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

Four of the finest movies this year so far

It’s one of the highest rated movies of the year — people love this thing — but I wasn’t enamored with Marvel’s “Black Panther,” a slick, savvy vehicle that got predictably bogged down in mythical mumbo-jumbo, comic-book convolutions and contrivances that I hadn’t the energy to follow or care about.

I’m pretty sure my Marvel/DC movie days are behind me. The films are tedious, head-rattling, kind of stupid and rarely fun. That said, I crushed on last year’s tough-minded “Logan” and relished the smart-alecky wit writer-director Taika Waititi smuggled into the whomping cacophony of “Thor: Ragnarok.” (If that movie amused, see Waititi’s whip-smart “What We Do in the Shadows,” a hilariously deadpan vampire mockumentary whose cult-classic status continues to swell.)

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Brilliant spoof “What We Do in the Shadows”

So even skirting the lumbering, stumbling franchises — sorry “Solo” — I’m still behind on this year’s movies. I haven’t even seen Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs,” which I expect to be a mild amusement, more cracked smiles than snorts and giggles. I will see it, more because I like dogs than I like Anderson. 

I also haven’t seen these films atop my list: “A Quiet Place,” “Loveless,” “The Incredibles 2,” “Leave No Trace” and a slew of other gushed-over indie titles, from “Let the Sunshine In” to “Lean on Pete.” And I’m keenly looking forward to Bo Burnham’s dramedy “Eighth Grade,” coming July 13.

What I have seen of note are four features that regaled with smarts and originality. To wit:

Mister Rogers was a badass. Twinkly television host, child advocate, public broadcasting pioneer, musician, writer, Presbyterian minister, seat-of-the-pants puppeteer, colorful cardigan fetishist and all-around super fella, Fred McFeely Rogers (McFeely!) held a special passport into fledgling hearts and minds to become a noble pied piper of cheering children across the land. 

He worked his educational magic with a voice of honey and silk, a lilting, cooing instrument so soothing it could place you in a spontaneous coma, and a dapper dependability that made him seem like the safest person in the world. He was made of gumdrops and hugs, and soaring imagination. 

Not a scintilla of this hagiographic portrait is tarred in the straightforward, illuminating and touching documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” a critical and audience smash that follows the self-styled teacher of tots as he crafts his TV programs, mainly the paste-and-plastic “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” which ran from 1968 to 2001 on PBS.  

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Henrietta Pussycat and Mister Rogers, a sweet couple in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

It’s an adoring snapshot, a trippy bit of time-travel effusive with nostalgia and bolted together by Rogers’ nearly A.I. perfection. His virtuosity almost cloys: he was a wonderful husband and father (no! Not gay!), and his Midas touch with preschoolers was no fool’s gold. In the sphere of pedagogy, his sainthood is locked.

You slip behind the scenes of the papier-mâché realm of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe and meet the show’s gallery of ragged thrift-shop puppets (the meow-meowy Henrietta Pussycat looks like a relic of the Victorian age), actors and crew, with lots of laughter and nary a wisp of negativity. Showered in praise, Rogers’ native humility pops open like a big umbrella.

It’s all here, all fascinating, all squeaky-clean. The movie’s about the imperishable legacy of Mister Rogers, who died in 2003, that’s cheery, oozing empathy and strenuously loving till the very last huggy squeeze.

Rogers was a smiling, sugar-dusted Presbyterian minister — a whole other animal than Ethan Hawke’s furrowed, profoundly conflicted Protestant minister in Paul Schrader’s searing spiritual drama “First Reformed,” one more knockout picture of the season.

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Ethan Hawke has burning questions in “First Reformed.”

The underrated Hawke, in his most hoarse, laser-beam performance, plays Rev. Ernst Toller, a plainly clinically depressed man of enforced solitude who is too enmeshed in overwhelming epistemological questions for all that mainstream life stuff. He lives on the margins. He lives for God. He lives to save others, if not himself.

Schrader taps into his unshakable lodestar — Bergman and Bresson’s transcendental cinema of existential turmoil, spiritual struggle and personal despair — and fashions a dire universe for Toller, one consumed by crises of faith, guilt and penitence. Toller drinks too much. He suffers ominous stomach pains. He keeps a troubled diary. He meets a woman.

Eco-terrorism, love and redemption crash his cloistered life, which Schrader portrays with verbal maximalism and visual minimalism. And he leaves you with an ending that invites either bewilderment or overdue catharsis.

Like Toller, viewers will find themselves entangled in the film’s philosophical and theological brambles. Austere, glacial and bruised, “First Reformed” is not an easy picture. But it feels like a necessary one.

Pain is also a prevailing theme in another of the year’s best, “The Rider,” but it’s physical rather than psychic pain, the kind inflicted when the hoof of a bucking bronco jackhammers into your skull.

That’s the case for young Brady (played by non-actor Brady Jandreau with heart-pulping sensitivity), a one-time rodeo hero whose injury in the ring has sidelined him for good. Lost, his story is one of recovery and rediscovery, of a stubborn cowboy trying to compromise in a desolate, hardscrabble environment that’s unforgiving that way.

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Brady Jandreau and Apollo in “The Rider.”

Easily the most moving film of the year — I rhapsodized about how affecting this people-scale drama is here — “The Rider” is pure distilled emotion, beautifully shot on the Dakota prairie by writer-director Chloé Zhao. It’s probably my favorite movie of the year.

Staying in cowboy country but in an artificial version compared with the unflinching realism of “The Rider” is “Damsel” by the reliably off-kilter Zellner brothers, whose mischievous m.o. is to rock your equilibrium, and their own storytelling, with assertive peculiarity. 

Braiding the movie with trusty tropes of old-timey westerns — grit, guns, horsies and hangings — and that ineffable Zellner zing, the result is a lumpy kinda-comedy, kinda-drama in which both elements could have been amplified for the sake of coherence. 

A spirited Robert Pattinson, with a twang and one gray tooth, plays the heartsick pioneer Samuel who’s in search of his lost love, Penelope, played by a spunky Mia Wasikowska. He tows behind him a darling miniature horse named Butterscotch (an aimless visual gag) that he plans to give to her as a wedding present. Risking his life, he finally locates Penelope. Things get very messy from there. 

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Robert Pattinson and Butterscotch in the comic-western “Damsel.”

Its erratic pacing, pesky dead spots and jokes that don’t land hold “Damsel” from crackpot classic. It’s slapstick and slapdash, and keeps you watching if only to make sure lil’ Butterscotch fares well.  

If I didn’t love “Damsel” I appreciated it and its sometimes squiggly logic. It could be a lot funnier, but as it is — a shaggy road movie not fully sure what it wants to be — it’s an oddball original. Keep an ear peeled for the snazzy period-inspired score by whirlingly inventive The Octopus Project. And Adam Stone’s photography — you can’t miss it — is beyond lovely. It’s often ecstatic.

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.

The dog’s search for meaning

It’s hot outside and the dog gallops up the stairs to the very warm attic, panting with a slashing smile, tongue flapping, teeth bared, eyes wide and wild, tail wagging. He looks “on,” like he’s just hit the stage to burst into a blazing showtune, or just won the lottery. He’s so very jazzed to be here. 

Realizing he’s just exerted that much energy only to run into me at the top, me, ordinary me, who has no food for him, just pets and pats for the good doggie, he quickly calms and collapses on the floor, seals his salivating maw, exhales one huffy breath through his nostrils and resigns himself to the humdruminess of life. Rip-off, he’s certainly thinking.

The dog is not alone in his deflation. The heat rises to the cozy attic and no fan, no matter its wattage, can disperse the vapors. But it’s an existential heat, too, one we all know at some point, here and there. The dog is in the throes of it, stretched out in languid dismay.

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The dog, gazing at me, pondering his existential predicament.

And so am I, to an extent, though I am not physically sprawled out, that would be ridiculous. Still, the dog and I are in moody concert, encased in ennui, a kind of life weariness, if just for this time. Trying to write, I turned to reading my book, “NW” by Zadie Smith, when the dog jogged up to say hello and discovered the groin-punch of nothingness.

Right now, his glass — or his water bowl — is half-empty, to borrow the old metaphorical measure of the optimist vs. the pessimist. He is slowly realizing that life isn’t a continuous (tennis) ball, that letdowns lurk, that existence precedes essence, that not all chew toys are created equal. These are things I learned years ago, that we make our own happiness, shape our own lives, that free will, not divine intervention, reigns, and that disappointments and satisfactions are divvied up about 65/35. The dog doesn’t know all this yet. He is a troubled soul.

In anthropomorphic terms, he’s displaying a glint of neuroses. Somewhere Freud and Jean-Paul Sartre are high-fiving over the notion that psychological and existential angst can be traced in a furry quadruped.

The dog seeks the meaning of life, this is plain from his searching brown eyes, furrowed brows and the alarming way he drags his butt across the carpet. Freud’s pleasure principle manifests itself in his frequent calls for belly rubs. Sartre’s theory, which states that our individual responsibility in defining our own lives is almost debilitating in its enormity, has the dog a little down. Knowledge of his own mortality is something of a buzz kill.

At times like this, a good, jaunty walk won’t cut it. Scooby snacks — nope. A ride in the car? He snickers. But the dog is resilient, and getting his tail wagging is not a demanding task. As with me, these moods of brooding despair and overthinking are intermittent. He’d rather eat a good meal or harass the cats than dwell on the insane, undeniable meaninglessness of his puny little life.

And the next time he does, I plan to start reading to him from Sartre’s daunting opus “Being and Nothingness” or Freud’s “The Future of an Illusion.” And when I myself plummet to pondering the philosophical conundrums, the dog can read to me from — this is an actual book — “Chicken Soup for the Soul: What I Learned from the Dog.”

Life’s too short for sulking. I know this. However, the dog, whose years are on the seven-year scale, meaning he’s about 21 to 28 in human years, resides on a shorter leash. But this canine savant is swiftly learning one of the essentials, no matter how fur-raising:

Self-realization — it’s a bitch.