Posts Tagged ‘death’
September 23, 2014 | by Alex Ronan
In nearly twenty years and twelve hundred obituaries, Margalit Fox, a senior writer at the New York Times, has chronicled the lives of such personages as the president of Estonia, an underwater cartographer, and the inventor of Stove Top Stuffing. An instrumental figure in pushing the obituary past Victorian-era formal constraints, Fox produces features-style write-ups of her subjects whether they’re ubiquitous public figures, comparatively unknown men and women whose inventions have changed the world, or suicidal poets. (More on those below.)
I caught up with Fox in the Upper West Side café where she’s written two books, Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind and The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, the latter of which was published in paperback earlier this year. She was remarkably jovial and eager to clarify what it’s like to write about the dead every day. We spoke about the history of the obituary, her love of English eccentrics, and how it feels to call a living person in preparation for his or her eventual death.
Does the work you do change the way you think about death?
This work does skew your worldview a bit. We all watch old movies with an eye toward who’s getting on in age. I watch the Oscars memorial presentation and sit there going, Did him, did her, didn’t do that one. For obit writers, the whole world is necessarily divided into the dead and the pre-dead. That’s all there is.
How did you end up in the obituaries department?
I’d never planned for a career in obits. The child has not yet been born that comes home from school clutching a composition that says, When I grow up, I want to be an obituary writer. I started as an editor at the Times Book Review. It was wonderful to be around books and people that love books, but the job itself was copyediting. I was afraid that all they’d be able to put on my tombstone was “She Changed Fifty-Thousand Commas into Semicolons.” I started contributing freelance to the obituary section and ended up getting pulled in as a full-time writer.
How is your section different from other news sections at the paper?
Ninety-five percent of our job is writing daily obits on deadline. It’s impossible to have an advance written for all the pre-dead who we hope to cover, so we usually have to phone someone up to ask about a person or a subject we don’t know much about. Recently, one of my colleagues was heard running around the office going, Does anyone know anything about exotic chickens?! It’s that sort of thing. Read More »
August 12, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
I have been trying for some time now to write this post, but it’s been very hard for me. Not emotionally, I mean—physically. My hands go funny, my vision blurs, my legs get weak, and I start to feel sick. In short, I get woozy. Allow me to explain.
Not that I really can explain; if I do, I’ll pass out. Just this morning, I started to read a review of a film that mentioned the protagonist’s “suicide attempt” and “bandaged wrists” and I felt shaky and had to immediately close the paper and, what is more, put it down the garbage chute so it couldn’t torment me. At least with books, you have some control over these things; to date I have fainted in The Virgin Suicides, Swing Kids, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Sunset Boulevard. With The Three Faces of Eve, Harold and Maude, and Little Miss Sunshine, I managed to get out in time. I also got woozy once in a college history class; we were discussing the death of Seneca.
It sounds funny, until you see it in action. It is never fun to see reason give way to blind panic, nor to have a friend pass out at your feet. Sometimes, before they understand, people will tease me, exploit my weakness—as a result, I usually try not to mention it. (Also, if I talk or think about it, I will get faint.) Like someone with an allergy, I am ever vigilant, but the vigilance has become second nature. I tend to avoid anything that I know for a fact contains a suicide, just in case they do it that way. If I sense one might be coming, I will page ahead or ask a sympathetic friend for a warning. Sometimes, I have to reread or re-watch something because I realize after the fact that my tension and apprehension ruined the experience for me.
I can’t tell you when this started, or why it’s so very specific. There’s the time I spent in the ER waiting room seated across from a girl with bandaged arms, my eyes desperately glued to the television screen on the wall; she must have been okay, but to this day I can’t watch Charles in Charge (not that I’m so wild to). If you want to get mystical about it, there are the generations of family suicide to contend with. I can’t talk to a shrink or a hypnotist about it; I’d faint. Writing this alone has taken me four tries, and a large, sugary iced tea; I’m doing it as a sort of aversion therapy.
Do other people have these sorts of neuroses and aversions? Do they impact your quality of life—and, especially, your ability to enjoy books and movies? I’d love to know how to better cope. For now, I’m going to have to lie down—I’m feeling distinctly faint.
June 5, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Happy birthday to Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett, who wrote dialogue so witty, lively, and fluent it makes Aaron Sorkin look like—uh—well, you get the idea—I’m sure one of them would be savvy enough to fill in the blank. “She was very, very clever,” Rebecca West said of Compton-Burnett in her 1981 Art of Fiction interview. “You’d have to be very tasteless not to see she had something unique to give her age.”
Here, in the way of proof positive, is the beginning of The Present and the Past, her 1953 novel, which starts with a lot of winsome talk about poultry, death, and cake.
“Oh, dear, oh, dear!” said Henry Clare.
His sister glanced in his direction.
“They are pecking the sick one. They are angry because it is ill.”
“Perhaps it is because they are anxious,” said Megan, looking at the hens in the hope of discerning this feeling.
“It will soon be dead,” said Henry, sitting on a log with his hands on his knees. “It must be having death-pangs now.”
Another member of the family was giving his attention to the fowls. He was earnestly thrusting cake through the wire for their entertainment. When he dropped a piece he picked it up and put it into his own mouth, as though it had been rendered unfit for poultry’s consumption. His elders appeared to view his attitude either in indifference or sympathy.
“What are death-pangs like?” said Henry, in another tone.
“I don’t know,” said his sister, keeping her eyes from the sufferer of them. “And I don’t think the hen is having them. It seems not to know anything.”
Henry was a tall, solid boy of eight, with rough, dark hair, pale, wide eyes, formless, infantine features, and something vulnerable about him that seemed inconsistent with himself. His sister, a year younger and smaller for her age, had narrower, deeper eyes, a regular, oval face, sudden, nervous movements, and something resistant in her that was again at variance with what was beneath.
Tobias at three had small, dark, busy eyes, a fluffy, colourless head, a face that changed with the weeks and evinced an uncertain charm, and a withdrawn expression consistent with his absorption in his own interests. He was still pushing crumbs through the wire when his shoulder was grasped by a hand above him.
“Wasting your cake on the hens! You know you were to eat it yourself.”
Toby continued his task as though unaware of interruption.
“Couldn’t one of you others have stopped him?”
The latter also seemed unaware of any break.
“Don’t do that,” said the nursemaid, seizing Toby’s arm so that he dropped the cake. “Didn’t you hear me speak?”
Toby still seemed not to do so. He retrieved the cake, took a bite himself and resumed his work.
“Don’t eat it now,” said Eliza. “Give it all to the hens.”
Toby followed the injunction, and she waited until the cake was gone.
“Now if I give you another piece, will you eat it?”
“Can we have another piece too?” said the other children, appearing to notice her for the first time.
She distributed the cake, and Toby turned to the wire, but when she pulled him away, stood eating contentedly.
“Soon be better now,” he said, with reference to the hen and his dealings with it.
“It didn’t get any cake,” said Henry. “The others had it all. They took it and then pecked the sick one. Oh, dear, oh, dear!”
May 14, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
Sophie Calle’s “Rachel/Monique” is currently on view at the Church of the Heavenly Rest on upper Fifth Avenue, a ZIP code the artist says the eponymous subject—her mother—would have appreciated, “because she always loved the Upper East Side.” The show, which wrests with the life and death of the woman most often known as Monique Sindler, is full of things she would have liked. Indeed, she liked being the subject of one of her daughter’s works. As Calle writes,
My mother liked to be the object of discussion. Her life did not appear in my work, and that annoyed her. When I set up my camera at the foot of the bed in which she lay dying—I wanted to be present to hear her last words, and was afraid that she would pass away in my absence—she exclaimed: “Finally!”
The space itself is austerely beautiful, and the show’s installation complements the neo-Gothic confines of the chapel—they’ll continue to hold services for the duration of its run. Madame Sindler’s last words were “Don’t worry,” and that last one—souci—is a motif throughout, wrought in a lace hanging, written out in multicolored butterflies on a stone wall, represented by a bouquet—since the word also means “marigold” in French. The prettiness is disarming, but not necessarily misleading. There is no distinction made between prettiness and toughness, prettiness and the macabre, prettiness and death, even. Read More »
May 6, 2014 | by Bess Lovejoy
I was in New York for a book talk, staying at a friend’s house in an industrial area of Brooklyn, when I awoke to a sound somewhere between a teakettle’s whistle and the creak of an ancient floorboard: my friend’s cat, Maude, meowing piteously at the edge of the bed. She was tiny, the color of ivory, with half crescent moons for claws and bright green, bloodshot eyes.
I’d been warned that Maude meowed in the mornings when she wanted the faucet turned on—she drank from the tub—so I walked to the bathroom and twisted the spout until cold water trickled down. Maude leapt into the tub and began lapping away, her tongue bright as chewing gum. I went about my slow morning routine: coffee, Twitter, fussing with hair, scrutiny of encroaching crow’s-feet, etc.
It was noon by the time I was ready to leave, and I returned to the bedroom for my laptop. There, in the middle of the white room, on the white bedspread, was the white cat, covered in blood. It seeped out from her in clouds, watery and pale red like a nightmare sky. But when I bent over and touched her she was still breathing, alert, looking at me with those science-fiction eyes. Read More »
April 29, 2014 | by Daniel Bosch
The second in a three-part series on writers’ epitaphs. Read yesterday’s installment here.
There is very little that’s puzzling about Philip Larkin’s two-penny upright “This Be the Verse” (1971):
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can.
And don’t have any kids yourself.
“This Be the Verse” is arguably the best-loved English poem of the last half of the twentieth century. Funny, frank, transgressive—human—the poem has stood up admirably in pub, alley, and classroom. (Of how many humans with fancy titles can this be said?) But what about that awkward title? How did a writer as good as Larkin fuck up his forms of to be?
The title’s oddness is no empty gesture. The words “This Be the Verse” point us toward one of the sweetest, un-Larkin-esque poems in the language, Robert Louis Stevenson’s self-composed epitaph. When it’s published in an anthology, it usually appears as two stanzas called “Requiem,” but on Stevenson’s tomb, the epitaph is presented as a single block under his name and dates, without punctuation or title: Read More »