Question: “What do you think of euthanasia?” Answer: “I guess they’re a lot like kids everywhere.” — heard in my youth on the radio program, “Youth Wants to Know.”
On St. Patrick’s Day, 2000, my wife, Margaret, our son, Rob, and I were at the local pub with her 89 year-old father. Ben had just knocked down a full meal, capped by a giant goblet of Berlin Weisser (beer and raspberry syrup) to satisfy his incessant sweet tooth. At the bar, the fifth chorus of “Danny Boy” followed the third round of smiling Irish eyes. Ben’s smile suddenly converted to a slack jaw, Irish eyes rolled up to heaven, and as far as we could tell, he was gone. Margaret and I exchanged glances. What a way to go!
Well, he snapped back to life as a sprightly member of our household for another year, only occasionally wondering as he wandered in the middle of the night, “Can I go now?”
“Not yet,” Margaret would comfort. If the eight years he lived with us was a way station, his faith spared doubts about the final celestial destination.
HOMAGE TO CATATONIA
Years ago, our beloved, fiercely independent and wide-ranging family cat, Max, began dragging one rear leg and then it got worse. Our vet diagnosed hopeless. Max evidently reached the same conclusion and set out to use up his nine lives as expeditiously as possible.
He laid himself in front of a car parked in our driveway so that upon departure a tire would run him over.
Our house is on a steep hillside that runs down to a pond. Max evidently dragged himself through the woods,, rolled down the hill, and wound up in the water, where I found him yowling, half-submerged and one bedraggled and pissed-off kitty.
On three occasions, Max negotiated his way through the slats on our deck and fell twenty feet.
Towards the end, he lost control of his bodily functions, suffering both pain and indignity. Finally, we bought a child’s playpen and kept it in the family room. He seemed to relax and accept.
The last weekend, he stopped eating and drinking. Saturday night, Rob, and I curled up on couches, petting him, talking softly while he purred into a final sleep.
However conscious we are about our mortality, all sentient beings deal with it. In the movie, “Little Big Man,” the old Chief wraps himself in a blanket and lies down on the mountain, secure that it’s been a good life and a good day to die. As he waits for resolution, a drop of rain, then another disturbs his meditation. Finally, with the rain pouring down, he faces that maybe it’s not such a good day to die. He bundles up and trundles back to his tent, muttering, “Sometimes the magic works, and sometime it doesn’t.”
WE ARE ALL TOAST
When I was a young man, I had a casual friendship with an old gentleman built around our mutual appreciation of fine automobiles. On my modest salary as a Motion Picture Officer in the United States Information Agency, I’d gone all in by trading up from an under-powered Morris Minor to an overpowering, though decade old, Aston Martin – DB2, drop head coupe, aluminum body, very fast when all six cylinders were firing.
Bill, a retired steel magnate, didn’t get around much anymore. He passed on the chance to attack the hills and curves of Northern Virginia at speed, and we settled for a more stately drive in his vintage Bentley. He joked he’d like to be buried in it, like one of those Chinese emperors whose favored artifacts and retainers journeyed with them into a supposedly welcoming afterlife.
The Bentley spent most of its time in the barn, next to a former Grand National winner whose fame earned the stud fees his bloodlines deserved. How many humans would trade their pension plans for such a retirement scheme?
When cancer caught up with Bill’s slowing pace, he invited one hundred of his friends to an after party. A minister read Bill’s note in lieu of a eulogy: As well as I can remember, the gist was: “You’re all fine people or you wouldn’t be here. If I could be with you, there’s no place I’d rather be. Have a great time.” Champagne and fine wine, lush platers of beast and fowl. We talked and danced until the dawn, raised toasts to our departed host, and set my standard for a graceful ending.
KNOCK, KNOCK KNOCKING ON HEAVEN’S DOOR
The prayers that accompany our mortal passage waft to heaven in a variety of languages, but as a rule express the hope of redemption and reward. Throughout the ages, traditional cultures have focused on heaven for two very ordinary reasons: death in the form of infant mortality, disease, war and natural disasters, and life in the form of a back-breaking struggle to survive.
The dialog about death has been shifting over the past century, with more to come. Courtesy of a medical and dietary revolution, we have an extended ending, but one that tends to be fraught with legal, religious, emotional and financial implications. For all the battles that have been fought over the right to life of fetuses, as the vast tide of humanity unleashed by the population explosion ages, something will likely give.
Already, courtesy of a profit-driven pharmaceutical industry and cartels, addiction to drugs and alcohol offer overdosing as an antidote to pain and a ticket out of terminal depression. And who will gainsay private solutions to failed public policies of jobless and hopeless?
Will pain, boredom and uselessness become counters in a re-evaluation of palliative care? Will suicide be legalized and eventually encouraged, even rewarded? Romans and Samurai fell on their swords when honor demanded. Evangelical sects blissfully await the Rapture, and Jim Jones’ minions willingly imbibed the Kool-Aid.
There have been a slew of films and TV series concerned with death after life morphing into life after death. God, death, heaven, angels, forces of light and shadow; all the mortal musings of a generation going from boomer to boom.
During the long slide from middle age that is well underway, expect more of these homages: “Schindler’s List Lost ,” Stephen Spielberg’s poetic paeon to Alzheimer’s. “The Last of Mohegan Sun,” Michael Mann’s elegy to the elderly patrons of Native American gambling casinos; and “Game of Clones”, in which it’s revealed that Daenerys, Jamie, the elder Starks, and all the departed heroes of Westeros, had back-up bodies. Delighting their fans, they get to explore unlimited permutations and plot lines.
THE IMMORTALITY AWARDS
Historically, humans have recognized five kinds of immortality.
1. Gods, vampires and other curious creatures with grandiose pedigrees either have existed forever, or once born, don’t die. Isis and her pantheon ruled ancient Egypt from the afterworld. The Greco-Roman contingent of deities interfered at will in human affairs. Jews, Muslims and Christians share the back-story of an Old Testament God. Whether any of these elevated entities graced our planet is a matter for religion and popular fiction. More recently, vast audiences marvel at gifted super heroes, while ragged zombies emerge from sodden graves, seeking to recruit the living.
2. Kings, queens, generals, politicians and financial moguls like to think they will live forever through their mark on history, and artists via their creations. Forever, however, is a long, long time. To last, it takes a combination of accomplishments and celebration. An obscure warrior, Achilles, from a war shrouded in the mists of time would be hardly be remembered without Homer’s epic.
3. Every sentient being can aspire to heaven in its various poses. Christians in the clouds, Elysian Fields, Valhalla’s icy castles, nothingness for Buddhists, all are the reward for what is deemed correct behavior. Hindus have a more staged target, as they await the revelation of their next reincarnation.
4. Each of us has been born out of a long-chain of copulating humanity, and unless you subscribe to creationism, a diorama of pre-human forms, as well. In turn, parents pass on their DNA to the future.
5. Finally, we have the immortality that comes with the territory. Composting oneself through burial may lack the stature usually associated with immortality, yet even when we take extraordinary steps to seal ourselves in ornate caskets rivaling the shrink-wrapped pharos, “dust unto dust” will be the eventual outcome. Torching bodies laid on a funeral pyre or more efficiently incinerated in a crematorium send our physical remains into the ozone as a parting, greenhouse gift.
Yet these days of animations and avatars offer tantalizing glimpses of streaming alternatives that include surrogate sex through unlimited pornography and video games where you can die over and over, and still come back for more. That portion of humanity inheriting the entitlement of a fortunate birthplace is living off a bloated, global economy that provides a cornucopia of cheap clothing, Viagra, easy divorces, social media and hundreds of cable channels.
As for the rich and famous mortals, our celebs, they have multiple hideaways, marriages, misters and mistresses, facelifts, Botox, rapid steeds for transporting themselves on land, sea and air. With organ transplants, it verges on unacceptable that the privileged get old and die.
If vast migrations and territorial wars over dwindling resources are in the cards, with climate catastrophes and pandemics unequally and erratically distributed, the heaviest burden likely will fall on those least empowered. Finessing our fate in a post-apocalyptic world rests on choices which will cost even the survivors dearly, yet civilization and continuity of a sort may continue within gated enclaves, perhaps below the surface, perhaps floating on the ocean.
Think of a new Ark, with species maintained in stasis, until, with population reduced and production of greenhouse gases curtailed, Noah’s dove appears again with a sprig of green – the long-term rehabilitation of the Earth as a viable container for biological life can begin anew.
If the physical world is in for a shellacking, our best hope for at least species immortality is that somewhere in the next few decades, two themes emerge:
First, the momentum of a youth revolution drives national and corporate innovation by refusing to go passively into that long night. Sequestering carbon, renewable energy, trees planted by the billions, changes in diet – all moderate the path towards species oblivion.
Second, with chip-based memory and the dawning of AI, the line between bio-technology and chip technology; between organic and inorganic, mutates beyond recognition or relevance. The DNA code is mastered. The electromagnetic impulses of memory stored in the brain become more precisely accessible. Transmitting them allows their storage on chips. Platforms and protocols create virtual pathways where consciousness may travel, independent of careworn, discarded bodies, powered by solar collectors on the burning surface.
For the society that survives, there are the following implications:
- In the “Virtuality”, people have the capacity to create environments and connect with each other, exploring relationships free of social and economic pressures. Virtual chat rooms with data shared between entities. Race, class and poverty are reduced to historical markers.
- “Virtuals” can explore and relive their own lives. Their happiest moments may be revived.
- As with dreams, memories may be taken up to a certain point, and then extrapolated to different conclusions than those that occurred originally – the most poignant defeats transcended.
- Extraordinary memories may be shared and broadcast. A new form of experiential media develops.
- As people surf their data banks, deeper memories are uncovered that lead back through their DNA to past lives. Some particularly gifted humans can make their way to our primordial past. These memories may also be recorded and shared. Our understanding and interpretation of human history is radically altered.
- Although cloning is now a patchwork freak show to supply organs and extremities, it is stood on its head. New bodies are cloned, and at a young age, chip-stored memories are down-loaded into the brain, expanding childish consciousness. Adults stick around long enough to mate, procreate and earn enough to pay for translation.
- Chip storage of memory and personality is mated to biological forms beyond our present imagination, and left to run free. Humans (or what began as human) become effectively immortal.
Some of this will happen, but not all, and never in a smooth and painless sequence.
WHAT THEN OF OUR BROTHERS AND SISTERS?
Even if the best occurs, it will not be overnight. In the meantime, how on this crowded planet with a radically diminishing capacity for nurturing our species could we fit our population? In the name of common humanity, how will we resolve even the predictable dilemmas, contradictions and traumas?
What a wailing from those left upon the shore as an immortal voyage sets forth. To face death, when you know that those a shade younger, a tad healthier, a jump quicker, a bunch richer may be changing bodies like models change clothes for a fashion show runway, or disappearing into a virtual playground of uber-earthly delights.
Will there be those who stubbornly cling to their villages and communities, insisting on the integrity of human commitments and historical limitations? Will minds and souls migrate in swarms, finding their own bonding? Will we dare sidestep the treadmill to accepted destinations, question everything, and find poetry in each other?
When the snow melts on the mountain
When the flowers come to bloom
Spring and summer fall towards numbers
Ending much too soon
When the valley is in shadow
When the mountain has been climbed
When the sunset, then the moonrise
Passing through our signs
When our lands are long forgotten
When the oceans cease to rise
Will our children be forgiving
Of burning deserts, toxic skies?
Dare we hope for new invention
Dodge the ending of our tale?
Reap the harvest of our yearning
Immortal dreams our last travail
———preview of Post #5————————————–
Consider the virtue of a two-state solution in America for two increasingly hostile cultures: For all the complexities of a transfer, would not both sides would be glad to be rid of each other? The Federate States of the North pursuing its vision of life, liberty and the pursuit of justice, while the Confederate States of the South can have their flag proudly waving over their statehouses.
For all the force of precedent and mediating factors that bind us together – cultural, economic, political, infrastructural – even cherished institutions are increasingly falling to one side or the other of a widening divide. MSNBC on the Left, Fox on the right, with CNN trying to occupy a shrinking middle. Guns flaunted in the country, holstered in the North. Women’s right to choose in the North, draconian abortion limits in the South. Homogeneity as the ideal in the South, diversity in the North. Immigration encouraged or attacked. Support for unions or not. Acceptance of science and climate change or fake news. Secular state or theocratic patriarchy…