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Transitional Phases

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It’s been so long since I logged on to this blog, I thought I’d forgotten the password.  But I hadn’t, which is interesting, since I’m constantly losing the ones for my bank account and that kind of thing, and especially for school.  On the other hand, the blog doesn’t make me change the password every 48 days, so there’s that.

I have been called in the pick up the second half of one of the courses that were being taught by a fellow faculty member who has now gone on medical leave for the rest of the semester.  It’s the same course I taught last term, but with a different book (don’t mind) and a LOT more students.  The faculty member is someone I’ve known for a long time and always liked very much, and also one of the very few people I see around when I’m not in school.  That’s not because we do things together, but because we do the same things and run into each other.

She’s in very bad shape medically, and around my age (more or less), which makes her the third person in the same category I’ve had bad news from or about in the last week and a half.  Ellen Conford, a long time author of children’s books and a long time participant on RAM, died a couple of days ago, after a heart attack.  I heard for the first time that a woman I went to high school with died of breast cancer a couple of months ago.

This business of people I know dying is becoming a little edgy, I think.  I suppose the first time I got the news that somebody had died that I’d known “my whole life,” it was my brother, who was three years younger than I am, which meant I had known him his whole life.  Literally.  I can still remember him coming home from the hospital.

For some reason, that didn’t hit me in the same way the death of the first of my kindergarten class did.  My reaction was made stronger by the fact that this woman was one of the people I was very much aware of when we were in class together.  I didn’t know her well, but I knew of her.  She wasn’t one of the local “popular crowd,” but she was distinctive, and we road the same school bus where she got off a few stops ahead of me.

I don’t think of myself as old, although I probably look it, but there are more and more of these cases these days. This is especially true of catastrophic illnesses, something I got familiar with early.  Bill was only 46 when  he died.  His sister JoAnn was only in her early 50s when she died a few years later, and of the same thing, a type of cancer so rare, there are no known risk factors for it.

But there have been other people, more and more of them, and most of them would not fit into the category of “really old now and what can you expect?”

There seems to have been a kind of staircase effect, staring when all these people were in their mid Forties.

Most of us these days can expect to live at least until we’re 80.  In my family, we’ve done a fair bit of living into our 90s.

But starting around the time the people I knew were 45, there seems to have been a small but steady drumbeat of people dying–and not in accidents, either.  The most common cause has been one or another kind of cancer.  But there have been other things, including early heart attacks, which is what got my brother.

And there isn’t much of the lives of any of these people that would necessarily have predicted what happened.  My brother was notoriously cavalier about not taking care of himself, but Bill and my sister in law did nothing anybody could have used to predict what happened to them.  The women I know who have fallen to breast cancer didn’t have much in the way of risk factors, either.   As to the early heart attacks–in at least two cases, they hit the people you would least expect, the ones who ate right and got a lot of  exercise and never smoked anything.

The whole thing seems so completely random, at the moment, that I’m wondering if the precautions we all take do any good at all.  Maybe they’re like the prayers of atheists who send up pleas for help to something they believe isn’t there.

It’s a thought that runs afoul of “risk factors,” which are instances of correlation we all agree to accept as causation.  It probably feels better than to accept that we’re all at the mercy of chance.

I think, though, that it is getting harder and harder for most of us to believe it–and that’s why we’re all becoming more and more strident at imposing rules.

It’s like a lot of other faith-based initiatives, the ones that real life disproves no matter how much we try to ignore the disproof.  When the first level of control doesn’t change human nature, we pile on another and then another and then another.

First smoking was going to kill us all, and knowing that would make people quit.  When lots of people refused to quit, we raised prices and banned the practice in public and then declared (against all the evidence) that “secondhand” smoke would do as much damage.  When that didn’t stop everybody, we started talking about “thirdhand” smoke.

Under Stalin, the attempts to build the “New Soviet Man” first required “better” education, then “oversight” of the family, then… But you know how that one ends.  These days we have schools where whole swaths of ideas have been declared unthinkable, and it doesn’t occur to anybody that the reason people aren’t turning out the way we want them to is that–they can’t.

Human nature is inborn.  There are some things we cannot make human beings be, or stop them from being.

Apparently, one of those things is being free from early death.

It’s depressing.




Written by janeh

March 23rd, 2015 at 12:13 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Transitional Phases'

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  1. I’ve missed your posts.

    As for the awareness of mortality, well, I’m seeing it too. I like to think that I accept the randomness of life – and death – but that doesn’t make it much easier to get through. It starts with one or two elderly relatives plus maybe a relative or neighbour child who gets hit by one of those incurable childhood illnesses. Then as the decades pass, there’s more and more. The school acquaintance killed in some pointless accident; the co-workers who suddenly die, the friends who get cancers or other diseases that are really very rare in their age group, the siblings, the younger cousins…. I don’t think I’d find much consolation in the conviction that if only we do things right, Bad Things won’t happen. I’ve just known too many people who had devastating and sometimes fatal things happen to them for no apparent reason to buy that theory. I don’t understand why so many people seem to find it consoling. I suppose it’s a form of superstition.


    23 Mar 15 at 6:45 pm

  2. I, and most of our extended family, have been lucky insofar as we have been spared (mostly) the trauma of serious illness and untimely death of siblings and close relations. My father died relatively young at 66, although his war service probably contributed to that as much or more than his genetic inheritance. On my mother’s side, centurions and near centurions are the norm rather than exceptions.

    For myself, I have fulfilled my ambitions in successfully raising our two sons and seeing our eldest grandchildren thriving at least into their teens. We can only hope that the younger ones follow thei elder siblings in successfully negotiating their early childhood without major trauma. If they manage that, they will, relative to their generation world-wide, have won a major prize in the lottery of life.

    As for the world they will inherit, I despair. I will be glad to be shut of it.


    24 Mar 15 at 3:38 am

  3. Welcome back! I have moved so often and so far that I have no contact with any of the people from high school and university. I suspect that some of the people I worked with in Australia have died but I make a point of not reading death notices!

    And I agree with the last sentence of Mique’s post.


    24 Mar 15 at 5:42 pm

  4. Welcome back.
    Yes, I feel the cold chill myself. A letter this week told me an old friend a little younger than myself was no longer physically able to pursue a beloved hobby. My letter to him before that was to tell him another mutual friend was dead.

    But this is, almost by definition, the human condition. I’m told the Homeric Greek usually translated “the Gods” is literally “the undying ones.” It wasn’t the ability to build worlds, cause earthquakes or hurl thunderbolts which distinguished them from us, but the one thing every sane human knows–that someday, the world will go on without us. The species may continue, but you and I will not.

    So now we can shake the earth and hurl our own thunderbolts, and world-building is not inconceivable. And a certain number of people begin to think that they can prohibit death, invent and enforce their own moral codes and remake people in their own image. For that too, there is a word in Greek.

    A practical, hard-headed Spartan or Athenian would advise me not to stand too close to such people, and probably not to let them into my polis. I agree, but it’s tricky in practice.


    1 Apr 15 at 4:55 pm

  5. Not just tricky, Robert, but a tad late. See http://victorhanson.com/wordpress/?p=8320

    Apologies to sensitive liberals.


    1 Apr 15 at 7:27 pm

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