhaps Jim knew that already, looking at me; as he had undoubtedly looked at many young prospectives over the years of his career.  Unlike so many others, it was not some displaced fear of the dead that dissuaded me from pursuing a mortician's certification, but the fear of the living.  I have no terror of chilly, grasping hands twining themselves around my neck or grasping the bedsheets at night.  I am not disturbed by blood, teeth, and staring eyes.  Old flesh devoid of color does not repulse me.  It was the thought of talking to a widow or a father - comforting them, having to say the right thing at the right time - that frightened me beyond comprehension.  Jim found his work rewarding because of what he could do for the living by caring for their dead, but also because he can do that thing which humans take for granted: he could connect verbally and physically with the living and share their grief and pain with poise, visible sympathy, and humor.  He would be whatever was necessary for the departed's loved ones whenever the moment for that necessity arose.  He naturally did things that I would be incapable of doing for any length of time.

I enjoyed my time with Jim and Daisy, none the less.  The use I have ultimately found for that experience is, undoubtedly, unusual amongst Jim's prior shadows but I hope they would both approve.  My search for knowledge and my collection of people's stories grows ever broader as a result of the unlikely lesson I learned from driving Mrs. Daisy: never be afraid of what people with think of you, there is no shame in being exactly what you are.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Dante's Discotheque: The Driver's Road Map to the Inferno

Growing up I always watched my mother make mix tapes for others, and for herself, whenever she had something to say that was a little more complex than a conversation could handle. She would sit in front of the stereo with huge headphones on and drink scotch. Every now and then she would snag the headphone jack out of the receiver and the house would be filled with the suddenness of sound. When I was young, it seemed to me that she was always crying when the music played.

An adult now, I also find that music is sometimes the best way to express an idea or tell a story; but I do things a little differently than mum. I like the mental challenge of retelling a story - quite literally, a story - as accurately as I can, with music. The more in-depth I get, the more fun I have. It's like my brain is a greyhound and I get to let it out for a real good, hard run. Sure, it's the same scenery as before; that's just running around in circles, after all. But it feels good to let it run.

So, here is the tracklist and my own cliff's notes on the Inferno.

Thanks for the hobby, mom.


1. David Julyan (The Prestige): The Turn – No, Not Today

2. Sarah McLachlan: Black (William Orbit Mix)


3. VNV Nation: Descent


4. Michael Andrews (Donnie Darko): Manipulated Living

5. The Smashing Pumpkins: Cherub Rock


6. Howard Shore (LOTR: The Return of the King): Twilight and Shadow

7. Loreena McKennitt: Dante’s Prayer


8. Hans Zimmer (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End): Calypso

9. Lacuna Coil: Entwined


10. Howard Shore (Se7en): Portrait of John Doe

11. A Perfect Circle: The Hollow


12. Javier Navarrete (Pan’s Labyrinth): Deep Forest

13. Nine Inch Nails: Head Like a Hole

14. Korn: No Way


15. Steve Baker/Carmen Dave (Donnie Darko): For Whom the Bell Tolls

16. Radiohead: Pyramid Song


17. Hans Zimmer/James Howard (The Dark Knight): A Little Push

18. Rush: Faithless


19. Clint Mansell (Moon): Are You Receiving

20. Billie Holiday: Strange Fruit

21. A Perfect Circle: The Outsider

22. Nine Inch Nails: Closer


23. Joseph LoDuca (Brotherhood of the Wolf): The Den of the Beast/Mani’s Pyre

24. Depeche Mode: Dream On

25. A Perfect Circle: The Package

26. Genesis: Jesus He Knows Me

27. The Moody Blues: Gypsy

28. Alabama 3: Yellow Rose

29. Tool: Grudge

30. Radiohead: Idioteque

31. David Bowie: Telling Lies

32. Marilyn Manson: Target Audience

33. Tom Waits: Diamonds and Gold


34. Koh Ohtani (Shadow of the Colossus): Sign of the Colossus


35. VNV Nation: Colours of Rain

36. Linkin Park: The Little Things Give You Away


37. Linkin Park: What I’ve Done


38. Vangelis (Blade Runner): Fading Away

Canto I: The Dark Wood of Error (Dante loses his way and realizes he has strayed from God’s path and into the dark woods of worldliness. He finds temporary respite on the mount of joy, but is driven away from it and is harried by the beasts of man’s fall – the leopard of malice and fraud, the lion of violence and ambition, and the she-wolf of incontinence. Here also, he meets Virgil; a fellow poet and Dante’s symbol of reason.)

Canto II: The Descent (Dante and Virgil walk and Dante experiences a moment of doubt and despair. Virgil explains to Dante that he is being watched over by a power greater than any other and that his lack of confidence is akin to doubting God’s will. They discuss hell and the nature of sin and redemption.)

Canto III

The Vestibule of Hell: The Opportunists (Also, children and neutral angels who did not take part in the war for heaven before the angel Lucifer’s fall. The souls who were neither virtuous nor evil in life chase after their own illusions of success or reward through muck and clouds of stinging insects which prick them and make them bleed from infected sores.)

Canto IV

Circle 1, Limbo: The Virtuous Pagans (The home of Virgil and other great minds of antiquity rest here where the only torment they encounter is the lack of God’s grace. Having been born before the coming of Christ, and never having been offered the grace of God’s light, they have lead the best lives they could but cannot enter heaven on a technicality.)

Canto V

Circle 2: The Carnal (The souls of sinners who rejected or neglected their responsibilities to loved ones or country in favor of love are caught in an eternal windstorm wherein they are bruised and constantly whipped near to, and away from, their equally tormented lovers.)

Canto VI

Circle 3: The Gluttonous (The undying souls of those who used their gifts and living power to overindulge themselves in products while they lived are feasted upon in a freezing wasteland of putrid slush. Cerberus guards their bloated corpses and gnaws upon their bodies as they glutted themselves upon food or goods in life.)

Canto VII

Circle 4: The Hoarders and Wasters (The souls of those who lacked all moderation in life push and pull a great boulder back and forth between them in a great tug-of-war battle to avoid being crushed. There is no rest from this complete and pointless waste of time for them.)

Circle 5: The Wrathful and Sullen (Styx lay here and in it toil the bodies of the wrathful, who tear each other to pieces only to be reborn again from the stinking slime. Beneath the surface of the black water float the sullen, who refused to see hope in life and thus never really lived. They weep and wait for the end of time to come.)

Canto VIII

The Ferry on the River Styx, and the city of Dis (Virgil calls the Ferryman of Styx, Phlegyas, who was once a king and the bloodthirsty and wrathful son of Mars; and the two see Hell proper and the great walls of the city of Dis. Dante looks down into the waters of the river and recognizes various figures from history and his homeland of Italy. Within the walls rests Circle 6, and all of lower hell spreads out below it like a great, stepped funnel - or inverted pyramid – with Satan entrenched in ice at the central and lowest point.)

Canto IX-XI

Circle 6: The Heretics (Those who insisted that there was no eternal life within God’s grace are housed here in a lake of boiling water, entombed in caskets set aflame to the degree of their defiance of God’s gift of everlasting life.)

Canto XII- XVII (Sins of the Lion)

Circle 7, Round 1: The Violent Against Neighbors (Murderers and war-makers… submersed in a sea of the boiling blood of their victims.)

Circle 7, Round 2: The Violent Against Self (Suicides… forever imprisoned in thorny trees whose limbs and leaves bleed as harpies feast on their branches. They can speak as long as the blood flows, and their numbers stretch all through the seventh circle of hell.)

Circle 7, Round 3: The Violent Against God and Nature (Blasphemers and sodomites… staked out or left helpless on a vast plain of burning sand, the sinners are assailed by a constant rain of fire from the sky. )

Canto XVIII-XXX (Sins of the Leopard)

Each Bolgia circles in on itself like a perverted Mandela, or amphitheatre seating, and each trench in the reeking earth has its own fitting satire of a torment for the souls within. When Virgil and Dante peek over the shoulder of the first Bolgia, they can see down onto the horrors of every lower ridge and it overwhelms Dante at first, for there is no easy way down but through the entirety of the 8th circle of hell.

Circle 8, Bolgia 1: Seducers and Panderers (Driven in circles by horned demons who prod and whip them.)

Circle 8, Bolgia 2: Flatterers (Wallowing in their own excrement.)

Circle 8, Bolgia 3: Simoniacs (Those who exchanged ecclesiastical favors for gold in life are suspended head-first in rocky holes while the soles of their feet are burned.)

Circle 8, Bolgia 4: Fortune tellers and Diviners (Their heads turned backward on their bodies so they only see that which is behind them.)

Circle 8, Bolgia 5: Grafters (Completely submerged in clinging pitch.)

Circle 8, Bolgia 6: Hypocrites (Weighted by lead robes covered in gilt.)

Circle 8, Bolgia 7: Thieves (Forever stealing each others’ bodies as they are evicted by demons who use their forms for visits to Earth.)

Circle 8, Bolgia 8: Evil Counselors (Consumed by great flames so they cannot be seen or heard.)

Circle 8, Bolgia 9: Sowers of Discord (Limbless, headless, bodily bifurcated, or otherwise split from themselves.) *note: The most famous woodcut from the Inferno is from this level; that of a man standing on a ledge holding his own head at arms’ length in order to see.

Circle 8, Bolgia 10: Counterfeiters, Alchemists, False Witnesses (Afflicted by sensory overload and diseases of the body and mind, some to the point of madness.)

Canto XXXI, The Central Pit of Malebolge

The Giants of legend, decedents of the ancient Gods, are guardians and prisoners of the earth from which they were born long before the coming of Christ. Their nature, not their deeds, place them as gatekeepers of the innermost circle of hell.

Canto XXXII, Cocytus

Cold and calm is the central chamber of hell; and those within it. The quiet is disturbed only by the crystalline sobs of the damned submerged in the frozen lake at the center of hell. Those who betrayed their kin are frozen to the neck; those who betrayed their country are submerged to the eyes; and those who betrayed benefactors who were not even beholden to them, but gave aid none the less, are entirely encased in ice and cannot express their sorrow – even with tears. Satan himself sits at the center of the lake, and his great wings beat the still and frigid air. He has three faces, and his jaws are the fourth and final round of the 9th circle. In them, he rends the bodies of three sinners: Brutus, Cassius, and Judas – the treacherous to their masters.

Circle 9, Round 1: Caina (The Treacherous to Kin… )

Circle 9, Round 2: Antenora (The Treacherous to Country… )

Circle 9, Round 3: Ptolomea (The Treacherous to Guests and Hosts… )

Circle 9, Round 4: Judecca (The Treacherous to Their Masters… )

The Center: Satan

Dante and Virgil climb onto Satan’s fur and through the great floor of hell where they find themselves passing upward, reversed and upside-down, into the world above hell; where Satan’s haunches and hoofed feet jut up through the rock in an almost comical fashion. They pass over the river Lethe, where all things are forgotten, and stand innocent again to gaze up at the stars.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Fellow Workers... United in Wisconsin, Divided in Confusion

I would like to give this space to public comments, with the understanding that any and all subject-matter appropriate posts will be used to educate and enlighten. Comments will be moderated for trolling, but will be posted unabridged after review. All you need is a google-linked account to post your story. You are not required to follow this blog; and you can remain anonymous, like so many wise and helpful educators have chosen to remain throughout history.

As protests continue in Wisconsin and throughout the country, education and direct information about unions and workers rights does not appear to have increased with the topic's publicity. There seems to be little knowledge available about what, exactly, it is that unions do for their members and how the actions of these groups affect the overall economy and public.

Union members may not even know what their unions can do for them and how the actions of these groups affect the stability of the job market and working conditions of private workers as well.

I ask that union members share their stories about what their union has done to ensure fairness and stability in their workplace or career. How has this impacted your family? How might have your life or the lives of your family members have been negatively impacted if your union had not stepped in to enforce your rights on your behalf?

Please feel welcome to educate visitors to this site in as verbose and/or lengthy a manner as is necessary to tell your tale.

Thank you, in advance.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Meanwhile, In the News... Containing a poem, a warning about emotional disease, tea, outdated pop-culture references, and a reasonable request

The story goes:
There once was a man from Milwaukee
who had some ideas and got cocky.
He moved to our town,
some bad shit's goin' down,
and now the whole nation's gone gawky.

I don't know what it is about fascist senators in Wisconsin (see: Sen. Joe McCarthy or watch the film "Good Night and Good Luck" if you're lazy, don't like reading, love a good film, or just had your wisdom teeth out and need something to do for two hours) but we've struck gold again with Scott Walker and his moronic ideas about budgeting and reform. You can read all you want about it in the news so I won't bother with that here, save to comment on the immediate issue in Wisconsin.

The issue at hand is one of money. The money is gone in Wisconsin, they say, and like Milwaukee before it, the entire state now must, quite literally, pay for the mistakes of the man who went on the tax-break shopping spree where he bought up all the best friends he could fit in his political career cart. Senator Scott Walker is a republican so there are very few fixes he can pull from the medicine chest to stop the bleeding dry of the state. Top of the list was, apparently, bleeding the public sector workers, directly, dry via union busting and budget cuts. The following is slightly out of character for me, perhaps, in that this is no parable about the human condition; but rather a personal entreaty to learn the names of the people you intend to fuck before donning your emotional contraceptive of choice and getting to it:

Who are public employees? Psychologists, psychiatrists, bus drivers, librarians, healthcare workers, PR specialists, the department of health, social workers, accountants, language instructors, translators, the department of transportation, as well as teachers, police, and the fire department. They care for the elderly, children, displaced persons and the disabled. They light our streets, maintain our roads, test our food and water for things that could harm us, take us to work and safely home again. Their wages and benefits are dictated by the state budget, not their individual employers. They are not like the rest of us who have the innate right to negotiate for ourselves. They don't just pull their own weight, they pull all of ours too.

I'm no political activist. I do not march, I do not wave signs, nor do I hold that our system of government is a good model for any country, group, or organization to use as a framework for a functioning and enduring system for that is, quite obviously, not the case. For those few of you who would assume to ask, "Well what would you suggest replace it?" That is a far more complex question than it would appear to be. Be content then, with this analogy regarding political unrest and dissatisfaction with a governing body:

"I may not know art, but I know what I like."

In illustration, if a man looks at a painting and does not know the period in which it was created, the artist's name or ethos, the style or intended purpose of the art but simply knows that when gazing upon it, he does not like the painting, does that render his feeling frivolous? And, if the man cannot tell you that he can create a better painting, and then produce said work, was his viewpoint worthless?

Similarly, if a man looks at a broken teacup and says to you, "This teacup no longer serves its intended purpose as a vessel for liquid." Is he an idiot for not being able to produce another, perfectly serviceable teacup, immediately upon noting he cannot drink his tea? Of course not. Even were he a potter or glass-blower by trade it would take him some time to make its equal. And, if he should go to the cupboard and take another glass down for this use, that cup would be no more indestructible than the last one.

So, in sum, just because I don't have a new teacup doesn't mean I don't like art. Also, don't ask me for the solution to a problem which cannot be solved.

Politics is like childbirth. It is messy, painful, and not for everyone; but it is part of the human experience none the less. You can dope a woman in labor all you like and she will still be a woman in labor - it is still a form of that experience. You can advocate political reform until healthcare is free and there are no taxes, but it will still be an imperfect system because it attempts to quantify and organize the complete range of human experience within a changing society. You can't fix yesterday's problems today for a future that hasn't happened yet. You might as well have every politician's placard read "Marty McFly for office! ...Fixing tomorrow's problems yesterday!" And then everyone gets upset when it doesn't work out. How amusing. Like squirrels running up a greased pole to get to birdseed heaven, the lot of us. Good exercise but not terribly effective.

So, having digressed almost completely away from the issue at hand (another favorite human tradition), I ask these four favors in return for a, possibly, better humanity:

1. Before broadcasting your opinions in a public forum or voting booth, conduct a thorough line of inquiry as to the motivations, effects, facts, and alternate viewpoints of the situation before your less-than-educated assumption immediately affects the lives of others AND sets a legal precedent for our nation, not to mention formative countries using our legislation as a basis for their own developing governments. If you don't have the time or inclination to do this, shut up and don't mess it up for thousands or millions of other people.

2. If you vote, when electing a representative please research their political history and place their actions before their words. The information isn't that far away if you know where to look. The same goes for the news you hear. News sources are not always correct or thorough in telling a story. Research further and diversify your news sources for more complete reporting.

3. Learn by asking questions. A lot of people might be saying to themselves - right now - "I do ask questions..." I would point out that that was a statement to those of you who have just been caught thinking quantitatively, whereas you could have thought to yourself "Like what?" Think about it. Awareness of ourselves and our own behavior is the simplest start to a more understanding and educated society.

Now, generally I am unconcerned with the political fluctuation in this and others countries. This is not an uncommon way of looking at things, nor does it connote that I have no interest or opinion. Speaking personally, I was recently asked to identify my political persuasion and, upon giving my answer, I was dubbed apathetic. Hearkening back to request #3, through a patient line of question and answer it was discovered that I only appear apathetic due to my strict adherence to a policy of personal accountability for all and every choice and action we all take. Simply put, you do something because you want to - for whatever reasons - and nothing more. I will expound upon this in a later rant, perhaps, but an academic exploration of the spiritual and philosophical implications of a party system on the psyche of America is a topic for another day.

For now, I only have one more favor left to ask,

4. Grow up you bunch of toddlers and stop taking people for granted.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Fourth Class

So Christmas is long past and gone but this story won't quit me. Here we go:

My father and I have never been what is generally called close, but a more accurate description might be to say that we have enacted a pretty decent sham of having a caring relationship whenever he feels that he is not getting the care he deserves from his lovers, friends, or immediate family members. The only reason I do not include co-workers or colleagues in this list is because he either has none (co-workers) or the term is synonymous with another term used previously (colleagues, see: friends.)

My parents are divorced and have been so since I was a toddler. This is not sad. This is not a lifetime movie drama, keep reading. My dad remarried when I was a teenager and they had a son. Pop got the nuclear family he's always wanted: wife, kid, dog; in a little five bedroom house on a hill. The dog has more personality than any of the humans in the house but little brother is working on catching her up, so it would seem. He's young yet and still under the roof of his terribly normal parents. Give him time.

Pop gets a case of the Christmas spirit (guilt and loneliness wrapped up together in a festive jumper) and calls me to wish me a happy holiday and to inquire if he and the lad can visit while they are in my neck of the woods for one of the boy's sports events. (The only time I get to see the lad is when one of the many extra-curricular activities our father has foisted upon him take them near the city where I live. Last time it was a baseball game; this time, hockey. The poor kid is good at everything, so pop can't seem to decide at which activity he would best like to vicariously excel as a substitute for all the trophies he never won in his own youth. So classic it makes you want to gouge your eyes out at a crossroads and fuck your own mother.)

As it happens, that one particular day is the day I was planning on being in my hometown visiting my mum and some old friends. I generally don't mention my travel plans to anyone save my employer and the people I am traveling to visit, so as far as my father can tell it's been nearly a year since I last visited home. Perhaps we can just wave at one another as we pass on the highway? Tedious and socially appropriate conversation follows until a decision can be reached: we will just have to see if there is time for a quick lunch up at the house sometime. I call on the way out of town saying I am leaving early and there really isn't time this trip. Perhaps next time, or a visit to my home on their return trip. No, they have no time for that either. Even Steven, I suppose.

A parcel arrives while I am away from home one day. "Dad wants to know if you got the package." the text from my brother says. Like divorcées ourselves, we are now speaking through his son. "Ah, so that's where that came from." I reply via the poor kid. "The office is closed and I have not picked it up yet - tell him thank you in advance for me please."

I open the box and it contains, in layers: tissue paper covering a brushed chrome canister of natural room spray - rosemary mint scented... I hate mint, I don't chew gum I hate mint so much; a slightly bent calendar entitled "We-moon" sporting a feminist-themed mural in bold blocky color schemes circa 1995 for each month, one of which I swear is an engorged vulva; a pile of broken glass which appears to have once been a double-boiler style teapot if the helpful, but now pointless, instruction manual is any indication; and an apple scented candle with three wicks in the Yankee candle kind of vein. In the bottom are two cards. Now let's just wait a moment. Look over that list again - I certainly did after I'd opened the box. Go ahead, I'll wait here......
One card is from her and has some flowery haiku kind of holiday wish in three languages, the first being English, the other two of which I do not speak; the second card depicts a Rockwellian santa and a penned-in speech bubble in which the jolly old elf proclaims, in my father's epileptic spider writing, "Somebody paid money for this card, HO HO HO!" It is signed by both my father and brother and contains a check drawn on my father and his wife's joint account.

I look at the box. The address on the label is correct up to a point, but the zip code has been crossed out and re-written with a black sharpie in a hand unfamiliar to me - a postal worker, no doubt. The box is battered and had been used before. The original labels can still be seen through someone's attempts to scribble them out with a marker. They are addressed to my father's wife. The logo on the side of the box is an online vitamin weight-loss company. It's a big box. I flop the cardboard flaps back into place and the punchline is staring me right in the face - stamped in bright red, bold print are the words FOURTH CLASS.

It was one of the best Christmas gifts I ever received. I don't remember the last time I laughed so hard. And the apple candle actually smells quite nice.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Fear of the Dark: learned behavior and the disregard for history in favor of architecture

Some background first...

The Kirkbride buildings are a collection of historic mental hospitals dotting the eastern United States built in the 1800s and still in use up to the late 1990s. In later years (after the 1950s) the majority of these buildings were overcrowded, understaffed, and becoming horrendously run-down. Many of the hospitals had children's wings which were connected to the main buildings by underground tunnels or corridors, commonly used for transporting residents from one section of the hospital grounds to another without spoiling the scenic ground view. Electroshock therapy was in its hayday in the 40s, 50s, and yes even the 60s, and many of these children admitted to hospitals like the Kirkbride buildings were kept for years without explanation, but with plenty of "treatment" until they were no longer minors and had to be released. Drug therapy was also a very common practice with the children, and patients were pumped full of muscle relaxers until they could give the staff no more trouble.

Originally, the Kirkbride buildings were constructed on the then-modern idea that the insane were human beings who could be treated with rest and kind therapy, or controlled social interaction, to achieve a level of comfort if not actually being able to rejoin society as typical individuals. There were plays and outings; and patients played tennis, went for walks, sang or played music, took art classes, and spoke with doctors about their thoughts and feelings. Kirkbride was WAY ahead of his time on this account, given the common practice of holing up the mentally incapable or insane to be used as medical or laboratory test subjects for drugs or surgeries; or both.

After Kirkbride's time was over, and the care of his hospitals and patients fell to other hands, the integrity of the masonry as well as the staff began to crumble. As the insane - or the mentally or physically different, at least - became less and less acceptable to main stream society, more individuals were deposited in these deteriorating asylums. Many of these unfortunates were children whose families could not 'bear to cope with the strain of such a burden.' These children were shunted off into institutions at the age of five, seven, ten years old in some cases, without explanation or hope of release.

We've all heard the stories about the children found locked away by their parents - hidden from the judgmental eyes of neighbors and guests - in basements, attics, closets. Gagged and drooling, half-starved, illiterate and even unable to speak because they were never spoken to; never held, never touched - but not killed, because murder is a sin.

Fast forward fifty years.

There are now internet forums set up by the disbanded Kirkbride foundation to educate the public about the architectural history of the now abandoned buildings. Some of these forums welcome past residents of the halls to join and share stories about their time in the Kirkbride buildings. A long-time interest of mine, I bumped into one of these patient-oriented forums online one afternoon and spent my evening, most of the night, and a share of the early morning reading every page.

These were those kids who fell through the cracks, but grown up. Institutionalized by their families without knowing why, for things that now have names; dyslexia, epilepsy, autism, attention deficit disorder. Displaced children grew up and became adults seeking a place for themselves. It was cathartic to watch them take the website of the building that displaced them and make it into their own house of healing for each other.

These are men in their 50s and 60s now. Grown, some with children of their own. They have lives, businesses. Some share pictures of themselves then, age 8, having just become a patient at hall 18. They say, 'anybody here remember this little boy?' I wish the women would speak out more, but maybe that's not their way. They say women are more social creatures than men, but women know better sometimes, I think. Men are the talkers. The women listen and think and listen some more. Maybe they talk. Someday.

The Kirkbride buildings have interested me for years, in particular because their original intention. Dr. Kirkbride was so spot-on, seemingly noble, and insightful in his vision of what a hospital should be and provide. They were good buildings, and they only got rotted from the inside and abandoned because people got... what, lazy? Apathetic? Frightened. Frightened of all the different people they put inside? No room. Overcrowded buildings originally built with the foremost interest of the human mind and spirit at heart. Then all that crap goes on inside the walls and under the halls and it gets buried because humans-adult humans-get too scared of what might the others think?! Must protect the career, the family, the pension, my own mind and sanity. Then it all gets covered up. Neat and tidy now, turned into luxury apartment homes and a tourist-trendy hot spot for photographers to take their avant-guard digital photos with appropriate, but under-researched, names like "Ghost in the Halls" and "Child Angel" and "Alone."

A new generation of young people look at the Kirkbride theory of mental health. That people are PEOPLE. Human beings that need light, air, comfort, pleasure, colors, sounds, recreation, and other people who are like them enough and understand in order to get well; or at least to function better. Not to be locked away in a dark little room at stared at through a window for the rest of their lives - less than animal. The young people look and see the architecture and the grounds and they don't listen to the children who were there because most of them are dead now and buried. Or never learned a way to communicate in the first place. Not one that anyone could understand, anyway.

What do they do? They build condos on top of the sunken graves of the children and women and men who have no names and had no chance. Not even now. A mass grave for all our failures so we can forget. Forget and build a new home over their bodies so they can continue to fall through those cracks in the floorboards. In 200 years when scientists (provided we make it that long) demolish the condos and find masonry from the 1800s in the basements, will they dig deeper and find graves? Take the bones and test them, learn the cruelty that was inflicted upon these kids in the name of science and treatment, and wonder why? "How barbaric, the things medical science considered treatment away back in 1950!" they shall exclaim, and then proceed to perpetrate all manner of new and exciting tortures of the human body for the sake of "saving lives."

But ah, look at the lovely architecture. So much to learn. So much to fix. Take some puddy and seal up the walls so the history stops leaking out. Stop looking over the ocean at the poor repressed housewives of Ali Muhamed Whatever and look around you. Here. Too busy looking at the archway and making up pretty stories in the Gothic revival architecture to bother to look a little deeper. Chip away the paint and find a drawing of an owl scrawled by some 6 year old who sat in that corner for a day because he would not take his medicine. And here these 12 year old men are telling it to the world. But the world is too occupied looking at the architecture and mistaking it for history to learn anything about his story.

Makes you mad? A sad story you can't change. But there is also thankfulness that these men and women are not a spectacle for the amusement of others; as I'm sure they would not like to be. It's about their own healing and their own history and it's all about them. Always was. No one will learn anything. Nothing could change that would matter now. It would just be phantom healing. A bandage on a missing limb. So all I can do is sit there at 3 in the morning reading their stories. A time-traveling voyeur, utterly powerless. Watch them go from quiet and frightened and guarded with their names and lives, to happy and sharing and last names and facebook pages and websites and emails and phone numbers and they have found each other again! Even if its only for a little while. Even if it is only there, where they can be safe with their secrets on parade. Restoring memory and filling in the gaping holes in themselves with the memories of others.

In the end it's all about how easy it is to hold hands with a stranger in the dark, but how difficult it can be to hang on while the light is shining. Even after all that, are we that terrified of scrutiny? And what could possibly be worse, after all. Being caught feeling. Being seen, being judged, being so scared of that light that you prefer the dark. Because now its a choice and choices are scary things when you are unaccustomed to them.

So I sat and I read and I wished that I could make it all go away for them. But if you can't dispel the fear of the dark, at least you can make the light a little less frightening. One day at a time.