Death and Facebook

I found out last night that an old friend of mine from college died of a brain aneurysm, right after her 40th birthday.  She’s someone I lost touch with for twenty years, and then just found on Facebook, so there’s this weird temporal distortion around the friendship.  We only exchanged a few messages, compressing two decades into a couple of hundred characters.

Actually, she reminded me of an episode I forgot about, when I recovered all of the files off of one of her dead floppy disks, which now has some strange symbolism to it.  I don’t even remember how to do disk recovery anymore, but I used to do it in my sleep, a thousand times a day, when I was a computer consultant for the university.

I think I first started emailing Allison in 1993, from this stupid online dating program that ran on the VAXes.  We exchanged too much email and never met, which is one of the problems with online dating — you can end up being forever in the friend zone, as email buddies, but that was fine with me.  I was in a horrible depression at the time, and we had no chemistry, but I remember we started hanging out in person, and she made this concerted effort to drag me out and introduce me to her friends and try to get me to act social.  I was just starting as a writer, reading Bukowski and Hemingway obsessively, never leaving the house except to go to the liquor store, staying up all night scribbling in notebooks and feeling sorry for myself.  I remember one time she read me the riot act, telling me to stop being such a shit, and although it pissed me off in the moment, she was right about it, and it was the kick in the ass I needed.

I didn’t keep a lot of email from college, because our accounts had tiny disk quotas, but I did keep all of my emails with her for some reason.  It’s about a semester’s worth of “do you believe in zombies?” small talk and daily routine, and I’m now afraid to open the file, for fear of falling in a very deep and unavoidable k-hole that will bottom out with me googling the names of every college crush and forgotten band and old Bloomington haunt, spending hours and hours trying to find artifacts from Garcia’s Pizza and wanting to scan in every old receipt I still have in boxes and make some kind of giant, depressing photo collage project or write another book set in 1993 that nobody will ever read.

These kind of things make me deeply fear my own mortality.  I’m taking a half-dozen allergy medicines and my back is out and I need to lose weight and I have high blood pressure, and the idea that something in your brain can just explode and kill you really freaks me out.  It’s like when I was in a serious car accident back in 2009 and smashed the entire front end of my car into a pulp, and then had to get back in the driver’s seat the next Monday and spend an hour doing battle on the 101: every other driver on the road wanted to kill me; every lane change was a near-homicide.  It’s easy for me to worry too much about this stuff, and I guess the moral of the story is that I could spend all of my time worrying about it, or I could try to get some shit done.

The facebook angle of the whole thing also fucks with me in several ways.  First, her profile is still posting some asinine daily horoscope thing to her wall every day.  This is absolutely morbid.  Someone from my high school died of cancer a bit ago, someone I wasn’t friends with and didn’t know, but when I heard about it, I looked up her page, and there were tons of daily automated posts from these online games, saying “so and so needs a row of corn for their farm!” or whatever.  And it’s strange to still see her life trapped in amber there, her picture and info and birthday and all of that.  It’s like if when people died, their entire houses were just left as they originally were, the doors open, all of the possessions on the table, food still in the fridge, like one of those museums where they leave Einstein or Macarthur’s office exactly as it was when they died.

There’s also the strangeness that I didn’t really find out about any of this until her wall exploded with posts about praying for her family or whatever, and the only way I could piece together what happened was to crawl through a hundred posts in reverse chronological order.  I guess in the old days, you’d read about this sort of event in these things they used to print called newspapers.

And it also bothers me that facebook has now created this friendship vortex, where you think you’re friends with someone because that bit is flipped in your profile, and you see that daily status update saying they’re in line at the Starbucks, but you don’t really know anything about them.  You don’t talk, and you don’t exchange emails, but you are lulled into this sense that you’re in touch.  Aside from facebook updates, I think there are about five people who consistently email me these days.  Ten years ago, I would write three dozen emails a day to people, long emails talking about everything and nothing.  What happened?

Anyway.  Three day weekend.  Plenty of time for me to lose that twenty pounds and start writing more emails.  Fuck.

The Death of Death

I was in the allergy clinic last week, waiting for my arm to swell up until it looked like it took a Justin Verlander fastball, and I saw some magazine with a cover story about man reaching immortality. I didn’t read the article, because I know there are exactly two types of articles in magazines: 1) “Everything is fucked and we’re all going to die”, and 2) “You really need to buy this shit, or you’re worthless”. (I guess there is a third type, which is 1+2.)

It’s not an unfamiliar concept, especially if you read a lot of SciFi: eventually, we’ll get to the point where all of the diseases and maladies that currently kill off people will be treatable or curable, and the only way to die will involve motor vehicles with a fast 0-60. That’s not to say all people will live forever; everyone who can afford it will be able to.  Also, maybe there will be some kind of Logan’s Run cutoff date or death lottery or other optional euthanasia scenario which will prevent infinite population growth.  But what I find interesting is that immortality is already available to the ultra-infamous, and we just saw an example of it this week.

So Osama Bin Laden found himself on the wrong side of a SEAL team last Sunday. They installed some additional ventilation to his brain, which had the side effect of stopping his pulse for an indefinite period.  Half the world took the opportunity to get drunk, scream “USA! USA!”, wave flags, and thank the wrong president for a job well done; the other half of the country posted quotes incorrectly attributed to the wrong civil rights leader.  I’m not here to condemn or condone either reaction, except to say that I had a different one, which is to acknowledge that Bin Laden did not die, because at this point in time, nobody of his stature can die.

Before anyone flies off the handle, I don’t mean that OBL was a great guy or anything like that.  What I mean, is that in today’s world, when you get to a level of infamy like he had, there will always be people who insist you are alive, regardless of your body temperature or lack thereof.  Governments are corrupt, and media is worse; we see constant examples of that.  Things get covered up, and conspiracies occur, so any time anything happens in the world, a plurality of people will insist that it didn’t.  People so carefully cherry-pick their news from partisan sources, any time they hear something they don’t want to believe, they move on to another news source until they find the one they agree with.

Case in point: how many people believe Bin Laden really got killed?  I’m not saying the number is down there with the percentage of people who think the Washington Nationals are an awesome baseball team, but it’s not 100%, either.  The government didn’t drop fifty tons of Mk.82 love from 40,000 feet and turn the entire village into jelly, so there was a body, and there was DNA testing done.  But there weren’t rotten.com-style photos released, and the body was quickly buried at sea.  That’s fine by me, but it means that there will forever be doubt in some peoples’ minds about whether or not this really happened.

And there’s a whole list of reasons why people don’t want to believe.  Some think there’s no way that the current president could have pulled off such a coup when the last one spent 7 years burning calories on a quest to do the same thing, but failed.  Some people think the whole thing is an October Surprise situation, a Wag the Dog scheme to bump up poll numbers.  There’s a group who think 9/11 was engineered by the government in the first place, and this dude had little to nothing to do with it, so a scripted end to him brings a false closure to that whole operation.  And who knows what other motives are there for a lack of trust.  But some folks on both sides of the spectrum will insist that OBL did not die on 5/1/11.

This sort of reaction isn’t limited to high-ranking terror suspects.  Did Tupac die?  You’re a google search away from his autopsy photo, but “tupac alive” also gives you four and a half million results.  What about Michael Jackson?  JFK?  Elvis?  People elevate superstars in their mind, making them larger than life.  When that life happens to end, the legend continues, and that dovetails nicely with a media that prints anything for money and a political system that does the same.

So now the White House wrings hands over whether or not to release some death photos.  But peoples’ minds are decided.  They could cart out that corpse during sweeps week on Dancing with the Stars and it would get a twenty share and people still wouldn’t believe it.  The Navy could personally bring his dead body to your doorstep like Ed McMahon with the Publisher’s Clearing House cardboard check, and you’d still say, “I dunno – looks fake / you could put that beard on any homeless dude”.  I know the dude’s probably dead, and to me, that’s not a bad thing, but the speculation will continue forever.

And I can see why they did a burial at sea.  I was in Berlin a few years ago, and I did not seek it out, but I walked past the spot where Hitler’s bunker once existed on my way to Potsdamer Platz.  They’ve since put up a sign, but at that point, the Fuhrerbunker was underneath a Chinese restaurant, and nobody was in a hurry to mention it to anybody, for fear that every skinhead with a passport would show up to turn the place into a Neo-Nazi Graceland.  People get weird about stuff like that.  When I lived in Seattle, people still cruised past Kurt Cobain’s old house, looking to get a glimpse of the garden house where he offed himself.  (It’s gone now, BTW.)  And I just recently wasted too much time on Google Maps, trying to find the spot in my neighborhood where Black Panther Huey Newton got gunned down in 1989.  (The exact spot on the sidewalk where he died now has a sign warning you of the speed bumps on the street.)  I could see the reluctance to having a burial which would become a monument to whatever followers might still be knocking around decades from now.

At any rate, this all shows we’re at a weird time in history.  It used to be you remembered where you were when you heard about things like this. Now, when something monumental goes down, chances are you’ll first get the news on the computer, which will make all of these events blend together.  And when it happens, people will flock to Google Maps to find the death site; they’ll reload their twitter feeds over and over to get the latest distorted quotes and unvetted news.  Back when I was a kid and a space shuttle exploded or a president got capped, even the pre-emption of all three TV channels brought little information.  Now, there’s too much, and we only believe pieces of it.  Not sure which one’s worse.