Interdependence, ex-vegetarians, crossing the streams.

Been thinking so much about being vulnerable with people and asking for help, while sorting through surprising and painful life changes. Noticed this old quote kicking around as a draft and liked it all over again today. It’s about food, but I’m thinking about feelings when I read the bit about not trying to get out of debt, not trying to be self-contained.

In his book Long Life, Honey In The Heart Martin Pretchel writes of the Mayan people and their concept of kas-limaal, which translates roughly as “mutual indebtedness, mutual insparkedness.” “The knowledge that every animal, plant, person, wind, and season is indebted to the fruit of everything else is adult knowledge. To get out of debt means you don’t want to be part of life, and you don’t want to grow into an adult,” one of the elders explains to Pretchel.

… This is a concept we need, especially those of us who are impassioned by injustice. I know I needed it. In the narrative of my life, the first bite of meat after my twenty year hiatus marks the end of my youth, the moment when I assumed the responsibilities of adulthood. It was the moment I stopped fighting the basic algebra of embodiment: for someone to live, someone else has to die. In that acceptance, with all its suffering and sorrow, is the ability to choose to live a different way, a better way.

— From The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith, page 5.

Ex-vegetarian inspiration strikes again.

“Because love always causes a descent into the Death nature…”

These are quotes from Women Who Run With The Wolves that have been sitting here with no context, unpublished, since February 2009. I think I was interested in talking about love beyond infatuation, love as an action or alliance instead of a feeling. I still am.

I haven’t posted anything here, or done much writing at all, for many months. Spitting out some old drafts seems like a good re-entry. I seem to do this every now and then. Maybe I can promote it as a personal feature instead of a bug.

Anyway. Old quotes.

A part of every [person] resists knowing that in all love relationships Death must have her share. We pretend we can love without our illusions about love dying, pretend we can go on without our superficial expectations dying, pretend we can progress and that our favorite flushes and rushes will never die. But in love, psychically, everything becomes picked apart….

What dies? Illusion dies, expectations die, greed for having it all, for wanting all to be beautiful only, all this dies. Because love always causes a descent into Death nature, we can see why it takes abundant self-power and soulfulness to make that commitment.


In wise stories, love is seldom a romantic tryst between two lovers. For instance, some stories from the circumpolar regions describe the union of two beings whose strength together enables one or both to enter into communication with the soul world and to participate in fate as a dance with life and death.

And more.

It is true that within a single love relationship there are many endings. Yet, somehow and somewhere in the delicate layers of the being that is created when two people love one another, there is both a heart and breath. While one side of the heart empties, the other fills. When one breath runs out, another begins.

Dot in the Dreamy Garden

In her golden years, my mom suffers from Dementia with Lewy Bodies (think Parkinson’s + Alzheimer’s).

Here we are in the garden. She’s calling me Jim (my father’s name) and thinking she’s having a dream…

I expected this video to make me sad, but I felt happy watching it. I spent a lot of afternoons sitting in gardens with my grandpa in his advancing dementia, and our interactions were often like this. Me guessing what would help him or soothe him, just sitting and telling each other we loved each other with words and pats and hand squeezes. My trying to understand his observations but not really getting it; him trying to understand my observations but not really getting it; both of us trying to be ok with that. I’m happy that sometimes when communication breaks down, it can break down into just inarticulate love.

And I just posted about putting ugly things in context to make them beautiful.

Being useful, being dead

I just found this really old draft from my notes on death and dying. My lag time idea is really starting to shape up!

I’ve been working my way through Heidegger’s being-toward-death ideas from Being and Time, with the help of a How To Read Heidegger guidebook. It all hinges on death as nothing, non-existence, non-being (uh, non-Being).

Death, as possibility, gives Dasein nothing to be ‘actualized’, nothing which Dasein, as actual, could itself be.

(Dasein being basically a self-aware entity, a person. I blaspheme. Here’s a more thorough explanation.)

One irrelevant aside before I get to my point: my How To Read Heidegger guide was published in the US and written by an American, but uses European typographic conventions (in the quote above, the comma is outside of the quotation marks, for example). Presumably this is because that’s how Heidegger wrote? I didn’t notice the punctuation in Being and Time at all, but reading an American book with this old country punctuation was actually making me feel weird and scholarly. Using an alternate prose style guide— yikes!

Anyway. Death as non-Being. I just finished reading Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, which, in a way, is all about the kinds of being you can pull off when you’re dead. She talks about cadavers having superpowers— not being able to feel pain, for example— and being uniquely qualified to fill certain medical and research roles. She spends serious energy insisting on the importance of being an organ donor, of being useful to other people after death.

I ran into that same phrase at Body Worlds in Vancouver. Being useful. The body donation forms have checkboxes where donors can fill in their motivations, including items about serving a good cause and contributing to medical research. My memory of the poster at the exhibit (in 2006) was an option about “continuing to be useful after I’m dead,” but maybe that was just the vibe I got from this set of options (from the 2007 form).

Excerpt from body donation consent form

That makes sense in a very practical way (what else are you going to use that body for?), but at the time it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and it still does. Telling people they can be useful after death borders on exploitative, to me. There are sane reasons to do something useful with your body, but there could be some unfortunate denial that I wouldn’t want to encourage. It’s a twist on the usual spiritual afterlife— “yes, you still die, but not all the way.”

Not to mention the striking similarity that the “motivation” section of the body donation form bears to a market research questionnaire. In Vancouver, the Body Worlds exhibit ended with a big display about becoming a body donor, with posters and consent forms. It was positioned right in the exit, so everyone had to walk through it, the way museums often position the gift shop. Creepy! And not because of the dead bodies! The whole thing struck me as a self-perpetuating industry, a closed circle of marketing. The exhibit is designed to convince people to donate their bodies to make more exhibits to attract more donors to make more exhibits… A bit of a pyramid scheme.

Imax, slasher films, pornography

I feel a meandering mind-map coming on, starting from an essay about slasher movies by Carol Clover (roughly summarized here ) that I read in this anthology about gender in myth.

On the civilized side of the continuum lie the legitimate genres; at the other end, hard on the unconscious, lie the sensation or ‘body’ genres, horror and pornography, in that order. …

It is a rare Hollywood film that does not devote a passage or two— a car chase, a sex scene— to the emotional and physical excitement of the audience. But horror and pornography are the only two genres specifically devoted to the arousal of bodily sensation. They exist solely to horrify and stimulate, not always respectively, and their ability to do so is the sole measure of their success…

I’ve seen a lot of people try to show that horror and pornography are related, usually based on some inarticulate statement about the similarity of sex and death. This bodily-sensation aspect seems like a more accurate connection. It’s got me editing my ideas about pornography (again), too.

For the last couple of years, my working definition has been that something is pornographic (to me) when it is presented for its own sake with no intention to communicate further meaning. Literal as opposed to symbolic, I guess. Showing literal sex rather than any experience of eroticism, or showing literal blood and gore rather than communicating a meaning of injury or death or fear (a la gore-porn). I don’t mean that as a diss to actual porn, more as an explanation of why I call Cute Overload cute-porn, and why I sometimes object to the ways other people use hyphenated, non-sexual porn labels. (I’m not sure I experience the Ikea catalog as storage-porn just because it shows a lot of shelving.)

This sensation definition is way simpler, and avoids having to argue about what is meaningful or symbolic. Since porn is some of the most intensely deconstructed media around and easily supplied with symbolic meaning, I think this simple sensation definition is a lot more accurate too. So thanks for that, early nineties essay collection.

Thinking about movies that are made for my body got me thinking about imax. All I want from a six-story tall movie is a strong sense of vertigo! I see an imax film about once every two years, but in my limited sampling they seem to be getting less motion-sick overall. Anybody have better evidence on that? (Tosczaks, or other bearers of yearly passes?) At the least, I’ve been disappointed with the imax films I’ve been seeing. I don’t want a plot at the imax, I want a bodily experience. More helicopter shots going over a cliff, please. I want imax to be more pornographic. Imax has not been fulfilling its potential.

So yup. The other idea I want to store here is about “legitimate” genres. I don’t really buy the idea that they’re less focussed on bodily sensations. The most pretentious, high-class films I’ve seen could be called superiority-porn. Feeling superior is a real sensation, although not often acknowledged as a physical/chemical state. I just dug up a clip from the Helvetica movie where Erik Spiekermann explains that he just likes looking at type. “Other people look at bottles of wine, or whatever, or you know, girls’ bottoms. I look at type.” He looks; it feels good. I’ve only seen the trailers, but that documentary is clearly modernist-typography-porn, and totally classy. (Or, ahem, neutral.)

The pretense seems to be that some cinematically-induced sensations are intellectual, rather than bodily, which actually seems very similar to my original working definition about pornography being devoid of meaning. So again, why am I reading anthologies about symbol and myth in these “body” genres if they are so literal and physical? This seems like a very weird manifestation of the usual classist aesthetic distinctions, where “legitimate” good taste just happens to be whatever working class / uneducated / trashy people don’t appreciate. Classy movies are secretly about sensations, and trashy movies are secretly full of cultural symbolism. Oops.

I’m probably specifically bad at this game— personality quiz questions on the theme of “do you pay more attention to rational thoughts or gut feelings” make my head explode, because surely thoughts and feelings exist in the same soup. I mean, you have to feel whether you’re being honest about your logic; I don’t know any other way. From now on I’m paying special attention to how my body feels when I watch fancy art films.

Quantity of notes is a useful measurement

I take notes on paper while I read, and file them chronologically as I finish with each source. On other projects, I’ve recorded just the title and the date in my table of contents, but this time I added the number of pages of notes. It’s a handy little metric! The quantity of notes correlates well with the impact a book had on me, and it’s very easy to scan.

If someone asked me to recommend a book about education or death, so far I would head for anything with five or more pages of notes in my Binder of Doom. (The notes wiki gets a filtered, delayed set of notes.)

Several pages of notes

Two or three pages

Single pages

  • Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century, by Neil Postman (1 page — this sucked hard)
  • Dracula, by Bram Stoker (1 page)
  • The Future of Statues, by Rene Magritte (1 page)
  • How to Read Heidegger, by Mark Wrathall (1 page — selected chapters)
  • My Arm, perf. Tim Crouch (1 page)
  • An Oak Tree, perf. Tim Crouch (1 page)
  • Regarding Sarah, dir. Michelle Porter (1 page)
  • Surgeons’ Hall Museum, Edinburgh (1 page)
  • Volver, dir. Pedro Almodovar (1 page)

Each “page” is a double-sided sheet of paper. For some reason I am self-conscious about the amount of notes I take. I have not been recording these scholastic anxieties and old school-related wounds, but maybe I should start. That could be my next metric— awkward moments prompted by each source.

Machine of Death

It's a world where everyone knows how they're going to die

Machine of Death is an upcoming published anthology of short stories edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki !, inspired by this episode of Ryan’s Dinosaur Comics.

All the stories will be about a world where a machine can tell people how they will die.

The machine had been invented a few years ago: a machine that could tell, from just a sample of your blood, how you were going to die. It didn’t give you the date and it didn’t give you specifics. It just spat out a sliver of paper upon which were printed, in careful block letters, the words “DROWNED” or “CANCER” or “OLD AGE” or “CHOKED ON A HANDFUL OF POPCORN”.

At a recent art opening, I pulled exactly such a slip of paper from an art installation by Hank Pine, and the mix of deadly predictions was very similar. A good variety of glamorous or outlandish ways to die (decapitation, dusting accident, lead pipe…), with the occasional realistic downer (I myself got “leukemia”).

Small talk around the death oracle was exactly as described in that call for submissions. “It said ‘lead pipe’… but I don’t know if I’ll be hit with a pipe or poisoned by lead plumbing.”

OLD AGE”, it had already turned out, could mean either dying of natural causes, or shot by a bedridden man in a botched home invasion. The machine captured that old-world sense of irony in death— you can know how it’s going to happen, but you’ll still be surprised when it does.

I think part of the reason the diseases managed to be shocking was that there were fewer loopholes. “Hey, I… I can’t think of an ironic way to die of AIDS.”

A death oracle might be a good format for my long standing intention to find out, statistically, how I’m likely to die. Filling a hat with 45% “heart attack” would be several levels more morbid, somehow. Not as personalized as the Machine of Death, but just as accurate, in its way. A Pie Chart of Death is within the reach of current technology.