Sunday, November 20, 2011

dead bodies are weird

It's been a few days since J.D. died, days packed with J.D.-related events, and I'm still kind of sick and I'm ready to be done with all the mournful socializing. Friday night a bunch of us got together to eat some food and hang together; yesterday a group of mostly the same people went to his house to help out his wife by carrying out his last wishes that his friends take away most of his stuff. He had a pretty solid collection of books, and an absolutely stunning collection of CDs, but since he mostly gathered CDs so he could use them in DJ sets, the collection is incomprehensible to most of us: vast stretches of obscure and usually wonderful electronic music. Nonetheless, we did the best we could, and many of the DJ pals found some exciting stuff in there. I got an Iron & Wine CD (he's even better than I thought), some Apocalyptica, a whole bunch of Bob Dylan, and I think every one of Iain M. Banks's Culture novels. Inexplicably, I also took Sounds of North American Frogs, just because.

I mentioned before that I helped the hospice nurse move the body from the big fluffy chair where J.D. spent most of the past several months, onto the hospital bed where the nurse could do some cleanup and put a shirt on the body so we could have some last moments if we wanted, before the crematory guys came. There was a certain unreality to the whole experience: an hour before, I'd stood in the doorway for a few minutes, hands in my pockets, fascinated by J.D.'s labored breathing as he slept on morphine, watching his clock tick down. That wasn't the J.D. I knew, and yet it was: just a few weeks earlier he had bravely and generously had some folks over to watch movies for my bachelor party. He was vomiting and hiccuping the whole time, and everyone just took it in stride, made sure he had a clean pan to vomit into, and enjoyed each other's company (though not, alas, the movie).

This is the very blunt list of things I noticed about seeing and moving a dead body. I'm not likely to ever forget, but I feel compelled to share.
  • I picked him up and thought, "Wow, he's so lifeless." Which is ridiculous thing to think, because he was dead. But, we have the "lifeless" as an everyday word, and never used for genuinely dead things: it's stuff like artistic performances, or bad food.
  • The nurse thought I might be able to move J.D.'s torso: not a chance. After months of wasting away he still weighed a good 180 pounds. Also, "deadweight" has new meaning.
  • A dead person's head will loll around and backwards in a way that a live person would never tolerate, even when unconscious (I think because it would prevent breathing).
  • The jaw slacks in a certain unmistakably not-alive way.
  • Hands are ice-cold, but the head is still warm, as the brain is the last thing the body tries to protect as it shuts down.
  • That thing on TV where they close someone's eyes? I tried it, and it turns out that's why various cultures put coins on the eyes, which are otherwise determined to stay half-open. There's all kinds of things to say about why that feels creepy.
When I've talked to friends and relatives with hospice experience, they all independently say that no matter how ready you are, death is always shocking. The alive-to-dead transition is a sudden between-the-eyes direct education in how fragile and transient we are.

You often hear someone want to remember a person in a certain way: in their full alive-ness, instead of wasted and dying. And we ourselves always want to choose how we are seen and remembered. My last memory of J.D. is of moving his dead body, but it doesn't bother me. It's just part of the cycle of my J.D. memories. I wanted to be there for the end, partly out of curiosity (like most of us, I've been lucky enough to never see someone die), and partly because I felt it was something important that I could do, and I was right. It is something I can do, and it was a great privilege to be able to do it.

I've always wondered how it would go when it came time for one of us to die, and I have to say that as a community we've done magnificently, in taking care of J.D. and his wife, and in grieving freely and openly together. It's a chance for us to really see each other, and to forget about whatever stories we may habitually tell ourselves about how we see each other or what we can tell each other. We're free to spontaneously start crying, or start giving out hugs. There's a great sense of openness, of everyone creating an accepting space for everyone else.

Given his dedication to community, I can only imagine J.D. would have been overjoyed to see it.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

J.D. Falk, 1974 - 2011

My old friend and housemate J.D. died on Wednesday night, following many months of fighting a very aggressive gastric cancer. Remarkably, at pretty much this exact time:
21:15 <dr.msk> JD's RFC is published.
21:16 <dr.msk> RFC6449
That was a little weird, even for the already-weird experience of someone dying. (RFC stands for "Request For Comments", and they're documents that define technical standards. Things like the World Wide Web and email are defined in RFCs. They're not as big a deal nowadays, but it's still cool to write one.)

There's a lot to say about J.D.: the anti-spam group he founded has one obituary, and there's an ongoing public memorial page. He was kind, generous, welcoming, affable, open-hearted, and tirelessly put his energies into building and supporting communities of all kinds. He was a remarkable DJ, and was developing into a remarkable maker of electronic music. He was also kind of a flake, and despite the years-long prodding from his wife, he left a lot of not-quite-resolved relationships behind, including with me. But he and I had long ago said everything that really needed to be said, and it turns out that once someone's dead, it's easy enough to let the unresolved stuff matter even less than before.

I could exhaust my supply of synonyms describing him, but read the memorial stories and you'll get the idea. I'm not so good with remembering stories on demand, especially under strain.

I had the difficult privilege of being in the house when he died, and helping the hospice nurse move his body from the fluffy armchair where he spent much of the past six months over to the bed so the crematory guys could pick him up,. I have a lot to say about the whole experience, much as it starts to make things seem about me; but I'm kind of a mess, and I get a lot of interesting stuff out of being a mess.

Good-bye, J.D. Thanks.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

death approaches

An old friend and twice-housemate of mine, JD, who has been gravely ill with cancer all year, is finally down to his last days (possibly hours), in 24/7 hospice care at home. On Sunday, while he was still in the hospital, I helped move furniture around so a hospital bed and other gear could come in, and me and his wife and another friend were talking about funeral home and other arrangements. I'm part of the funeral-planning committee, though Anna and I got sick again as soon as we got home, so I haven't done anything yet except to suggest that a post-funeral reception is going to be many hundreds of people and therefore it's not practical to have at someone's house.

I've been watching my own reactions and impulses, along with everyone else's. I've been thinking it would be nice and interesting if I could see him one last time, but he very graciously had some folks over for my bachelor party a few weeks ago, so we had a solid hug then, and I don't feel like there's anything unsaid between us. Some people have a need to go see him, but he's exhausted and ready to die, and doesn't want visitors.

That last part there is exactly why we say things like "Don't wait until the end to say what you want to say." In addition to death sometimes coming on suddenly, even if there's some lingering, you don't know that you'll be able to see them. "Don't wait" isn't some philosophical point. It actually means "don't wait." It's not something to think about, it's something to do.

People get cranky with Buddhism, and especially Zen, for constantly harping on death: the teacher Dainin Katagiri famously started a fundraising talk with "You are all going to die someday." I've never had much patience with the American religion of positivity, or the idea that everything happens for a reason. Saying that everything happens for a reason, without actually knowing the reason, is a measured dose of comforting predestination, often invoked by people who would otherwise strenuously insist that we live from free will.

If we can't figure out the reason why a 37-year old is struck down by a vicious cancer that doesn't normally strike any of his demographic groups, maybe that's because there isn't a reason. Does that mean his life didn't have meaning? He did work and created communities that still flourish, touching thousands and thousands of people. He's dying because people die. The choices he made, the relationships he had, are what matters.

JD was a phenomenal downtempo DJ, and this was a favorite song.

Don't wait.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

what's "attachment"?

[Shannon has been kicking ass on her blog lately, which inspires me to write some Buddhist-y things.]

A friend, on Facebook:
Not being attached to the outcome is like trying not to think of something. I need a Buddhist SWAT team.
Every English speaker who encounters Buddhism struggles with any discussion of "attachment" and "non-attachment". I think it's because in our casual speech, we use "attached" to mean "closeness" and "affection". When we're not ready or in the mood to say "I love you", we say "I'm quite attached to you". We use it to mean someone is in a romantic relationship:
"Sorry, honey, he's attached."
"There are no unattached women in this town."
This isn't a bad way to use the word, but when people first started translating Buddhist texts into English, they used "attachment" to describe concepts that have absolutely nothing to do with emotional closeness: "grasping" is usually a more evocative term. It's possible this was perfectly consonant with the meaning of "attachment" a century ago, as in the famous case of the lovely St. Paul's Cathedral being originally described as "amusing, awful, and artificial." Then again, maybe the translations sucked, which was common. It's certainly confusing now, and of course we're stuck with it.

One word that often comes out as "attachments" is klesha, which many people render as "afflictive emotions," which I like. These are things like desire, anger, and aversion generally, but in Buddhist practice we're particularly concerned with the times when we put extra energy into those emotions instead of just feeling them and letting them pass. That extra energy is what we call "grasping" or "attachment." Until you see this happen for yourself, it takes a variety of metaphors to describe it. For example, I would get angry with my students in Chile, and in that moment of anger I had a choice: I could either put more energy into being angry, speaking sharply at them and trying hard to make them do what I wanted; or, I could let myself feel that moment of anger, but then let it pass and decide to respond differently, with calm firmness. Our emotions are transient, and they will change, but only if we step back and let them change. There's a sense of righteous power in being angry, and it's hard to step back from that.

Remember those playground spinners?

The chaos of our emotions often feels like we're spinning around and around on one of these, completely out of control. We don't understand why we're caught up in such a tumult. The turning point in our practice is seeing, really seeing and knowing inside, that we ourselves provide the motive power for the spinning, by putting that extra energy into our thoughts and emotions. We start out on the edge of the disc, moving so fast we feel sick. With practice--zazen meditation combined with an intention to look carefully at our experience in and out of zazen--we move a bit more toward the center of the disc, moving slower and slower. Eventually we realize the disc is only moving because we keep kicking it along, and we learn to back off, let go, and stop adding that extra momentum. The spinning slows down, and occasionally, for times that can be instants or hours, the spinning stops entirely, and everything is quiet.

[By the way, you can read about the Three Poisons or kleshas and seek in vain for a unified presentation, even within a single Buddhist tradition. The Buddha had many formulations and presentations of his teaching, varying with time (45 years!) and audience. The subsequent systematizers further modified things, often with significant misunderstandings, as I'm learning from Richard Gombrich. That kind of brutal consistency, prized in Western philosophy and theology, doesn't exist in Buddhist thought. Buddha's goal was not to create a system of things to believe in: he wanted to give everyone a complete set of tools for understanding and ending our own mental anguish. Buddhist teaching is quite coherent, but it is as multi-faceted as any human being.)

Another way to think about it is with a lawnmower: if I grab really hard onto a running lawnmower, the vibration hurts my shoulders and rattles my teeth. If I hold the lawnmower lightly, it just makes my hands tingle.

Does that make any sense? I never know if you're nodding excitedly and going "YES! YES!" or just thinking, "Why doesn't he post more cat pictures? I like cat pictures. Am I out of Oreos again?".

Anyway. May you (and all beings) successfully stop kicking your playground spinner.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

just married

Anna and I got married on Saturday. So that's a thing. We're honeymooning, which means lots of eating and staring off into space and reading novels, and not so much with the brilliant coherent essay-writing.

At some point my friends pointed out that our anniversary is Guy Fawkes Day, that most twisted of British holidays, which we would never have heard of if not for Alan Moore's V For Vendetta (which you must go read right now, if you haven't). So that's entertaining.

The guest book didn't get put out, so we don't have an exact count, but it was about 170 people. It was a Zen Buddhist ceremony, which is funny because there are no Buddhist weddings outside the West: they're typically either civil matters, or handled by a more visceral local religion, like Shinto in Japan. This is part of the transmission of Buddhism to the West, though, so here, we have Zen weddings. Our teacher did the honors, I sang the Magnetic Fields' "Book of Love" as Anna came up the aisle, and we had a first dance (I hate dancing) just so ninjas could interrupt and attack us. Me, Anna, and J successfully fought them off. It was awesome. No video of the ninjas, I don't think, but there are some photos that I'll put up soon.

Our witnesses were both named Ann, so mine was the Best Ann and hers was the Ann of Honor.

Before the vows, Anna and I each had a chance to say something: Anna said many funny things about the unlikelihood of her ever getting married (e.g. during the toasts, the Ann of Honor said, "It's a cold day in hell, and somewhere, pigs are flying"). That warmed up the crowd for mine, where I started by saying that before I met her, my life was a friendless, meaningless void. With, what, 100 of my friends watching? Very silly.

The wedding gave me a lot to think about in how I and others perceive me. For one thing, I'm struck by how surprised people were. I guess I don't pay a whole lot of attention to how much and in what ways I'm a private person, or what I do or don't share with different people. Apparently, when Anna and I started dating, someone advised her to be cautious, because they hadn't seen anything that indicated I was interested in or particularly capable of returning deep emotional connection. That's pretty wacky, given the decades I've spent learning and experiencing those deep emotions. It's not like I'm hiding or anything; I guess I just haven't found a reason or useful way to bring my deep sentimentality into everyday conversation.

Later, a woman from our dojo said, "I didn't know you had it in you", meaning the comic timing of what I said during the ceremony. I responded gracefully, but I was taken aback, because honestly, I'm pretty funny and the timing of my delivery is usually excellent. I thought about my relationship with her over the years, and I realized that when I've made jokes, her response often indicates she doesn't quite know what to make of me, so I've toned everything down around her. Maybe I shouldn't? Hard to say.

I guess that kind of sharing is what I wanted for the wedding: to invite a bunch of people I know in all different kinds of ways, and bring everyone together for this one focal moment of standing up and showing ourselves. The two most common comments were "Amazing ceremony" and "Wow, you have incredible friends." That's pretty much what I wanted to hear.

Steve came all the way from Chile! And brought me a bottle of Mistral Nobel pisco, so I can share the, uh, "joy" of pisco with everyone here. (That's the good stuff, but when I was drinking it straight on ice so I could actually taste it, all the Chileans looked startled and repeatedly asked if I didn't want to mix it with some Coke or something. I like it, mostly, but it can be an acquired taste.)

J was part of the ceremony too, and I think it did something to cement for him the commitment of our little family: he's been looking forward to it for a long time, and I perceived a shift in our relationship afterward, where he seemed a bit more relaxed and I got a long, long hug goodbye when he went to school Monday morning.

The weirdest thing about getting married is that there was this huge crowd of 170 people, and now it's just us. It's so...quiet.