a good death

Day of the Dead - Band by mnd.ctrl, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  mnd.ctrl 

I recently re-subscribed to The Sun magazine after several years of doing without it. I like the philosophy of The Sun. It invites its readers to submit short pieces on the assigned topic each month and it does not include any advertising.

Once I re-subscribed, I looked forward to the first issue arriving. When it did, initially I was disappointed. The topic of the that April 2014 issue  was death. After all, like most people, I’d rather not think about death. I spend most of my time and effort working to avoid death by eating healthy, watching all the signs that indicate my health may be slipping, although never getting quite as much exercise as I know I should. And since I am long past the years when I was convinced I was invincible, it is all too clear to me that death is out there and will come for me, probably sooner than I’d like. But as I read each article, I found the message optimistic and uplifting.

Both the interview and the first essay were pieces about and by Katy Butler, a journalist who brought together the lessons she learned after her 79-year-old father’s stroke and subsequent health challenges as well as her research into how modern medicine has changed the way we approach the end of life into her first book, Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death.

Her father’s case was not a good death. After the stroke, he developed a hernia, but the surgeon wouldn’t agree to correct it unless a pacemaker was installed to keep his heart pumping. Butler described the amount of information her mother received about the pacemaker as less than she received when she purchased a new Camry. With the pacemaker in place, her father had the hernia surgery but neither of the surgeries did anything to slow his decline into dementia. Her father did not enjoy his final years of life. Because he couldn’t do even the simplest tasks for himself, her mother was exhausted through the process, what Butler calls overtreatment and perverse economic incentives in the medical industry. Butler argues that medical decisions should be made based on the whole patient – and for Butler the whole patient includes the family that will survive the individual.

From my own experience, I have seen how too many doctors no longer seem to consider the even more limited single individual patient as a whole patient. The cardiologists see the patient’s heart. The oncologists see the patient’s cancer. The infectious disease specialists see the pneumonia or MRSA.  The orthopedists see the patient’s bones. The result: one doctor sees progress while another sees doom. The patient and family are left dizzy and confused, in need of advocates to explain what everything means.

Butler didn’t just discuss health and medical treatment in the interview. She discussed the full range of issues involved at end of life. From drawing up an advanced medical directive to ensure those closest know what your wishes are to preparing a living trust to help those who survive take the necessary steps after death. In my own family, we learned how much of a gift it was that our parents had pre-planned their funerals so that when my mother died unexpectedly, neither my father nor the rest of us had to make decisions, something most of us were not in the right frame of mind to do. My mother had already picked out the hymns she wanted sung at her funeral. She had picked out the casket and the liner she wanted. Instead of getting bogged down in these decisions, we could focus on what we needed to do – mourn her passing and celebrate what she gave to each of us.

Before that first issue of The Sun arrived, my husband and I had already met with a lawyer to draw up our living trust, new wills and advanced directives. It was something we knew we needed to do because we had moved from one coast to the other and we now have a grandchild to include. But I still found myself reluctant to think about the details. I knew it was the right thing to do, but I hadn’t yet reached the point that it felt right. After reading Butler’s interview and article, I felt much better.

Butler refers to death as a sacred occasion. “Death used to be a spiritual ordeal; now it’s a technological failing. We’ve taken a domestic and religious event, in which the most important factor was the dying person’s state of mind, and moved it into the hospital and mechanized it, putting patients, families, doctors, and nurses at the mercy of technology. Nonetheless we still want death to be a sacred occasion.”

A peaceful state of mind, the knowledge that I am taking all the steps I can before it is too late to make sure that no one around me has to guess what my wishes are or to have to wonder what I would like done with the things I will inevitably leave behind – that is a good death, the end of a good life.

the internets

The Internet will become ‘the Internets’ as access, systems, and principles are renegotiated.1

This thesis doesn’t fill me with hope. The whole concept of “the Internet” is already complicated enough so the idea of multiple Internets is more than daunting. And just look at the language others use to describe it. For example, in the Pew Research report cited above, David Brin, author and futurist, responded,

There will be many Internets. Mesh networks will self-form and we’ll deputize sub-selves to dwell in many places.

What does that mean? I turned to Wikipedia, of course, for help and read that

mesh network is a network topology in which each node (called a mesh node) relays data for the network. All nodes cooperate in the distribution of data in the network.”2

And I still don’t know what that means. So I read a little further.

A mesh network can be designed using a flooding technique or a routing technique. When using a routing technique, the message is propagated along a path, by hopping from node to node until the destination is reached. To ensure all its paths’ availability, a routing network must allow for continuous connections and reconfiguration around broken or blocked paths, using self-healing algorithms. A mesh network whose nodes are all connected to each other is a fully connected network. Mesh networks can be seen as one type of ad hoc network. Mobile ad hoc networks (MANET) and mesh networks are therefore closely related, but MANET also have to deal with the problems introduced by the mobility of the nodes.”3

And I still don’t know what that means. Well, I know a bit about what it means since I once was a software engineer which put me in a geek-and-nerd-rich environment (hey, I am at least part geek/nerd, so I can throw those terms around as attributes of others) where conversations about algorithms, nodes, and topologies were an every day occurrence.  But I wouldn’t ever try to explain that to my father, or my husband.

But let’s go to the end of Wikipedia’s definition of mesh networking.

The self-healing capability enables a routing based network to operate when one node breaks down or a connection goes bad. As a result, the network is typically quite reliable, as there is often more than one path between a source and a destination in the network. Although mostly used in wireless situations, this concept is also applicable to wired networks and software interaction.4

From the above, I conclude that Mr. Brin is looking forward to many different Internets that will always deliver all messages to the right persons at the right time, but no one will be able to predict just how that happens. But deputizing ourselves to live in many different places? What does that mean? Do we need multiple avatars to denote which sub-self we are at any time when connecting to the Internet(s)?

Another commentator on this topic, Sean Mead, senior director of strategy and analytics for Interbrand, predicted,

The Internet will generate several new related networks. Some will require verified identification to access, while others will promise increased privacy.5

Great. More networks, some promising privacy, some probably requiring two- or three-step verification. Privacy and Security. Two sides of the same coin. Or maybe they are both on the same side of the coin with Convenience being on the other side. You can have one side, but not both. It is already difficult enough to keep track of passwords, especially since some sites require using special characters while others consider those characters invalid and some sites require a password be at least 12 characters long and others won’t allow more than 8 characters. And never, ever, ever use the same password for more than one site. Right?

I already live in a world of multiple Internets. There is the public Internet I use to type these words. Then there is the closed enclave where I spend time when I am at work, an intranet. And since one government agency can’t let another government agency share the same network, there is an extranet which isn’t public, doesn’t include everything on our intranet, but does provide a collaboration space for selected persons from multiple federal agencies to work together without having to resort to sneakernet to transfer information. None of those offer me much privacy. The Heartbleed virus that required me to change all of my passwords proved the lack of security of the Internet. I’m considering no longer doing any banking on line. The price of a first-class postage stamp may just be a bargain. And then along came news last week of the latest Internet Explorer vulnerability.  As for the intranet and extranet – each time I access them, I first have to check the box to indicate I understand I have no right to privacy and that anything I do on those networks may be viewed by others.

The commentator I think really got it right is Ian Peter, pioneer Internet activist and Internet rights advocate, who wrote,

The Internet will fragment. Global connectivity will continue to exist, but through a series of separate channels controlled by a series of separate protocols. Our use of separate channels for separate applications will be necessitated by security problems, cyber policy of nations and corporations, and our continued attempts to find better ways to do things.6

Some of those better ways to do things will hopefully resolve the ever increasing problem of keeping track of passwords and security icons and reliance on availability of smart phones to receive text messages with numeric keys to permit accessing accounts. As I age, my memory doesn’t always retain those details in easily accessed corners of my brain. If any software application or network access sets up matching names with faces as a password security system, everyone over the age of 55 will likely be lost on the Internets.

my new do

Hair by Artur Chalyj, on Flickr Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License

Last week I knew it was getting close to time for a haircut and style. I had made an appointment with Oscar, my stylist, for six weeks from my last appointment, but I hadn’t written it on my calendar. I didn’t worry because I knew the salon would call to remind me.

My hair is getting thinner, just another consequence of getting older. Once I disguised the gray by having highlights added. But when I was assigned to Africa for two years, I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep that up, so I let my hair grow  and when the highlights were just at the ends, I had it cut short as it would be easier to maintain without access to reliable stylists in Africa.

So I don’t worry about the gray. But I do need a good cut.

On Friday the salon called. I didn’t hear my phone. I was in a class and my phone was in my purse where its ring was essentially silent. On Saturday, the day of my appointment, I noticed the voice mail message from the day before. The reminder. And now it was two hours after my appointment. I called to apologize and made an appointment on Tuesday afternoon.

All of that drama around this most recent appointment made my mind race, bringing to mind the previous stylists I met overseas.

First, there was Iran. There I found Alex, a Greek from Egypt, who managed the salon at the Hilton Hotel. One time when I needed a cut right now, I let my boyfriend cut my hair. When I finally made it back to the Hilton salon, Alex took one look at my hair and knew that I had put my hair in the hands of an amateur. He made me promise never to do that again. But then I left Iran.

Before leaving for my next destination, Romania, I went to my Mom’s stylist – I didn’t any longer have a regular stylist anywhere else in the world – and I explained that I would be away from the U.S. for a year so I needed a cut that could just grow out, without the need for regular trims.She did a great job. With only one trim – in Paris at Christmas – I got through the entire year with a style that just got a little longer each month.

In Germany, I had access to the military commissary with hairdressers and barbers. Fortunately the hairdressers weren’t limited to providing just military haircuts. I did learn an important lesson in the salon in Germany: never let someone touch your hair if there is an argument going on in the salon. It doesn’t matter if your stylist is involved initially. Eventually, they all get involved.

In Qatar, there seemed to be a three-appointment limit. After three appointments with any stylist, she left. Either the stylist lost her work permit or her husband lost his. The result was always the same – my stylist had to leave the country, just as I had figured out what she could do for my hair.

In Barbados, after a few false starts, I finally found Charles, the only stylist I have ever known who prefers no conversation while he works. I think the introvert in me appreciated the fact that I didn’t have to come up with small talk. I hadn’t yet learned how to behave like an extrovert who enjoys conversation. I don’t remember much more about Charles except the jingle of  the very large watch that slid up and down his wrist while he worked. And his stylishly long hair always seemed just at the point when he needed a trim. He also worked alone so there were no arguments in his salon.

I had previously relied on another stylist, but the day she came into her salon after discovering her refrigerator had stopped working, I saw her have an argument with the invisible store manager while she cut my hair. That was my last appointment with her.

Moldova was a challenge. I got most of my haircuts outside of the country – in England, France, and back in the U.S. My husband did find a barber who also agreed to cut my hair. She was enchanted by my husband’s orange jumpsuits and his willingness to let her give him a manicure that ended with clear polish. The contrast between the working man’s uniform and the polished nails gave my extroverted husband something to talk about.

By the time I got to Abu Dhabi, it was clear that I was more satisfied with male stylists. My first trip to a salon had been to a women-only salon. When my husband walked with me into the salon, hands flew into the air and voices raised as the receptionist came in front of her desk to shoo him out. So I asked around and learned about Georges, the Lebanese manager of the salon at the Beach Hotel.  Georges spent at least an hour with each new customer, asking questions to get a sense of personality as well as work requirements. And then he took over and transformed his clients. One of my friends had been wearing the same style – permed, highlighted, and long enough to tuck up in a chignon – for years. Frankly, she looked older than she was. But when Georges was finished, her hair was red, asymmetrically cut longer on one side than the other, and she looked spectacular. Georges didn’t make quite so much of a transformation in my style, but he knew my work required a more staid and less flamboyant style.

Yemen also had hotels, so I continued to rely on them for my sartorial requirements. I still needed the highlights since I had been keeping my hair longer, like most women in the middle east. I managed to get to England twice where I could take advantage of western stylists and products.

Africa, as I had expected, was a challenge. As I had decided to keep my hair very short, I wasn’t quite so particular about the cut. So long as I could take a shower in the morning and dry my hair with a towel or let the air dry it on my way to work, that was enough.

Now I keep my hair short. I have to wipe up the hairs that would otherwise clog the drain in my shower each day.  My hairline has receded a bit from my young adult days. But I have a lot more hair than most of my brothers. Life is good.