Going down darkly with Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson — novelist, poet, playwright — wrote mad sentences. The author of the swooning novella “Train Dreams,” harrowing Vietnam War epic “Tree of Smoke” and, most famously, the indelible stories in “Jesus’ Son,” left behind a pageant of ravishing prose, much of it festooning the darkly lyrical stories in “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” released last year after his death in 2017 at age 67.

I was reminded of his genius when I saw that this last book is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, whose winner will be announced next month.

I ran across a couple of brief, bleakly reverberating quotes from “Sea Maiden” that I’d scribbled in my journal. If Johnson could be grim, his poetics were reliably heartrending.

I’m getting depressed … you forgot to say prepare to fall down through a trap door in the bottom of your soul.”

Yeah boy he dragged me down to his jamboree. Dragged me down through the toilet formerly known as my life. Down through this nest of talking spiders known as my head. Down through the bottom of my grave with my name spelled wrong on the stone.”

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My compost-mortem

Sometime ago I wrote here about being cremated when I croak, and not being buried as a rotting or fluid-infused corpse in some kitschy coffin. I directed my family to roast me into fine powder and put me into salt and pepper shakers.

3-years-320x180.jpgThen I stumbled on another ashy option: the underwater reef ball, an eco-friendly, reef-building sphere of cement in which your ashes are placed and then sunk to the bottom of the sea. Sleep with the fishes — you bet. 

Why am I discussing this?

Because I’m cracked. As I described before: 

 “I think about this stuff with unseemly frequency. For as long as I remember, the specter of death has had its talons lanced into my gelatinous psyche. I read about it, watch movies about it, dream about it, haunt cemeteries all over the world to get close to it …

“I mull mortality, yours and mine, every single day. I’m a realist, but it’s a quivering reality. As mortician Caitlin Doughty writes, since childhood ‘sheer terror and morbid curiosity have been fighting for supremacy in my mind.’ Mine too is a bifurcated fascination, marbled and complex.”

So, yes. I have a dark streak. Onward!

Evidently there may soon be another legal option for the disposal of my exquisite corpse: human composting. A first in the nation, Washington State is considering allowing “human remains to be disposed of and reduced to soil through composting,” or what’s called recomposition, writes The New York Times. 

Decomposing bodies would crumble and decay into soil and be dispersed to help flowers and trees thrive. “It seems really gentle,” says a 71-year-old woman who yearns to be turned into fertilizer. “Comforting and natural.” Natural indeed: A body in the ground without embalming goop in it eventually becomes soil anyway.

This sounds fantastic. “There’s no coffin, no chemicals, none of the fossil fuels needed for cremation, and no expensive cemetery plot required,” says the Times. And composting is practically a bargain. It costs about $5,000 — much less than a traditional coffin burial, if a little more than cremation.

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How is it done, this conversion of a six-foot-long human body into palmfuls of coffee grounds? It doesn’t seem as simple as leaving a corpse out on the lawn to slowly putrefy in the elements like some horror show out of Lucio Fulci. (Please do click that last link.)  

No, it’s more scientific than worms and rot. There’s poetry to it. In a recent study, “six bodies were placed in a closed container, wrapped in organic materials like alfalfa, then bathed in a stream of air warmed by microbes, and periodically turned,” the Times says. “After about 30 days, the bodies essentially became soil.”

I want to become a stinking heap of soil. I want to nourish flowers and flora, be tossed in filthy fistfuls across the landscape. There go my corroded kidneys and bug-infested brain, in powder form. I’d need no coffin, no urn, no tombstone. Birds can nibble on me. Dogs can dig at me. Daisies and daffodils can bloom. Oaks, elms and pines can kiss the clouds. My new mate: mulch.

But as anyone can tell you, this is all rather counterintuitive, since I’m not an outdoorsy person by any definition. For one, I hate gardening. Pollen is my kryptonite. The sun and I are in divorce proceedings. Hiking is a personal Hades.

Yet I won’t be hiking when I’m in a wheelbarrow. I’ll be chilling. I’ll be a magic powder, literally fulfilling the biblical injunction of committing “this body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

But that’s mystical phooey. This is about getting your hands dirty, with earth-saving, Whole Foodsy gusto. It’s death as a kind of birth, like donating your organs to save another body. It’s one final good deed before it all goes poof.

Of mouse and man

It’s hot outside, I’m hot, the dog is hot, the backyard plants are hot, and that reminds me, I need to water them. But not until it cools down, around dusk, say. Then that luxuriant jungle of exotic flora will get a soaking and gratitude will beam from the firmament.

A heat wave they’re calling this. It’s only 93 degrees right now but, coupled with sopping humidity, it feels like cruel triple digits. Within a minute of stepping below the blazing skies and into the muggy soup you break a sweat, rivulets down the cheeks, puddles in the small of your back. It’s disgusting. Right, this isn’t New Delhi or Bangkok, but still. Anyone who says they like this weather is either a liar or a twit or both.

Speaking of delightfulness, I recently destroyed a mouse. I did not want to, but my conscience got the better of me. So I held it by its gummy-worm tail and dunked it in the toilet and held it there until it drowned. It took fewer than two minutes, if that. Still, it made me kind of sick.

Why such horror? Thank the accursed cat, the tubby charcoal-gray tom with the white Hitler mustache. There he was, playing with a squirming, grievously wounded mouse, brown with a pink belly, in the dining room. It was the natural world in action, a realm Woody Allen, noting the pitiless animal food chain, dubbed “an enormous restaurant.”

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One might applaud the cat for capturing and maiming a crafty little house mouse, a ravaging rodent. I’m not giving ovations. I’m known for protecting and pampering animals, a latter-day St. Francis sans the amazing tunic, sneaking the dog table scraps and keeping sweet, smart rats as long-term pets. I rescued a baby squirrel from the maw of a snarling cur and a mauled bird from a godless outdoor cat (the bird didn’t make it).

And so I snatched the writhing, oddly bloodless mouse from the cat’s paws, carrying the creature by its silken tail. I wanted to save it, take it outside and let it scamper to freedom.

It scampered, but sideways, in a corkscrewy dance, clearly in pain and despair. It got away, crippled, ruined. I went back inside, crestfallen, wishing I had put it out of its misery. I figured it’d be out there, suffering a slow death for hours, maybe days.

Hours passed before it struck me to go and look for the mouse in the summer blaze. I promptly found it. It was motionless, hopefully dead. But when I touched it, it spun again in corkscrews, its whole body knotting in pain. This would not do. I pinched it by the tail, took it to the bathroom and snuffed what was left of its tiny life.

It was fast, but horrible. I held it moments longer than necessary to make sure the poor animal was out, gone. Then I carried the still, matted body back to the yard and set it behind the shrubs and covered it in mulch. I only wish I had done that five hours earlier.

These things aren’t simple. Even a mercy killing is troubling, against my nature. Pesky vermin — big deal, you say. Big deal, you bet.

Yet there’s no moral here. I don’t like what I did. Not one bit. But I’d do it again. In a heartbeat.

In defense of death

A new book is out and contains a passage that provides a frisson of happy recognition: 

“The human cannot abide the thought of death … Most people aren’t wrestling with dread so much as trying to ignore a chronic background anxiety.”

This comes from Sallie Tisdale’s windily, and wittily, titled “Advice for Future Corpses (And Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying.” It’s a slimmish, scintillating book, pimpled with wisdom and knowledge from the stance of a professional thinker, steadfast Buddhist and registered nurse — a trusty troika.

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But why does that quote sing? As I’ve touched on in prior posts (like this one), we are the whopping deniers, gymnastic dodgers, when it comes to confronting or even thinking about death. We know it’s there, lurking in the gloom of the collective id. Most people, as Tisdale says, are “trying to ignore a chronic background anxiety.”

I find this absurd and annoying, because I wonder: How, on a daily basis, does one not consider their inevitable, totally inescapable and at once entirely unpredictable (how and when will you die?) and completely predictable (you’re gonna die!) mortality?

“Advice for Future Corpses” examines that idea with a graceful, empathetic touch and it adds to a mini-mountain of mainstream literature about dying that includes Atul Gawande’s mega-hit “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” and Cory Taylor’s “Dying: A Memoir,” to name just two.

Why this death-book boomlet? Because lots of us are understandably freaked about the fearsome finality. (At least those who even consider it.) For one, people are living longer than ever and we find ourselves taking care of aging, often incapacitated parents and relatives. Death is in our face. And still, so many look away.

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Brompton Cemetery, London, 2017

Call me sick. Tisdale quotes William James on two personality types: the “healthy-minded … with its strange power of living in the moment and ignoring and forgetting,” and the rest, the “sick souls” who cannot blot out the naked prospect of mortality. Yes, a sick soul am I, but also enlightened, awakened and aware that our flimsy, fleshly bodies will someday fail us and atomize to dust.

I’m a nervous type so the fact that I look death in the eye doesn’t mean it’s a steely gaze. I lose that staring contest every time. Death scares me, even if, as I believe, it’s one big great nothingness — no heaven, no hell, no paradisiacal virgins — and we shouldn’t be scared of nothing. Yet the unknown is killing us, so to speak. Its foreverness terrifies.

Tisdale writes: “The psychiatrist Irvin Yalom describes the ego facing extinction as being ‘staggered by the enormity of eternity, of being dead forever and ever and ever and ever.’”

Totally.

“At some point,” Tisdale says, “most of us shift from realizing that sooner or later some future self will die to realizing that this very self, me, precious and irreplaceable me, will die. It’s a terrible thing to grasp, and though this insight may last a mere second, it changes your life.”

Her breadth on the topic dazzles. She addresses both sides of death-phobia (terror vs. liberation), our response to death (unalloyed grief), the certainty that we will die, the notion of the “good death,” personal anecdotes such as her dying friend shopping for biodegradable coffins and shrouds, and Zen-worthy declarations like “cremation can have a kind of stark beauty.”

She naturally can’t get to the bottom of it — death’s mystery is all-engulfing, impenetrable, the Big One — but her Buddhist-nurse compassion touches every page and she sheds copious slats of light into our shared abyss. My favorite citation comes from a dying Rabelais, whose last words were: “I am going in search of a great perhaps.”

The beauty in that is bottomless.

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Brompton Cemetery, London, 2017

Death becomes us

“To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.” 

Ernest Becker, “The Denial of Death”

For some of us, the above “rumble of terror” is a buckling, earth-cracking tremor felt many times each day, a sort of clockwork bell that tolls every hour, on the hour. It is, of course, death, our unavoidable mortality, crooking a finger, baring its teeth and uttering a horror-movie cackle.

Drama aside, what Becker says is that without a sharp recognition of the reality of your own death you paper over a critical dimension of existence. Without death, paradoxically, a major chunk of life is muted. You reside in the dark.

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The existential denial Becker speaks of amounts to an ignorance as willful as it is mystifying. To mention dying has become taboo. How can the most important stage in life, the great closure, the monumental punctuation mark, be off limits? I don’t want to think about it,” goes a common refrain. “It’s just too horrible.” 

But is it? By being aware of your mortality, knowing you will die, that it is an unstoppable event, you can cultivate a richer, more philosophical, existentially awakened life. The aim of this consciousness, as I’ve written before, is to “put you in touch with an untapped aspect of your spirituality, to jolt you out of complacency and into perhaps uncomfortable soulfulness.”

Instead, people distract themselves from the big questions and tough realities. Texting, Facebook and binge TV shows are potent diversions. We think we have control over our lives by doing the right things — exercising, eating healthfully, thinking positive, traveling, communing with art and nature, procreating.

Rubbish.

“Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing,” Becker says.

Death isn’t on my lips — I rarely broach the subject — but it weighs on my mind like an anvil. I’m not talking about the gruesome, corporeal details of death — the corpse, the medical examiner, the venal funeral industry, the land waste of burial — but the chilly philosophical fact of mortality, of dying. Not how we die, but that we die.

Hans Larwin's amazingly evocative 'Soldat und Tod' ('Soldier and Death') from 1917

It’s confounding that people dodder through life without considering death, as though it’s some vague, distant inconvenience that won’t afflict them — not even when they’re crossing a busy street or speeding down the highway or eating a marbled slab of steak or hauling around 100 pounds of extra body weight. The musty cliché “ignorance is bliss” could not be more fitting.

Accepting our fate now, in the present, dulls the fear factor. The idea of dying — Becker’s “rumble of terror” — is inarguably frightening, and that’s certainly why so many of us keep it at bay. But awareness makes you smarter, more prepared. It eases the angst. “The fear of death follows from the fear of life,” Mark Twain said. “A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”

To live fully, says Becker, means to live mindfully, to be cognizant of that lyrical rumble of terror, to embrace one’s fate, or to at least be on cordial terms with it. It is, in fact, consciousness in full bloom.

A darkly delightful book of the dead

For the record, family: Do not donate my body to science when I die. Let them harvest an organ or two, scoop out my eyes like melon balls, carve off a carpet swatch of skin.

Then burn me up good.

Scary to say, but my obsession with death, dying and the post-life has only rocketed since I recently re-read Mary Roach’s weirdly engrossing, and joyously gross, 2003 bestseller “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.”

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The title nearly says it all: Roach’s beautifully reported book is a blunt, euphemism-free, aggressively lighthearted examination of exactly what happens to cadavers that are donated to science and research. (Cue: barfing emoji.)

Facts, history, grisly details and the author’s vivacious gallows humor make the unutterable utterly readable. Roach is smart; she pauses for philosophical reflection about what’s before her, providing a finish of deep and dignified meditation to what could have been perverted voyeurism catering to “Faces of Death” sickos. 

The breezy read features jarring chapter subtitles — “Human Crash Test Dummies and the Ghastly, Necessary Science of Impact Tolerance”; “On Human Decay and What Can Be Done About It”; “Medicinal Cannibalism and the Case of the Human Dumplings” — that are so graphic, they may be all you need to get it. For example, that first one: Yes, dead bodies are used as crash test dummies in vehicles. Splat.

Plunge into the pages and you’ll get the smells, sights and sounds of expired bodies rotting, ripping, being gutted and even crucified. (Scientists still want to know how Jesus died on the cross. Freshly dead bodies are a prime instructional aid. Pass the nails.)

The doctors and scientists Roach meets are a reticent assortment. But she intrepidly presses on. 

o-SYNTHETIC-CADAVERS-facebookSometimes a source will turn his back on her, suspect of her macabre motives.

“You want a vivid description of what’s going through my brain as I’m cutting through a liver and all these larvae are spilling out all over me and juice pops out of the intestines?” snaps a vexed forensics examiner. 

Roach responds to us, sotto voce: “I kind of did, but I kept quiet.”

“Stiff” rests on my growing, groaning shelf of superlatively morbid but essential books on mortality, like “How We Die,” “Final Exit,” “The Denial of Death” and other festive titles. I recommend them all. They will, while you’re still living, change your life.

One wedding and a birthday

So I let myself get a little worked up and twisted about yesterday’s big birthday. But it mostly flowed like any other day, except, and this is remarkable, I wore a dark blue Hugo Boss suit, purple striped tie and black and purple Cole Haan wingtips the whole day. It was the very first time I’ve worn a suit, unless you count the three times in my life I’ve donned tuxes (one prom, two weddings).

Worrying about one’s birthday is futile, frivolous, fun-free. Age truly is, as the maxim goes, just a number. I don’t like my new number one bit — it’s ugly and has fangs — but fretting over it is so much twaddle. Life blunders forth. Let us proceed.

Some boldly aver, “Bring it on!” but that’s a scary invitation. I’m not welcoming the disease and decrepitude waiting to pounce as time advances. Death I’m not uptight about. I could use a few extra years of uninterrupted slumber. But hospital beds, catheters, sippy cups, hospice — I’m having none of it. I have given notice. 

But life was lived on my birthday. As noted in a blog dated one day before the monumental occasion, my friend happened to slate his wedding for the same day, so my brother and I hit Manhattan, natty in suits and ties, for the connubial affair, which was intimate and lovely and all manner of florid, fortuitous festivity. 

Set at the tweedy, incomparably cool Library at the Public Theater in the East Village — book-lined shelves, leather sofas, dim lighting, no windows — it was resplendent. The open bar was hugely appreciated by all. (That’s what I call a birthday present.)

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The Library at the Public Theater.

Following the afternoon nuptials, we walked long and far across the city, down Broadway and into the Saturday farmer’s market in Union Square (I bought the dog a pig’s ear), past the Flatiron Building, where selfie-takers swarmed and giggled, to the Todd Snyder shop, where my brother, an incorrigible clotheshorse, shopped for eons. 

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The Flatiron.

As I reclined in a chair while he agonized over product and prices, an employee, kind of crazily, offered me a snifter of The Balvenie Scotch whisky — liquid gold. I accepted. When finished, he offered me another one. I accepted. I told him it was my birthday, to give his lavish generosity meaning. He shook my hand. His name is Carlos. He is heroic.

More walking and a subway ride took us to dinner at Tom Colicchio’s ritzy Temple Court in the Beekman Hotel in Lower Manhattan. Exquisite whiskey sours, divine tasting menu, ultra-classy service, including several congratulations on my birthday. Dessert arrived speared with a candle and the server assured me they would not be singing “Happy Birthday.”

Something clicked yesterday. What was it — the lovely wedding, the big city, the complimentary whisky, the sumptuous dinner, the mindfulness of the staff not singing that goddam tune that made me think: birthdays, they’re not so bad.