Friday, May 3, 2013

Greetings from Mount Washington

Johns Hopkins sponsors the world's longest running longitudinal health survey called the Precursor Report. The study started in 1948 and most graduates of the medical school from 1948 to 1964 participate. Information is gathered regarding the incidence of heart disease and diabetes as well as mental health issues. In recent years, as the participants gray, research has broadened to include end of life topics. The responses of the physicians does not surprise me. Most, if terminally ill or permanently mentally incapacitated would refuse feeding tubes, ventilators and other life prolonging measures, preferring only palliative treatment to remain free of pain. This is my own choice and was the choice of my parents who both died peacefully and without discomfort. What surprised me however is that the general public answered end of life questions completely differently, the majority indicating they'd opt for attempts to prolong life by any means. Perhaps it is the doctor's more accurate knowledge of how these invasive measures often play out. Non-medical folks may have no accurate conception of what use of a ventilator or feeding tube actually entails. Yet, I find something sweet, if not naive, in the “never give up hope” persuasion. But I just can't roll with life for the sake of life itself ethos.

When I learn a new word it invariably appears then a couple times in what I'm reading. In the same vein, Himself is reading a piece by our hero Jay Michaelson and asks me who Tim Minchin is. I am clueless. I listen to podcasts as I stomp around the hills in the early morning and the first I tune in is a New Yorker profile of Minchin. He's been around a while but is better known in his original home, Australia, and current home, the U.K. He indeed has a following in the U.S. too and is perhaps most famous for having written the lyrics for the musical Matilda, based on the Roald Dahl story. Minchin has also acted. He played a rock star on the series Californication which I find vile but his character's name was Atticus Fetch which I have to admit is pretty swell. Minchin is also very popular for his performances which are I guess what Richard Dawkins would do if he wrote funny songs instead of books. Minchin sings a song about how much he loves his wife, who he's been with since age seventeen but as the song continues he adds that if he hadn't met her he inevitably would have met someone else to fall in love with. He tackles the hubris of superstition. Do we actually think we are powerful enough to impact the force of nature by knocking wood? In one routine he states, “I hope my daughter is killed in a car crash” just to prove that we humans really lack the power to tempt fate. I appreciate the clarion call for critical thinking but I still can't totally surrender my sense of the ineffable. While I accept intellectually that I just boil down to a lump of carbon I still throw spilled salt over my shoulder and would never put shoes on a bed.

I attend the funeral of a friend I was close to in high school but haven't seen in about 40 years. There are two old friends I've had contact with but otherwise I don't recognize a soul. I am disoriented thinking everyone around me is the parent of a high school chum, unable to drink in that I am among peers. The service is good but weird as my friend David's family and friends tenderly express their love for him but also don't stint on venting their frustrations. David was an artist but not very commercially successful. His aversion to full time work has obviously long been a sore point. I think David, a sweet gentle soul, would have been pleased with his eulogies. He accepted his own imminent death with equanimity and grace. I sit in the very back and watch the mortuary personnel do their thing and usher us in and out as efficiently as possible. Staff members are somber and sympathetic in their dark suits. Wide brimmed straw hats which suggest luau, worn when outdoors, directing parking and processions are a concession to the California sun. Because of course it's always about me, I think of how I would be eulogized. My smart friends would figure out a bang up send off but given my druthers I'd like to hold off for a while and give them even better material. The mystery, absurdity and business of death.

After twenty five years it all boils down to the same fight and we are bored with it and have it far less frequently these days. Sometimes though Himself's pessimism so harshes my optimism that I just snap. It is always over something stupid. This time it is particularly stupid. I am Pollyanna and spin everything into a delicious confection. Himself, is intractably Catholic, assured of a lousy outcome and apt to downplay his own accomplishments. After twenty plus years of hard work we find ourselves in what I consider to be a really nice home. We are members of the Mount Washington Association and while I sometimes refer to our exact location as “Baja Mount Washington” I feel connected with this graceful old neighborhood with its first rate public school, noted architecture and the lovely historic Mount Washington Hotel and its stately grounds maintained by the gentle and non-cultish Self Realization Fellowship. Our home is toward the bottom of the same hill and I walk to the top of every morning. Himself refuses to accept that our home is in Mount Washington and instead doggedly refers to our residence as being in Glassell Park, famous for being birthplace of the Avenidas, one of L.A.'s oldest street gangs, now controlled by the Mexican Mafia. He says that Mount Washington is only the top of the hill. I show him a map that shows clearly that our home is within the borders of Mount Washington. “Nah,” he brushes it off, “it's just some real estate boondoggle.” I note that the map is not published by a realtor but by the L.A. Times but he still insists we live in Gangland and not Paradise.

Still, Himself reins me in from airy fairy calamity and I keep him from opening a vein. The sliver where our Venn diagram intersects is our curiosity about how and why we live and die. We are both adherents of critical thinking and paradoxically in constant awe at our own existence. There will be the same boring inevitable fight but the tiny place where our two circles meet is strong cement.

1 comment:

FionnchĂș said...

The boundary in this respondent's dogged mind may if pressured shift slightly, after this piece. It rests between the neighbors' fence and us as to where Cypress Park (Glassell is at the bottom of the north-by-northwest side of Mount Washington, the summit, school named after it, and SRF as its center all tower about 500 feet higher than where we or other relative or real flatlanders reside) ends and Mt. W. begins.

Mr. Wonderful, Michael Chabon, wrote a blah story about Glassell Park, populating it with M.O.T.'s, presumably based on a glance at a Thomas Bros. Guide and a nod to J.D. Salinger's fictional clan. I doubt he has ever visited there.

Still, neighborhoods have cachet, as surely you as a former resident of Van Nuys-turned-Sherman Oaks adjacent-Valley Village must confess. My favorite out in said Valley is the remake into North Hills where none rise, beating out West Hills where they start pondering arising beyond the stucco sprawl. Mission Vieja was correct; the developers thought it sounded naughty. I confess as every native a liking for hapless Los Feliz, and the way we say Sepulveda, still. Or SIL-ver-lake.

In the radius of Forest Lawn, as we enter tardily the massive ranks of those who will age and survive and wear out the patience of those younger long before (we hope?) our own "celebrations of life," I wonder how soon before FB and webcams replace wedding and funeral attendance? As tattoos turn blue and saggy and piercings grotesquely distended for millions, it'll be another form of "memento mori" to watch such gatherings. But, perhaps funereal black (always in style among a certain crowd no matter the decade or the weather) will inspire more luau-themed parties to counteract the gloom and the tomb? I am sure you will blog about the odd or poignant results, and I will be reading them here too. xxx me