This winter shapes up to be a season of mortality. This year’s flu is particularly virulent, and other causes have separated several friends, relatives, and acquaintances from their dear ones.

A colleague died of brain cancer two weeks ago, and a mutual friend reported that Jackie remained calm as she faced the end. Although she was an atheist who believed that the lights went out permanently after she drew her last breath, she declared that she was unafraid of death.

My viewpoint shifts on the issue of mortality, but, for the most part, I’ve concluded that dying is a bad idea. I usually reach certainty on that point when thinking about my own demise. Wouldn’t the world be a sadder place without me? And wouldn’t my erasure from existence leave an unfillable void? And am I not a unique specimen and thus somewhat precious?

Those other folks who slipped on the Cosmic Banana Peel and slid over the edge into The Great Whatever must not have been as special. And while I regret their misfortune, I can’t help feeling that my continued efforts to remain breathing must have some blessing from the fates. I’m still here for a reason. I hope, for the time being, that my mission requires a lengthy amount of time to work itself to a conclusion.

I adopt other mental stances to push back the creeping dread. I cling to the guarantees of my faith. I recall the assurances I received from my grandfather and sister shortly after their funerals: they visited me in dreams to let me know that they were all right. My wife felt the presence of her father for a year after his death. These communications from the other side comfort me, but fear remains a stubborn companion. I am a coward, unlike Jackie, when I stare into the abyss.

I feel just like I did as a boy when I sat on top of a tall slide at the NCR swimming pool. My fingers and toes tingled in anticipation, but the height made me dizzy. The water looked way too far away, and I doubted it would cushion the end of my descent. And, as someone behind pushed my shoulders to encourage me to go, I recalled two things: I’d reached a point of no return (no way to climb through ten kids down the ladder); and I couldn’t swim two yards.

I pinched my nose and took the next inevitable step, and as I rushed downward I told myself that the water was only three feet deep. The bottom of the pool was slippery, but I hadn’t managed to drown just yet. I might make it after all.







All About After

I don’t care for the aftermath.  Taking action feels a lot more powerful, and living in the moment offers less time to consider one’s regrets.  After is an ugly guy who comes for a visit, sleeps on the couch, eats up all the food in the fridge, and won’t tell me when he’s leaving.  But After gives me an opportunity to arrange recent events in a framework that makes sense.  Then I can move on.  Then I can make peace with What Is.

My Daily After is the butt end of a day, and I’m the last two inches of a smoldering cigar.  While I’m in the middle of teaching a class I’m usually caught up in the process of communicating with students, evaluating their work, giving advice and planning ahead for the next exercise.  I sometimes teach Drawing I and II simultaneously and have little time for a breather.  When a class is over I answer follow up questions and tidy the studio before making my exit.  On the walk to the parking lot I download the emotions I’ve pushed aside in class.  (An instructor must create the illusion of self composure at all times.)  As I trudge to the car my adrenaline fades, and my books and equipment feel heavier the longer I carry them.  Then I discover how much effort I’ve expended.  My mood dips, and I relive each mistake just made in class.

My Rejection After varied during my dating years.  Sometimes a girlfriend dumped me long before I was ready to call it quits, and my feelings for her lingered painfully for a month or two.  Other break ups left nothing but a sense of relief and freedom.  Time and reflection sometimes gave the realization that I had been mercifully spared.  But in one case it took me three years to figure out that the object of my desire had treated me badly and always would.

The Grieving After:  My sister suffered a long decline as she died from ALS.  During a visit I presented an even tempered demeanor.  I reminded myself as I talked to my parents, brother and sister that my emotions were not the most important thing. Time spent with my family was not about me.  My true state of mind asserted itself on the plane ride home.  I took an upgrade to first class if the ticketing agent made an offer, and I ordered a complimentary whiskey before the plane took off.  I felt no shame as I gulped my drink even if the morning sun had just crossed the horizon.  As we flew south I stared out of the window at the passing clouds, and a heavy sensation filled my chest.  On the trip home from Orlando International my wife drove, and I sobbed.  I became functional after two or three days passed, but during the down time spoke little and kept to myself.  I found it difficult to adjust to the concrete realization, reinforced over and over during my visit, that dying is a process of losing everything.

My father in law died in 2008.  The kind and solicitous representatives from the funeral home drove us from the grave site to my mother in law’s house.  The man riding shotgun opened the door to let us out of the limo and quickly turned away without saying anything in farewell.  I realized that the funeral directors had finished their work, and any compassion shown at the viewing, service and interment had been part of a contract just ended.  We were on our own.  My mother in law drove us to her favorite local restaurant for lunch.  It had rained hard at the cemetery, but now the clouds scattered and weak sunlight brightened the wintry hills of eastern Pennsylvania.  The crowded dining room hummed with conversation, and the checkered table cloth and vase of artificial chrysanthemums made our table insistently cheerful.  Our group said little at first, but after the food arrived we chewed our salads, ate our bread, and told a few stories about the man we had buried an hour before.  We even laughed at a few jokes.

The Nicest Guy?


Trust him.  He means no harm.

I told a drawing class this morning that my goals as a professor are to teach as many concepts and techniques as possible, and to deliver the material in the most direct and easily digestible form available.  I want them to succeed.  I said that some students inexplicably believe that I’m trying to block their paths to success by making things difficult, by arbitrarily throwing up road blocks.  I countered that by saying that my life is much too complicated at the moment to take the time and energy to come up with diabolical schemes.  I’m 100 percent on their side.  Really.  I am.

But I’ve been told on a number of occasions that I’m considered to be a tough teacher who is very blunt.  I think that I’m just the nicest guy around, very kind and diplomatic, but when I say that to my adult children they snort and roll their eyes.  Their opinion is probably prejudiced by memories of a few times when I laid down the law when they were little.  At odd moments I channeled my father’s parenting techniques and gave them high decibel orders while staring down at them with a Wrath-of-Godlike glare.  They fail to recognize that I disciplined them purely out of loving concern, and never out of annoyance and impatience.  My brother has reported that one of my “special looks” is like a slap in the face, but he must be mistaken.  Sometimes folks confuse an expression of nearly violent concern as one of angry contempt.  Go figure.

When I went to Quaker Meeting several years ago I noticed that some of my more vivid stories and colorful language made my listeners cringe and withdraw.  I learned eventually through trial and error to avoid talking about traumatic childhood experiences, painful operations and current symptoms of undiagnosed diseases during coffee hour.  It’s uncouth and jarring, apparently, to introduce such topics immediately after congregants have left behind the ineffable peace of meditative worship.  Live and learn.

When I was a child my family sat around the dinner table and discussed Uncle Ralph’s bouts of alcoholism, Aunt Betty’s shotgun marriage as well as Grandpa Bob’s body odor and psoriasis.  Tales of death, misery, misdeeds and moments of tragic miscalculation accompanied dessert and coffee.  I grew up believing that folks discussed these matters frankly while in company, and that adding a few snide remarks as editorial commentary was also in good form.  Who knew that other people avoided such topics and hid awkward moments in family history in repression closets filled to overflowing?  I discovered these tactful people when I left home and Ohio, and it was as if I had crossed over into another dimension.

Now that I’ve seen the error of my ways I strive toward gentility, to an aristocratic sense of restraint and dignity.  Lord Grantham in Downtown Abbey is my role model.  Not his blood vomiting ruptured ulcer scene, of course, but the moments where he absorbs yet another blow to his standing and reputation with barely a murmur of protest.

I tell my painting students that painting is a process of making mistakes and learning how to fix them.  My life has been a lot like that, but I live in hope that one day my nature will become less erratic and explosive and more docile and tranquil.  I want to guide my ship through rough waters into a safe port.

But if that finally happens I may have to deal with one more problem:  my wife’s expectations.  She has become accustomed after 32 years of marriage to the vagaries in my mood and character, and any true sea change in my personality may cause her undue distress.  She may have to go through a period of withdrawal not unlike an addict kicking meth.

I remember one morning several years ago when we sat down together at breakfast and I took pains to conceal my residual anger from an argument we had the night before.  After ten minutes of polite conversation she put down her spoon and demanded, “What’s wrong?”

I said evenly, “I’m being a perfect gentleman.”

She answered, “I know you are.  That’s how I can tell that something’s wrong!”



The A-Mortal Life: The Endless Years

golfing reaper

I recently came across a startling passage in the book “Sapiens” by Yuval Harari, a historian with a PhD. from Oxford.  He predicts that by the year 2050 we will become a-mortal, that we will live indefinitely as long as we manage to avoid a catastrophic accident in an isolated location.  Our limbs and organs will be periodically replaced, and our minds rejuvenated;  Death will lose it’s capital D status and will no longer be the determining factor in our life choices.

I won’t live long enough for this to happen, but my children and grandchildren might.  Their ideas about purpose and meaning will be radically altered if this sea change actually occurs.  The main problem of being alive will shift.  Now we worry about making our lives meaningful in the short and uncertain time that we have been allotted by fate.  Then our descendants will have to choose what to do to fill up the abundant time given to them.

Contemplate an endless stretch of years to work, love, and play.  Would we have to make over our lives every fifty or seventy years out of sheer boredom?  When we have our major organs retreaded every half century will we trade in jobs, dismiss spouses, and search for new locations?  Imagine walking into a strip mall medical facility and ordering an all-in-one special:  “I’ll take the liver transplant and brain defogger along with an educated, leggy brunette and a move to Seattle.  Wait, wait.  I’ve been hetero for a little too long.  Give me a short, blond guy, kind of butchy.  I feel like being dominated for a while.”

What if we become intensely bored with accounting but have few other talents?  We can become reeducated and take up archaeology or linguistics, but what if we’re lousy at them and fail constantly?  Personal economics might force us to return to our “home field of endeavor”, and we would be doomed to learn tax law and fill out forms indefinitely.  We’d never be able to retire as our golden years would never arrive.  And even if we are gifted with many talents, won’t they be exhausted if we live long enough?  “I’ve been a painter, a writer, an actuary, gambler, judge, architect and a scientist.  Geez, what’s left?  I haven’t tried dog walking and male prostitution yet.  Hmmmm.  I more of a cat person, and I look hideous in spandex….Decisions, decisions.”

Traditional religions would most likely fall to the wayside.  Most trade on the question of whether there’s life after death, but that issue will lose a lot of potency if the fatal moment no longer looms.  Buddhism might be the exception, but I wonder if the attraction of living in the moment might fade when there’s a nearly endless supply of moments.  Funerals will be sporadic, exceptions to rule, and the mourners will be preoccupied more with judging the deceased’s folly than in wondering what will happen to his spirit now that it’s left the a-mortal coil.  “What was Bob thinking when he tried to milk his pet Black Mamba for venom while driving his sports car at 150 mph on the Blue Ridge Parkway in the middle of a sleet storm?  He was just asking for it.”

Philosophers and theologians have been fond of pointing out that death gives life its meaning.  It’s like the sidelines and goal lines in football.  The game makes no sense if there are no boundaries to focus energy and action.  Death forces us to make choices, to measure the current worth of our lives, and motivates us to improve our life’s value.  Our time here is a precious quantity, and we can’t waste it.  Death also offers us a respite from endless worry and suffering.  Freud’s Death Wish is really the hope that the shitstorm of living will finally end.

Some will argue that suffering will end once death no longer holds sway over mankind.  What is there to fear once the Grim Reaper is forced into semi-retirement?  Any injury or malady will only be a temporary discomfort.  Life will be a paradise….

But consider the possibility of having ten mother-in-laws roaming around trash talking you behind your back, or several fatal attraction-esque former mates stalking you and demanding your attention.  “I will not be ignored!  Ignored!  Ignored!”  Imagine the tangle of children and grandchildren, some of whom you like and enjoy, but others you wish to avoid for a very long time.  They’d find you eventually and demand money, gifts and favors.  There would be no escape.

I predict that a new death cult would arise.  It wouldn’t be one that dealt with the inevitability of death, but one that would tempt it.




We Are Immortal (whether we want to be or not)

My basic and surely flawed understanding of Buddhism is the following:  all of existence has its source in emptiness.  Emptiness is a field of potential energy and form, and the universe and everything in it (throughout time) is an interaction between being and nonbeing.  Things show up out of nothingness and then they disappear into nothingness as other things show up.

We humans are an energy signal that takes on the form of a body on this earthly plane from time to time.  Coming here involves suffering because of ego attachment to our bodies, our possessions, to our desires.  Once we truly see that we are just a flux in a field of energy and that there is no “Me” in any special sense, we are freed.  Our energy signal changes, or ceases to exist, and we are no longer required to return to this planet in the form of men and women.  Our individual pulse of being is subsumed into the great field of emptiness.

I have never found this comforting.  I am still attached to Me.  I’m not sure I’m ready to let my identity go, erase my existence, and return to nothingness.  I can’t get to the point where I tell the kids as we sit before a cozy fire on a wintry evening with cups of hot chocolate in hand that my sincere desire is to find a way to permanently annihilate Me, and that I fondly wish that my wife, son and daughter, their future spouses and my grandchildren will escape the wheel of karma once and for all and just let bygones be good and gone.

I was raised as a Roman Catholic and have trouble accepting Christianity’s story of faith, that if I believe in the right things and follow the right rules my eternal life has already been set up for me.  The priests sometimes seemed like insurance agents advising that I had nothing to worry about as long as I stuck closely to the terms of my heaven sent policy…So where do I go if I’ve evolved into a reluctant agnostic who finds Buddhism a little too chilly?

I just came across a few thoughts from Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor (161-180 AD), that I  found helpful:

Everything is only for a day, both that which remembers and that which is remembered.

Observe constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the universe loves nothing so much as to change things which are and to make new things like them.  For everything that exists is in a manner the seed of that which will be.  —The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

The first part reminds me of Buddhism, but the last line gives me a different perspective.  In a sense we are nothing but the extensions of everything that has come before, and our presence, influence and actions will collectively lead to everything that will be in the future.  I, as an individual, am the product of an act of procreation that occurred in May,  1958.  I’m also the result of tectonic plate movements, volcanic eruptions, meteor strikes, the evolutionary whims of primates, and the specific teaching of the Catholic Church that prevented my father from using a condom on a romantic evening in spring.  I’m not a special case, obviously, but I wouldn’t exist in my current form if the Big Bang hadn’t banged, the stars hadn’t formed when and where they formed, and if the gravitational constant of the universe was another number.

Our influence on the future, on the other hand, while not immediately significant in any measurable way, will still continue after our deaths.  We will collectively make the years that follow us better or worse whether we like it or not.  We are immortal in that whatever comes next will spring forth from the spent husks of our lives.

My kindness will lead to other kindnesses, and my short temper will lead to new offenses and hurt feelings.  My faults, virtues, weaknesses and strengths will continue to echo forward after I cease to exist whether I like it or not.  We are all connected in a web of influence and consequence that extends in all directions for all time.

This immortality business can seem like a burden, a huge responsibility.  I’m human and highly fallible.  I’m not always going to play nice.  My best hope for a decent legacy, for the future of my immortality in this realm, is to bat for a fairly high average.  The goal is to be decent, helpful and loving more often than I am selfish, vindictive and cold-hearted.

And the stakes are high even if there isn’t a Big Man In The Sky hiding behind the Crab Nebulae (or the outer rim of the multi-universe) busy keeping track of my sins and thinking up punishments with which to torture me for eternity. Even if there is no God out there to look after me and to care about my existence, I will still matter.  I, you and we will all matter now and forever in that we are the source “of that which will be.”

I have no idea what will happen to me after I die.  My sister and grandfather appeared to me in dreams shortly after their deaths and gave me messages of reassurance.  They told me that they are all right, much better than all right.  But they didn’t order me to follow one creed or explain what it’s like on the other side. (I doubt if that’s communicable.)  So I’m left to stumble along as best I can without really knowing if there is a point to being an honorable human being.  Kindness and decency may have nothing to do with my eventual destination, if there is one.  But I do hope that my legacy in this world is mostly positive as it’s going to last for a long, long time.




E-mails from Beyond

My sister Carla sends me very short e-mails from time to time. She says, “Hi Denny.” And then she wants me to click on links for cheap pharmaceuticals, penis enhancers, Rolex watches, and investment opportunities. I know better than to move my cursor anywhere near the links and spam the message.

But she persists. A few months later she wants to know “How’s it going?” and supposes that I’d be interested in time shares in Florida, buying gold, building my retirement savings…Her husband, Dan, warned us a year and a half ago that someone had raided her account after he thought that it was closed. Hackers had gotten hold of her address book and were using it to e-mail friends and relatives. Dan said that he was contacting her internet service again, and apologized for the confusion and trouble. I didn’t see any messages in my inbox from her for several months after that, but then her name started to pop up again.

Carla has also communicated with me in two dreams, and in neither one was she interested in selling me anything. In the first I saw her standing on a sidewalk on a hot summer day. She told me that she had always loved me and that she was fine. She looked sleek, tan and healthy and moved with quick assurance as she helped my parents unload the trunk of their car. Mom and Dad were donating old clothes and shoes, putting them into a metal donation box by the side of the road, finally clearing out some of the clutter from their house. Carla told me that she and I were responsible for looking after them as they headed into their final days… And recently I woke up with her second visitation still fresh in my mind. She was at the bottom of the steps in my parents’ basement standing next to a friend of hers that I had never met. Carla looked at me expectantly as I stared at her, and finally she said, “Aren’t you going to hug me?” I said that I was afraid to because the last time I saw her she couldn’t breathe very well. She said, “But I’m fine now,” and I stepped up and wrapped her tightly in my arms.

One night in the spring of 2013, before her e-mail account had been compromised, she instant messaged me on Facebook. We chatted about the birth of her first grandchild, a girl named Claire. I asked about her panic attacks, what started them, how severe they were. Mom had told me about them with a note of caution in her voice, and I was worried. Carla wrote that just about anything could set her off, and that happy drugs were her best friends. I said that I wanted to be there to visit her, but that my wife was still recovering from surgery and I couldn’t come any time soon. Carla told me that she wasn’t good company right then, that I should stay home and take care of Judy. We exchanged messages for twenty minutes, but her response time gradually grew slower, and her phrases started to disconnect from each other into less intelligible fragments. I wondered if she were falling asleep in her motorized wheelchair with her headset on. The last thing that I wrote to her was that I would talk to her soon. She didn’t answer.

Her husband Dan called me several weeks later at 10:30 a.m. and told me that Carla had died early that morning. She had gone into a panic attack and couldn’t catch her breath. A nurse was on hand and gave her an injection, but she suddenly stopped breathing and couldn’t be revived. The funeral was in three days.

Shortly after I helped her sons and my brother carry her coffin into Ascension Catholic Church for her funeral Mass, after I pushed it on chrome rails back into a hearse and rode out to Calvary Cemetery with friends and family, after I sat by her grave and endured the final burial rituals, I got her first e-mail from beyond: “Hi Denny. How are you doing?”

I wasn’t doing all that fucking well.

A Tale of Two Grannies (Part II)


I don’t know much about my Grandma Schmalstig’s early years. She was born into the Bettinger family in northwest Ohio. In early pictures she is seldom seen smiling because her teeth were in  disastrously bad shape. She eventually had most of them pulled and happily wore dentures. She met my Grandpa at a dance. John Schmalstig played trombone in a group that traveled from small farm town to small farm town. They performed dance music at Grange Halls on Saturday nights. I don’t know any details of their courtship, but they chose wisely and had a happy marriage.

My grandparents had nine children who all survived into adulthood. There were five boys and four girls. My mother reports that when she was dating my Dad she came over for visits and was struck by the informal, countrified feel of the house on Haynes Street. Meals were served in huge platters that weren’t passed politely around the table. Folks reached and grabbed to make sure that they got their fair share. An old hound dog left its hair all over the furniture. My grandfather had converted the half acre back yard into a vegetable garden and cherry orchard. My mother was used to the practice of a more genteel set of manners, but believed that she was treated with greater kindness and respect at the Schmalstigs than she was at home.

When I was little we visited with my grandparents once or twice a month. My grandma was shy and quiet and often held her hand over her mouth when she laughed as if she still had a mouthful of teeth that embarrassed her. I once asked her when I was about five or six if she would draw me a bunny. My Mom and Grandpa Reger could draw, and I assumed that most adults had the knack. Grandma S. blushed at my request, but picked up a pencil and a piece of paper and drew me a stick figure rabbit. I realized that I had put her on the spot, but was touched that she had made the effort. I thanked her for the drawing and she seemed relieved that I liked it.

Some friends of theirs came by unannounced on a Saturday night when my family was over for a visit. I had never met them before, and these strangers were loud and uncouth. A man went out to kitchen to help himself to some popcorn, and when he came back to the living room he ignored the trail of spilled popcorn he left on the rug when he carelessly tipped his bowl. They also spilled their beer and soda on the carpet and did nothing to wipe out the stains. They left before we did, and my grandparents’ living room looked like it had been hit by a tornado. I asked my grandmother why they hadn’t cleaned up their mess. She just laughed and said, “Oh, they’re like that.”

I spent an afternoon alone with her one day when my parents were busy running errands. She let me play outside in her yard for a long time, and then called me in for a snack. We sat at her big oak kitchen table and played cards while I worked my way through a plate of cookies and a glass of milk. We played War, and she smiled at me when I won a game. I noticed that she was happy to spend time with me, which wasn’t normally the case when I stayed at the Reger’s house.

When I was nine Grandma Schmalstig was diagnosed with cancer. It started in her kidneys and had metastasized throughout her body by the time she went to a doctor. Her daughters and daughters-in-law pitched in and took care of her as she lay dying in a hospital bed in her living room. When it was my mother’s turn to help out she left my brother, sister and me on the broad porch that ran the length of the front of the house. We played with the other cousins who were similarly marooned.

Most of us were too young to fully understand what was going on inside the house, but one day we found out  when  we were ushered into the living room. We stood in a row beside Grandma’s bed and waited for something to happen.  Grandma seemed to be lost in her thoughts and didn’t greet us right away. I was shocked by the change in her appearance. She had gone from pleasantly plump to emaciated, and there were deep lines and grooves on her face. I was frightened by her transformation.

She made a great effort and sat up and turned to us. She looked like she was in pain. But when she gazed at us her eyes blazed with intense emotion. She smiled fiercely, triumphantly at the sight of her grandchildren standing before her.  I suddenly realized that here was someone who passionately and unreservedly loved me and everyone else in the room whether we deserved it or not. It hit me like a thunderbolt.

She lay back down exhausted after a minute or so, and we were led back out onto the porch. I never saw her alive again, and to this day I still miss her.