Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “Death”

This river awakens: puberty in a messed-up world

This River AwakensThis River Awakens by Steven Erikson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Until about halfway through this book, I wasn’t sure whether I was going to like it or not. It’s about a bunch of kids aged about 12 or 13 living in an in-between place somewhere between the city and farmlands. I lived in such a place when I was that age, so to that extent it felt familiar, but I wasn’t aware of the existence of such a bunch of messed-up people. That doesn’t mean that they weren’t there in the place where I grew up, just that I wasn’t aware of them. And I wouldn’t have dared to talk to my teachers the way those kids did.

The protagonist is one of the kids, Owen Brand, who has just moved to the area and so has to make friends from scratch, and one of the things that is rather confusing is that his viewpoint is in the first person, while the others are in the third person, but when he is just with one other person, and the viewpoint switches, one somtimes loses track of who is talking.

The messed-up people are just about everyone, friends, neighbours, teachers, family members. Part of the interest of the story is how Owen learns to cope with this, and how he and his family help to improve things for his girlfiend, who has an abusive father and an abused mother, and has learned to cope with adults by keeping them at arm’s length.

So there are good things to balance out the bad things, and nothing’s perfect, but that’s true to life too. In some ways Owen seems to represent the idea of coinherence of Charles Williams, with people taking on the burdens of others. Williams appeared to think that people could or would do this consciously and deliberately, but Owen does it almost unconsciously. And the kids are faced with things like sex, drugs and death, to the consternation of teachers, doctors and social workers, who are often just as messed up as everyone else.

In the end I liked the book, and liked it a lot. Perhaps I’ll read it again, because it’s the kind of book where there are lots of things you don’t see on the first reading, and perhaps not on the second or the third either.

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Journeys in the dead season

Journeys in the Dead SeasonJourneys in the Dead Season by Spencer Jordan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An awaiting trial prisoner reads a book written by an ex-World War 1 soldier. The prisoner is apparently facing a charge of being an accomplice in kidnapping and murder in Leicestershire, while the soldier makes notes for his book while travelling around the same general area visiting his war-time companions, but the events of his journeys are mainly revealed in letters to his father, which the prisoner has apparently not read.

Both the ex-soldier and the prisoner have witnessed scenes of death, and meet with psychotherapists, and both end up wandering around the Leicestershire countryside in apparent fits of madness. It is difficult to make any kind of sense of this, but that seems to be the point, as it made very l;ittle sense to the protagonists. In spite of the apparent pointlessness, it made compelling reading, even though in the end one is left wondering what exactly has happened.

It also left me wondering what has happened to book editors.

I think I would be reluctant to write historical novels, especially novels that contain, as this one does, texts purported to date from a different period. In this case, the letters of the ex-soldier to his father are dated in the early 1920s, and yet they use some anachronistic expressions that I think may not have been used then. Referring to the young soldiers who fought in the First World War as “teenagers” seems out of place. Perhaps they did, but I’m sure that people of that period would have been more likely to refer to them as “boys” or possibly “youths”. I thought “teenager” only came into widespread use in the 1940s of 1950s. Similarly, I do not think people of that period would have been familiar with the 1970s malapropism “parameters”, or with the misuse of “sojourn” apparently popularised by Stephen Donaldson‘s “Thomas Covenant” books. I thought it was only in the last 20 years or so that people have begun to use “proven” instead of “proved” as the regular past tense of “prove” — before that I understood it as a technical term of Scottish law, found in the verdict of “not proven”.

But perhaps this anachronism is all part of the book’s topsy-turvy timeline, in which the personalities of the protagonists from two different periods seem to merge.

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Weird words: closure

I first learnt the meaning of the word “closure” as a student, in the context of student debates. When something was being discussed in a formal meeting, and a lot of people were repeating a lot of similar points, someone would say “I move closure”, and the chairman/speaker could put it to an immediate vote. If it was passed the chairman asked all those who wished to speak to raise their hands, and made a not of their names, and then no one else was allowed to speak. Closure meant that debate was closed.

More recently a new meaning has appeared.

When someone dies unexpectedly, and in an newsworthy manner, journalists ask how their family or friends how they feel, and they usually say, “We just want closure.”

This is duly reported by the media, and everyone seems to be satisfied.

If the bodies of those who were disappeared by the police during the apartheid era are recovered and reburied, journalists ask their family and friends how they feel, and they say “Now we have closure.”

This, too, is duly reported by the media, and everyone is satisfied.

I was never quite sure what this closure was, but clearly it was something people had or did not have when someone else had died.

Now here’s a new datum, which sets the cat among the pigeons: By Reader Request: Closure | Clarissa’s Blog: A reader asked the following question:

Is closure an American phenomenon? Do other cultures just say “piss off” and go on their merry ways?

And Blogger Clarissa replies that “closure” is indeed an American phenomenon, and is unknown in Russian or Ukrainian culture.

That leaves me wondering whether Ukrainian funerals are seen as an opportunity to tell the “dear departed” to “piss off”?

The loved one lives again

Evelyn Waugh’s 1940s send-up of the American funeral industry, The loved one seems to have taken on a new lease of life, and entered the digital era. There’s a site you can join, called “My Send Off” where you can plan your own funeral. It doesn’t say so, but I suspect that it is sponsored by the funeral industry (hat-tip to a tweet from BBC_WHYS).

Why do you need a funeral for a proper send-off? Read all about it here | Blog | Mourning-Avoidance: Why Everyone Deserves a Funeral Sendoff.

As befits our secular age, it’s an entirely secular plug for an entirely secular funeral: a secular humanist funeral to be exact, because the attitudes it argues against are just as secular, but not really humanist.

The site gives a lot of information about the various kinds of funerals that people can have. Apparently Star- Trek-themed funerals are quite popular. Oh, and if you register on the site, you get the opportunity win a pre-paid funeral. I wonder if it’s valid in South Africa?

If you register on the site you can also create your own “bucket list”. I clicked on that one to see what a bucket list is, and why I would need one, but it seems you have to register just to find out that. I assume it relates to the bucket that you kick when you die, but I didn’t see a section for “My Clogs List”, for the clogs that you pop.

Anyway, for my sendoff plans I want a proper Orthodox funeral with all the trimmings, but no kitsch supulchral haverdashery from the undertakers — no plastic grass, no fancy gadgets for lowering into the grave, just ropes from the same rural general dealer where I hope the coffin can be bought. Oh, and the Russian, not the Greek melody to “Blessed art Thou O God, teach me Thy statutes”, and not omitting “Thou only art immmortal”.

Steve Jobs more popular than Michael Jackson?

At first I was surprised at the way the death of Steve Jobs dominated Twitter and other social media sites. I hadn’t seen anything like it since the death of Michael Jackson. Then I thought it was probably because the people I follow on Twitter and similar sites are more interested in computers than in pop music.

But then it seemed that it was actually pretty universal. Millions mourn because he touched the lives of millions.

He didn’t really touch my life much, though. At least not in a good way.

I once played some games on an Apple ][ computer that a friend had borrowed from work.

I was an avid reader of computer magazines in those days, and one of the things that they all praised Apple computers for was their open architecture. You could put all kinds of third-party cards in them to make them do things that went far beyond their original design. There was a card that had a Z80 processor on it (remember those?), which made it possible to turn an Apple computer into a CP/M machine, and run all kinds of interesting software.

Then the Apple Mackintosh appeared, and it had a decidedly closed architecture, and I lost interest. I played with one in a shop once, in the days when it was a kind of oblong vertical box with a monochrome screen, decided I didn’t like it, and that was the last time I played with an Apple. Oh, there was one other time, when a student whoe thesis I was supervising got an Apple laptop, and we had enormous problems transferringt it back and forth so I could read and comment on it.

More recently we bought a gadget that is supposed to convert audio tapes to digital format. It is basically a tape player that runs off a USB port. It cost R500.00, which was quite expensive for what it is, but I thought it would be useful if I could convert all the tapes I have lying around the house and then toss them out.

When I got it home and opened the box, however, I discovered that the gadget only converted the tapes toApple’s iTunes format, which is virtually useless, except for commercially produced music tapes that have “tracks”. Most of the tapes that I have are speech, or mixed speech an music. The ones I want to convert are mostly research interviews I recorded for my masters and doctoral theses and other research projects. So I spent R500.00 to convert three music tapes I had, and could have bought the CD versions in a record shop for a lot less. There was nothing on the outside of the box the gadget came in to indicate this limitation.

I think Apple took a massive wrong turn when it switched from an open to a closed architecture.

So, though I agree with John Donne that “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind” I don’t really see Steve Jobs as someone who has benefited me in any way — rather the reverse. And still less do I see him as a benefactor of mankind. Meet the workers dying to meet your iPad 2 demand

If you’re frustrated at being unable to buy an iPad 2, spare a thought for the Chinese workers who may never be able to afford one of the shiny new gadgets but are literally dying to get them out fast enough to meet Western demand.

A new report into conditions at Apple’s manufacturing partner, Foxconn, has found slave labour conditions remain, with staff complaining of being worked to tears, exposure to harmful disease, pay rates below those necessary to survive and military-style management that routinely humiliates workers.

Though to be fair, it is not only those who are waiting for an iPad who are contributing to those working conditions. When I booted up my computer this morning, which has no connection with Apple, the first thing that appeared on the screen, in big white letters on a black background, was Foxconn.

So perhaps it is worth quoting the rest of John Donne’s meditation from his Devotions upon emergent occasions:

Now this bell tolling softly for another, says to me, Thou must die. Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me and see my state may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.

The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and ingrafted into the body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.

As therefore the bell that rings a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness. There was a contention as far as a suit (in which piety and dignity, religion and estimation, were mingled) which of the religious orders should ring to prayers first in the morning; and it was determined that they should ring first that rose earliest. If we understand aright the dignity of this bell that tolls for our evening prayer, we would be glad to make it ours by rising early, in that application, that it might be ours as well as his whose indeed it is.

The bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God. Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? but who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world?

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Neither can we call this a begging of misery or a borrowing of misery, as though we are not miserable enough of ourselves but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbors. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did; for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction.

If a man carry treasure in bullion, or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current moneys, his treasure will not defray him as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another man may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels as gold in a mine and be of no use to him; but this bell that tells me of his affliction digs out and applies that gold to me, if by this consideration of another’s dangers I take mine own into contemplation and so secure myself by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.

And perhaps that links to Charles Williams’s idea of coinherence.

But that is really a topic for another post.

Crisis teams

The following account of a teenager being killed in a road accident highlights some strange (to me) US cultural practices, which seem to be spreading to other places, and I wonder if anthropologists or sociologists have studied them. It also illustrates one of the effects of secularisation on modern (or is it postmodern) society.

Orland girl, 16, hit by plow truck dies — Maine News — Bangor Daily News:

A paramedic who lived nearby performed CPR on the teenager until an ambulance arrived. Hayes was taken to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor where she was pronounced dead at 11 p.m., police said.

According to Roy, speed and alcohol were not factors in the crash, and no charges were filed against Malenfant.

Hayes had been a student at Bucksport High School last year, but was being home-schooled this year. The school’s crisis team was activated and teachers informed students of the accident during an extended homeroom period Friday. School counselors were available during the school day and were busy meeting with students throughout the morning, according to Assistant Principal Dan Clifford.

What seems strange to me is that the school activated “crisis teams” and that “counselors” spent many hours meeting with students.

I could understand such activities if this were one of those incidents where a pupil went berserk and shot and killed many pupils and teachers at the school, as has happened from time to time. In such a case one could understand the need for trauma counselling for the classmates of the killers and the killed. I can understand it in a case where a mine dump falls on a school and a large proportion of the pupils are killed, and those who survive had a narrow escape.

But this accident involved an ex-pupil, and didn’t even take place at the school. Why the need for the school’s “crisis team” to be “activated” and for “counselors” to spend many hours with pupils?

I wonder if some of this is media-driven. In news reports of such incidents, one sometimes sees reporters asking school officials whether such counselling is being provided, and asking in a way that seems calculated to make the school authorities feel guilty if it isn’t.

The report was posted on the alt.obituaries newsgroup on Usenet, and most of the people there, even the Americans, could remember no such “crisis teams” when classmates were killed in road accidents in their school days in the 1970s and 1980s.

In my own school days in the 1940s and 1950s I can remember three fellow pupils being killed in road accidents.

One, when I was in Standard I (Grade 3) at Fairmount School in Johannesburg, was a girl called Valerie, who was killed when going to Vereeniging over the weekend. I learnt about it from fellow-pupils. Her empty desk was a reminder for some days afterwards, and then the teacher rearranged the class seating. Another, Keith Littleton, a couple of classes below me, was killed when going home from school on his light motorbike. The third, George Jefferay, was in my class at school, and a friend, and he was killed a few months after we had left school, also riding a light motorbike. Crash helmets were not compulsory in those days.

In the last two cases, we went to the funerals. Keith Littleton died after a day or two in emergency care in hospital, and so the school had special prayer meetings for him. In the case of George Jefferay, I made prints of photos I had taken of him at school, and took them to his parents, whom I had not met before.

In all these cases, the concern at the school was with those who had died and their families. Instead of the school providing “counselling” for the pupils, the pupils were focusing on ways of comforting the families of those who had been killed. And also in the last two cases, a memorial service was held at the school. OK, that was a church school, and American schools are not allowed to have prayer meetings and memorial services, because of their idea of “separation of church and state”.

But what happened in the case described as happening in Maine looks very much like the “establishment” of the secular religion of psychotherapy.

My own children, who went to school in the 1980s and 1990s, also experienced the loss of school mates. One was electrocuted when he was playing with some electrical appliance. Another was also killed in a road accident. My son, who was 12 at the time, was in the same Boy Scout troop, was a pallbearer at his funeral, along with the other scouts.

And why is it that “counselling” is given such priority? There seems to be a tendency to promote “victim counselling” for crime victims. I can’t help feeling that a more urgent task of a “crisis team” would be to organise a collection to help be bereaved family with funeral expenses, or to help crime victims to replace what has been stolen by robbers, and in the case of death, showing solidarity by attending the funeral.

It is surely not the job of the school to provide counselling, unless, perhaps, for something that happened at the school itself.

But I get the impression that if a family lost their home in a fire or flood or some other disaster, possibly with some members of the family being killed, these schools would not seek to collect food and clothes and find shelter for the survivors, but would concentrate instead on counselling those who ought rather to have been helping. And the media will not ask whether their “crisis teams” provided those things, but rather whether they provided counselling for the other pupils. Instead of spending huge sums of money on “crisis teams”, rather help the family with the medical and funeral bills. Help the victims, not the spectators.

If my computer was nicked, I’d really appreciate help from someone who would help me to recover my data. But counselling me on my loss would thrill me as much as a time-share sales talk.

That may seem like a banal note to end on, but the whole thing seems to epitomise the banality of modernity.

Death in the neigbourhood

When I was in Greece in 1998 and 2000 I noticed lots of roadside shrines marking places where people had been killed in motor accidents, and they were beginning to make their appearance in Albania as well. They have also been becoming more common in South Africa, especially at busy intersections, dangerous bends and blind rises and so on.

But yesterday one appeared in our quiet suburban neighbourhood, and made me wonder who or what had died, and in what circumstances.

You see, we live in a quiet cul-de-sac with no through traffic. There’s only one road in and out of the neighbourhood, and a couple of months ago the city council put in a mini-traffic circle and a few speed bumps to make doubly sure that people didn’t drive around like maniacs.

And then yesterday we noticed this:

It’s about 10 metres from one of the new speed bumps, so it couldn’t have been a vehicle travelling at high speed that crashed into the tree, and anyway, the tree seemed to be unscathed, though the vegetation around it seemed pretty well trampled.

The name on the cross was “Kat”, which could be a nickname for a person, or literally a cat. Was a pet cat run over here? Possibly. Cats do sometimes dash across the road unpredictably , and even a slow-moving vehicle might not be able to stop in time. But if that is what happened, why the trampled vegetation behind the tree?

The date on it was 25 December 2010, and we went out to church on Christmas eve and again on Christmas morning, and noticed nothing untoward, either going or returning.

So the mystery remains, and someone is sad and missing Kat, whoever or whatever Kat may have been.

Update 2 October 2012

More than a year later, the shrine is still being maintained. Someone is putting fresh flowers there, and there was a photo indicating that “Kat” was an adult male human being.


Skewed View: Friday Cemetery Blogging

Spookyrach in Skewed View: Friday Cemetery Blogging posts one of the saddest epitaphs I’ve ever seen.

Sleeps but rests not
Loved, but was loved not
Tried to please, but pleased not
Died as she lived, alone

Perhaps it was copied from somewhere else, but one wonders who chose it, and why.

Antioch Abouna: True Hope

People often assume that all Christians understand the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in much the same way. This is true if you only take Roman Catholic and Protestant views into account.

Antioch Abouna: True Hope: “what is this fundamental commonality between most non-Orthodox traditions and where does Orthodoxy differ? With Pascha (Easter) approaching in the Orthodox Church it is crucial that we acquaint ourselves with these issues because they touch upon the whole meaning of the gospel, its preaching and celebration.”

Exraordinary Rendition

With shrinking space for burials, and cremations being environmentally unfriendly, there’s a new proposal for getting rid of corpses by rendering.

In ordinary rendering a body is boiled until the various parts separate, but in a new process, which could be described as “extraordinary rendition”, chemicals are added to speed up the process.

It’s not clear whether it uses less energy than cremation.

Traditional methods of laying the dead to rest can no longer cope with the disposal of the 500,000 people who die in England and Wales each year.

Led by Harriet Harman, ministers have launched a concerted effort to find a solution. With options shrinking, the Government has turned its attention to the possibility of “boiling” bodies down to a handful of dust.

While it is hardly what is traditionally described as “a good send-off”, “resomation” can at least claim to be kinder to the planet than some traditional ways of disposing of the dead. The process, developed in the United States, speeds up decomposition by immersing bodies in a solution of water and potassium hydroxide and heating to 150C (302F). More than 1,100 people in the US have already opted for resomation.

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The proposed name for the process, “resomation”, is a misnomer if ever there was one. Resomation means rebodying, and this process is more like debodying, for which the correct English word is “rendering”.

Of course they could always try the Greek custom — bury the bodies until they decompose, then dig up the bones and put them in an ossuary, and reuse the graves.

Hat-tip to Changing the World (and other excuses for not getting a proper job…): Three Bodies Boiled for the Price of Two

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