Thursday, April 30, 2009


Essay of the day:

The Obit Section
Everyone has a story that's fit to print.

The traditional obituary is an exercise in curtness. It is an art form nasty, brutish, and short, taking the scrambled up, complicated thing that is a human life and smashing it into a tidy, coherent narrative. Take, for example, the 1897 obituary of Margie Zellner in the Allentown, Pennsylvania Morning Call:

Margie, the adopted daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John Rupp. She died of typhoid fever. She was ill over a week. Daughter of James F. ZELLNER and Daniella ZELLNER and at the death of her Mother, which occurred when the deceased was a babe, she was adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Rupp. Burial at West End Cemetery, Allentown, Pa. On Friday, January 8, 1897. She was 12 years, 11 months and 24 days of age. She lived with the Rupps at 524 Walnut Street.

And that’s the story of Margie. She was born, she was adopted, she got typhoid, she lived on Walnut Street, she died, the end. No mention of what kind of games she liked to play, if she wore ribbons in her hair, if anyone was sad that she was gone. Her obituary serves as witness. It was written, and therefore she existed.

In a letter penned to the grieving Elizabeth Hubbart, his brother John’s stepdaughter, Benjamin Franklin wrote, “A man is not completely born until he is dead.” He was trying to make her feel better about the death of her stepfather by saying that, as a soul now freed from his body, he was just getting started. What Elizabeth thought of as a life completed, Franklin portrayed as a mere rehearsal for the “real life” that is immortality. God gives bodies to all of us wandering souls for a little while, to experience pleasure, learn some tricks. Eventually, these bodies become painful or sad or just too gross to maintain, and are shuffled off while we get back to the business of being eternal. For Franklin, then, life is never done.

I can see how this sentiment might be comforting to a believer, but for those of us living on the other side of faith, the question of what constitutes a completed life is still an open one. Aristotle thought of life as a sum of its total actions that couldn’t be judged until those actions came to an end. This might be reassuring to those hovering about the frustrated middle of their lives, harshly judging their progress. Not to worry, says Aristotle — it ain’t over till it’s over. And it isn’t really over until you’ve been judged by other people at a point when you can no longer prepare a defense, be reformed, pay restitution, be rehabilitated. Judgment completes life.

A classic obituary like Margie’s above is a great example of this Aristotelian view. In essence, you’re not really dead unless you’ve been the subject of an obituary. It doesn’t have to be fancy — a eulogy written by your mom, a notice in the paper, a headstone with dates that say “he was born, he lived, and then he died.” These will all do. Without an obituary, it’s almost as if you never existed.

The obituary seems to be experiencing a renaissance. In her 2006 book The Dead Beat, Marilyn Johnson reveals a worldwide ring of rabid obituary enthusiasts—members of the Church of Obituaries, she calls them. They flip past the Sports and Business sections eager to read the day’s death roll. They “surf the dead beat” poring over blogs and newspapers searching for fascinating facts about Antoinette K-Doe, who turned a nightclub into a public shrine to her husband, or the guy who invented sea monkeys. Obituaries aren’t dirty little secrets as much as they used to be, lurking in hidden corners and ready to terrify those who cross their path. They are public, normal, interesting, fun. There’s which involves everyday people in the writing process, and, a forum writing the demise of the movie star even as he lives. There’s even a glossy online magazine with the snappy name Obit.

But the real change is with the obituary writers. Once shamed to the backs of periodicals to deliver dour, Margie Zellner-style obituaries, many are now part of this new movement to “out” death by making it more accessible and “natural.” They are reconsidering the obituary not as the final judgment, but as a way death can be presented as a sum total of its stories. Everyone has stories, everyone dies, and in writing about death, death and life become more of a circle. The obituary is not the period on the sentence of existence, but a mere interpretation.

A career obituary writer herself, Marilyn Johnson removes the power of judgment completely from obituaries. “…Obits are,” she says, “at their best, a form of literature…"

Across the U.S., a hybrid obituary, a cross between short stories and obits, celebrates the life of local characters, the extraordinary in the ordinary person. The school lunch lady, who spent her evenings as a ballroom hostess. The man who could hypnotize lobsters and stand them on their heads….

Take this USA Today obit about Herbert Hamrol. Herbert Hamrol, by all definition, was just a guy who worked and lived a regular life. But his obituary, grabbing the tidbit that he was one of the last survivors of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, makes an otherwise simple life into one including drama, daring, and, most importantly, history:

Herbert Hamrol was 3 years old when his mother carried him to safety from their crumbling apartment building at 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906. "She carried me in her left arm and used her right hand to grab the stair rail," Hamrol told The Associated Press on the earthquake's 99th anniversary. "That's all I remember."

Even the Obituary section in The New York Times — once the paragon of the obituary-as-final-dirt-on-the-grave — is now one of the most widely read sections of any periodical anywhere due to its embrace of the obituary as story.

For an example of the transformation, take this obituary from September 29, 1891, tucked into the lower half of a column with the day’s death notices. It consists of a few lines about some guy named Herman Melville:

Herman Melville died yesterday at his residence, 104 East Twenty-sixth Street, this city, of heart failure, aged seventy-two. He was the author of Typee, Omoo, Mobie Dick, and other sea-faring tales, written in earlier years. He leaves a wife and two daughters, Mrs. M. B. Thomas and Miss Melville.

I would say that’s a pretty fair assessment of Melville’s life, wouldn’t you? Lived in Chelsea, wrote some seafaring tales (did they really misspell Moby Dick?), was married, had a couple of kids, and died in Chelsea. Hey, it’s more than most of us do, plenty enough for a complete life.

Now read this obituary in The New York Times written this past month by Margalit Fox (another change in the obit industry, the honor and agency of the authors) about “Richard Topus, a Pigeon Trainer in World War II.” This is an obituary Melville could only have dreamed of — a heroic tale of one man’s expert bird-handling and his later success as an executive dairy salesman:

To the thousands of American men and boys who raced homing pigeons, a popular sport in the early 20th century and afterward, the government’s message was clear: Uncle Sam Wants Your Birds. Richard Topus was one of those boys. He had no birds of his own to give, but he had another, unassailable asset: he was from Brooklyn, where pigeon racing had long held the status of a secular religion. His already vast experience with pigeons — long, ardent hours spent tending and racing them after school and on weekends — qualified him, when he was still a teenager, to train American spies and other military personnel in the swift, silent use of the birds in wartime.

It goes on to describe his childhood in Brooklyn, where he fell in love with the pigeons his neighbors kept on the roof, and a brief history of the role of pigeons in defeating the Nazis. It’s inspiring, really.

It’s also quite a departure from the Aristotelian view of obituary-as-completion. Rather, it presents life and death as a continuum. Today’s obituaries are more like the optimistic Ben Franklin notion of life as a neverending story. Like literature, an obituary has the power to completely reimagine a life in examining it, for as long as anyone is interested. Life in this view always has potential, as long as we‘re engaged with the past.

In fact, we have no idea what death really is. But obituaries aren’t interesting because of what they say about death. They’re interesting because of the funny and pathetic way they purport to deal with the unfathomable. Obituaries are little fairytales we tell ourselves, while imagining our own lives as one day complete enough to write about. An obituary, any obituary, transforms lives into stories, with interesting characters, a cohesive plot, and most importantly, a good ending. This is what we’ve got as humans — not the ability to understand or be at one with death, but the ability to generate lots of stupid crap to fill in the empty space of the unknown. Obituaries can do that as much as anything, and maybe we can think of them both in the Franklinian and Aristotelian sense: They might not complete life nor make it eternal, but they can make us feel better about living in the constant and terrifying presence of death.

At the end of his letter penned to the grieving Elizabeth Hubbart, Ben Franklin writes “Our friend and we are invited abroad on a party of pleasure — that is to last forever. His chair was first ready and he is gone before us — we could not all conveniently start together, and why should you and I be grieved at this, since we are soon to follow, and we know where to find him.” I like this way of thinking of death as an everlasting ship or maybe a party boat, taking passengers abroad. Many good stories have been inspired by ships. Maybe if we just keep writing them, we can cheat death a little after all. • 22 April 2009

Stefany Anne Golberg is an artist, writer, musician, and professional dilettante. She's a founding member of the art collective Flux Factory and lives in New York City. She can be reached at

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

More Merwin

April 30, 2009

Why Some People Do Not Read Poetry

By W.S. Merwin

Because they already know that it means
stopping and without stopping they know that
beyond stopping it will mean listening
listening without hearing and maybe
then hearing without hearing and what would
they hear then what good would it be to them
like some small animal crossing the road
suddenly there but not seeming to move
at night and they are late and may be on
the wrong road over the mountain with all
the others asleep and not hitting it
that time as though forgetting it again

Monday, April 27, 2009


Iowa Gay Marriage: American as Apple Pie
As gay and lesbian couples prepare to walk down the aisle for the first time in Iowa, Steven Thrasher looks back on a time when Iowa was one of the few states that would marry his black dad and white mom.

By Steven Thrasher

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Lies my president told me

hen I was a child my mother convinced me that lying is such an evil that to lie about something is far worse than the act one might want to hide. Sooner of later, the truth finds a way to throw off the cover and reveal itself. The longer the lie goes, the worse the result when the truth comes out.
My readings in philosophy and literature confirmed this wisdom. In the American South, from Faulkner to Tennessee Williams, the destructive force of lies is exposed with all the drama imaginable. Lies work their damning damage in Shakespeare from Lear to Hamlet. Perhaps no one expresses the damage of a lie better than Nicol Williamson who, as Merlin, in the film Excaliber, says:

"When a man lies, he murders a part of the world."

George W. Bush did exactly that. His lies about Iraq and about the Bush/Cheney policy of torture have been murderous. Frank Rich recounts the destructive path of these lies in today's New York Times:

Not to expose these lies and the criminal orders to torture prisoners would be to prolong the lies and to make the results of them even worse. As Senator Leahy of Vermont put it,

We cannot turn the page on torture until we have read it. It is a page written in infamy.


Saturday, April 25, 2009

Fab Facebook Fives

Facebook Fives and other comments:

Jack Miller: Five singers I've heard live...

Jack Miller I've heard a lot of great singers: 1st 2 of these at the Olympics in Atlanta.

Jack Miller 5 more. I'll never forget the private performance Elton John did for WebMD at the Fox.

Nemanja DundjerovicNemanja Dundjerovic at 12:33pm April 25
What - no Rosanne Cash? :)
Jack Miller
Jack Miller at 1:31pm April 25
Wow-- that's right. Forgot about that! You know, when you've done as much as I have...
Jack Miller
Jack Miller at 1:37pm April 25
And BTW, Dar and my bro went to see June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash showed up.

Jack Miller This is where I was last spring and will be again this summer...(San Miguel)

Cliff Bostock
Cliff Bostock at 1:20am April 25
Hung out there virtually fulltime for a year about 20 years ago. What's its appeal for you?
Benjamin L. Head
Benjamin L. Head at 9:13am April 25
It's beautiful, but I like Guanajuato better.
Jack Miller
Jack Miller at 9:59am April 25
We are going as guests of my friend and colleague at BFA. We hope to spend a couple of days in Guanajuato too.

Jack completed the quiz "What Literary Time Period Are You?" with the result Eighteenth Century.
You resemble Swift, Richardson, and Pope. You take seriously the line between public and private -- you practically invented it. Be it a clever satire where your true intent remains obscured (it turns out that you don't really believe the Irish should be eating their children), or the invention of the novel (why not be titillated and scandalized at home?), you are always holding something back for yourself -- we'll call it discipline. This discipline pays off: you claim credit for single-handedly inventing the novel, the nuclear family, and the nation-state. Good for you, Eighteenth Century! You are up and coming..
Jack Miller
Jack Miller at 12:05am April 25
The questions should have had "none of the above" as a choice in many cases. Still, I love the notion that I'm anything like Mr. Swift.
Jack Miller
Jack Miller at 12:07am April 25
Again, these questions are proof that Facebook is, in M. McLuhan's words, making "pastimes of past times."
The only way for the nation to regain its moral compass is to investigate how the government’s interrogation abuses happened, and, if necessary, to prosecute those responsible.

Jack Miller is listening to the pouring rain and thunder and wondering if/when the water will come on again (it's been off for 6 hours).

Jeffrey Jones
Jeffrey Jones at 1:19am April 24
I miss those storms! but not the tornadoes
Jack Miller
Jack Miller at 7:25am April 24
The water returned after 11 PM. Gorgeous day ahead with a high of 86!

Jack joined the group Save Sordid Lives!! · Comment ·

Jack Miller is listening to the violin of Joshua Bell who is as beautiful as his music...

Jack Miller Just a sample: 5 more: Puerto Vallarta, Copenhagen, Paris, Amsterdam, New Orleans:
the list really does go on.....