Memento Mori

Late Fall makes me think of death.  Maybe it is the empty trees.  Maybe it is the gloomy early darkness and the eventuality of winter bearing down on.  Maybe it is the history and traditions of New England that our culture has adopted and transformed into the full on Halloween experience.  Or maybe it is that a few years ago my aunt and one of my close friends died within a week of each other.  It is probably the last thing.

I have never really feared death.  Not in a macho way, it is just something that happens as a part of life and I accepted the eventuality of my own passing.  I think that I have far worse feelings about the passing of others than I would ever have contemplating my own death.  I didn’t have any tragedies in my early life, and didn’t lose anybody close to me until I was in my teens, so I wasn’t directly touched by death but I knew it was around.  I think that I lived much of my early life with the reckless abandon that many kids of my generation had, taking chances and embracing the rush that comes with danger.

When I was 13 my best friend moved away and I scrambled trying to find another group of people who would accept me.  That fall I tried to prove myself to a group of guys who were a little rougher than the crowd that I was used to.  Spoiler Alert: I wasn’t rough enough at the time to handle it.  There was a lot of drinking and smoking and tough guy teenager stuff going on, and as the new guy I was the easiest target.  One time things got so out of hand when I talked back to the “ringleader” of the group that he took things to another level.  He went upstairs got his father’s pistol, made me get down on my knees to be forgiveness and put it to the back of my head.  Apparently he removed the clip and was just “joking” but had had enough to drink that he forgot to take the round of the chamber.  That was a pivotal moment in my life.

After that I realized that I needed to make some changes and started surrounding myself with better people, which was one of the greatest investments that I could have ever made.  The guy who pulled the gun on me wound up dropping out of school and when I last heard of him about 10 years ago was in jail for making a sex tape with his 16 year old girlfriend.  I was lucky enough to find new friends and set off in a positive direction, but that incident always stuck with me.  I could say that it made me realize that I could survive anything and rise above, but in reality it put a thought in my head that no matter what happened I would somehow meet a violent end.  This belief lead to a reckless college of experience of drinking too much, fighting too often, and feeling apathetic about everything.  My friend Brad and I shared a prevailing belief that we wouldn’t make it to 30, so why not take chances.  I apparently was wrong and have reached the ripe old age of 31, but Brad proved the point by not making it to 25.

After Brad died I pulled out of my spiral and spent a few years trying to be my best self.  By that I mean working far too much, isolating myself from everyone in my life, burning all the bridges that I could, and spending my time off watching Pawn Stars and binge drinking.  It was great.  It took getting robbed at work and actually experiencing the threat of violence beyond my control to snap me out of my self destructive path.   I turned things around and over the course of two years was able to actually make positive changes in my life, new job, new car, new apartment, new me.  And as I was settling in to this new life the rug to pulled out from under me.

My aunt Pam was a character.  A learned doctor, a comic, someone always chasing hobbies and obsessions, an obsessive online shopper, who spent most of her life keeping people at bay.  Sound familiar?  We developed a pretty close relationship and spent a lot of time talking through my experiences and chasing her memories.  She was also a junkie who burned so many bridges (at least in her mind) that she died broken and alone.  We had a great conversation a few days before she died, we talked about Lou Reed.  Now listening to the Velvet Underground makes me sad.

I knew that Pam’s passing was inevitable and while it hurt it was bearable and I was able to console myself knowing that she was no longer in pain.  What wasn’t bearable was hearing a few weeks later that my friend Dustin had passed.  He was always the life of the party, a tiny little ginger who lived much larger than his stature.  We only knew each other for a few short years, but he made a huge impact on me.  When he died it tore me apart.  Dusty was so full of life and he died in a terrible accident that could have happened to me thousands of times over the years.  His death hurt a lot of my friends more, out entire friend group was destroyed, which took out most of the support system that I had left.  We all fell into despair for a while a while, but eventually we manned up and got busy living.

A few years ago I started reading stoic philosophy and learning about Roman customs.  I was captivated and fascinated by the idea of Memento Mori.  The concept is to remember death, which is a statement that cuts both ways.  It can be a “live the best that you can because death could be right around the corner” like that cheesy Live Like You Are Dying song that always plays on the Muzak station.  Or it could be a “Don’t get too full of yourself, because someday you will die and be nothing but dust and nobody will remember who you are” which helps to keep me grounded.  Learning from the stoics is much more rewarding than iconizing the skull and crossbones or memorizing lines from Thanatopsis like I used to.  It allows me to find peace with whatever is going on in my life, good or bad, knowing that things, including life, are temporary.  These books are full of wisdom that has stood the test of millennia and still rings true while also being incredibly quotable and relevant.

I like to think that I have started to become more comfortable with death.  I worked in long term care and for 18 months would start my day off with an email that listed which patients had died during the night.  I suppose that this helped me to rationalize that while death can effect us all in the end we are nothing but names on a list just waiting for someone to update our status in a computer to deceased.  In theory I have hardened myself against death and readied myself for it.  I don’t believe in God or an afterlife, so I have nothing more to look forward to so I might as well make the best of it.

I work in a field where death is constantly present, and spend a lot of time with comics who bring tragedy to the stage, and have become very comfortable with it.  Along the way I have learned that only through knowing the darkness I can enjoy the light.  Being aware of that contrast makes the good parts of life so much sweeter.  Everything in life, including life itself, is temporary, so why not make the most of it.  Everyone I know is going to die, and I am prepared to celebrate their lives rather than mourn their deaths.  And when it my turn I can only hope to approach my grave like one who wraps the draperies of his couch around him, and settles down to pleasant dreams.

“Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.” -Marcus Aurelius

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Meh-Political

As we near November the whole country is getting spun up about the election.  As someone who doesn’t believe in the political process I don’t have a dog in the fight of either the presidential or local elections, but I feel myself getting drawn into the anxiety and regularly feel like I may snap during the next stupid Trump joke or Bernie impression that I hear.  As some warning the last time I wrote about politics I got my father so angry that he actually yelled at me for the first time since I was in High School, so be aware that my views will probably piss you off.

I used to care about politics, it fascinated me in much more than the watching the train wreck feeling that I get now.  My parents are self described “Old Hippies” who were two of the three registered democrats in our small town.  Their liberal leanings were ever present, but they didn’t stymie the flow of ideas and allowed me to become who I wanted to be, which is how I became such an unabashed capitalist.  They encouraged discussion and at least acknowledging people’s viewpoints and trying to see where others are coming from.  As a teenager I started reading Tom Clancy novels and became enthralled with geopolitics and the delicate ballet of nation states.  I also became a news junkie, watching national news every morning before school, reading the local paper when I got home, and catching parts of the local news before bed.  I was in absolute overload, trying to balance the knowledge of Clancy’s Soviet struggles with the developments of the day, trying to find my way through a web of local, national, world, and fictional news.  I watched the 2000 election and was in heaven, the old dynasty Republicans versus the wooden but sound Al Gore fighting over the electoral college and hanging chads.  I loved it and was planning on finding a way to pursue this as a career, maybe with a history degree, and maybe making it into the CIA like my literary hero, Jack Ryan.  And then two planes flew into the World Trade Center and everything changed.

I obviously can’t take ownership of this tragedy, it impacted each and every American, and there are so many people who suffered so much more than I ever dreamed, but it had a big impact on my life at a pivotal moment.  At 16 I was not fully formed as a person and was at the point of making important decisions about my future that would have far reaching consequences.  I no longer started my morning off by watching tv, because I saw nothing but bad news.  I traded in the evening paper for reading Rolling Stone, losing myself in a world of music that became all consuming.  In short instead of rising to the challenge like so many did and dedicating myself to the country I sought out escapism and turned away from the present and from the relevant, which is something that I am not proud of.

For the next few years I fell down the rabbit hole of music, consuming all types, learning to play (poorly), using my brain power to memorize lyrics and track lists instead of trying to sort out bigger problems.  I suppose that this is a bit harsh on myself since I was far from the first kid to turn off, tune in, and drop out, but it feels like it was a big fork in the road for me that lead down a completely different path.  When I got to college I got into the punk scene and tried to avoid the political aspects but couldn’t help but get swept up in the angry “Not my president” aspect of the Bush years.  Through punk I discovered the ideals of anarchy and embracing the outsider status, and found it easier to completely ignore politics and plead ignorance rather than get caught up in the discussions between my friends.  I voted for Obama in 2008, not sure why but I think that I just wanted to shake things up a bit and piss off my conservative roommates.  Beyond that I spent all of college locked in an internal struggle between anarchy, apathy, and alcohol, and graduated well educated but ignorant of all political issues that weren’t satirized on the Daily Show or Colbert report.

In a not so surprising twist I graduated, started making money, and all of a sudden didn’t want to pay taxes.  I suppose that the idea of a small government fit with my anarchist ideals, but I never thought that I would wake up one day and realize that I was a Republican, especially after I moved to left of liberal Vermont.  Maybe it was just a brief counter reaction to the political climate here.  To be clear it was mostly only fiscal conservatism, I am still pretty liberal on most moral values.  All of a sudden I found myself politically awake for the first time in a decade, trying to sort out my feelings on taxes, second amendment rights, foreign intervention, and a host of other issues.  This is the point that you are probably thinking “Sounds like you are a libertarian” but please stow that.  The Libertarian party is bullshit, a bunch of people who want the best of both worlds aren’t willing to commit to their values.  It is a bunch of wishy washy agnostics who will never get any momentum and won’t get anything done.  I would rather bury my head in the sand and ignore the political system, which is exactly what I did.

I live in a place where my votes literally don’t matter.  Even being a centrist in Vermont puts me to the far right of the political spectrum.  Beyond the presidential race my vote will have little impact.  Local politics are even worse and more corrupt than national races, and since I am a bit of a nomad I don’t feel invested in trying to make changes.  I realized that I really don’t have a dog in any political fight.  I live a life of little political consequence, I don’t own property or champion any issues.  I am realistic enough to know that there are not going to be any sweeping changes to the system, and that any changes will have little effect on me.  I like to consider myself a feminist who believes in equal rights for all races, religions, and sexual orientations.  In my best future I could probably be an outspoken advocate for the rights of others, but in reality I am too selfish for that.  Frankly I hate the self serving white people who become mouthpieces for oppressed groups, because they don’t have skin in the game and never seem genuine.

Maybe I could have gotten behind Bernie, if he wasn’t such a caricature.  Or maybe someone like Ron Paul if he wasn’t so much of an isolationist.  I probably couldn’t get behind Johnson because he seems like an idiot.  Trump is also an idiot, but I doubt that he really has a chance.  Hillary has the credentials, and despite being a crook will probably do a decent job, but you could never say that I’m with her.  I believe that the Vermont political scene involves a guy with a pony tail, which is exciting, and some school board member turned out to be a bigot, but I can’t get invested in those races.  Maybe this will change and I will start championing a cause or fall under a candidate’s spell.  Maybe I will see some change instead of a continuation of the status quo.  Maybe they will put out some piece of legislation that will will effect high income straight white males who identify as feminists, believe in gun ownership but don’t own any guns, and are too fat to be drafted into the military and I can start championing that cause, but how likely is that?

So go out next month and vote if you want to or don’t vote, I don’t care.  Whoever becomes president will lead us down the path that they choose.  Whoever gets elected governor or senator will have their own agenda.  And the mayor or school board member will have rule over their own fiefdom.  But no matter the changes I will carry on, not reading the news, not caring about who is in power, and not willing to risk jury duty by registering to vote.  If this pisses you off then that is your own issue, and if we go down a perilous path I own that.  Feel free to point me out as a villain, because as Washington said “It is better to offer no excuse than a bad one.”