A 19th century artifact from the Gulf of Papua, on display at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, California. While some might think it’s creepy, I think it’s an amazing work of art. Also can be viewed here.
The Asmat are an ethnic group of New Guinea, residing in the Papua province of Indonesia. This skull of one of their ancestors is on display at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, California. While some might find it creepy, I think it’s a beautiful artifact of a culture we know so little about. Larger version can be seen here.
Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about mortality. Specifically, when you realize you weren’t immortal and how you reacted to it. This actually happened to me a couple of times when I was growing up, the first of which when I was still a child. When I was in elementary school, I’d always spend my Christmas vacation at my grandparents’ house. It was a tradition that involved weeks of decorating the house, wrapping presents, and cooking yummy desserts. But 1995 was different; my grandfather had been diagnosed with a brain tumor and was rapidly declining. I’ve already written about watching him die, so I’ll skip straight to the aftermath. That was the first time I’d ever been so close to death, and the realization that yes, it is a thing that happens. But I never cried over it; I never knew my grandfather as a person, but as an old man who gave out laughs and tickles whenever possible. When the adults awkwardly asked me if I had any questions about death, I shrugged and said no. He’d been sick for almost a year, and the writing was on the wall. With it came the understanding that death was an inevitability – it was just a matter of how and when – and that I’d have no choice to accept it. So I did.
Yeah, I was kind of creepy as a kid.
The second occurrence happened a few years later when I was in high school. I was walking onto the campus when I witnessed a car speed through the red light right next to me…and into a kid who happened to be in the crosswalk. I’ll spare you the details – pretty sure I’ve mentally blocked out the worst parts – but I’m sure you can imagine it. I pride myself on being a fighter now, but back on that chilly, bloody morning, I couldn’t do anything. I stood there, utterly transfixed by death’s proximity and brutality, and I watched a dozen or so people run to assist in what was already a hopeless cause. I knew it was already over, that other people were taking care of it, that I’d just get in the way. I slowly turned away, hands slightly trembling, and numbly walked to my first class. I don’t think I spoke that entire day, even when they announced the accident and death on the PA system.
It was then I realized that death wasn’t reserved for just the old and sick; anyone can die anywhere. What made more of an impression was the sheer randomness of it; there was no dramatic build-up, no final family farewell, nothing but a big hunk of metal zooming into an unsuspecting victim. And if could happen to some kid crossing the street, it could happen to me. If you look at the mortality rates provided by WHO and do a little math, that roughly translates to two people dying every second. Yeah, think about that. I’ve had that stat burned into my mind for years. It’s a sobering reminder that my – and everyone else’s – days are numbered. I don’t fear death, though; I’ve embraced my mortality head-on as I’ve grown older. I’ve come close to dying myself three or four times now, so I’d like to think we’re on good terms. I’m more afraid living a disappointed and unfulfilled life; there’s far too much to see and do, and I refuse to be just another statistic in a history book.
The acceptance of mortality is a double-edged sword, though. It’s a very liberating experience, but it can lead to a slippery slope of some rather grim philosophical pondering. Death is an inevitability; you cannot escape it forever. Most people try to ignore it by distracting themselves with whatever they can. The advent of social media has certainly ensured that people desperate to be remembered and acknowledged won’t (for better or worse) be forgotten so easily. For others, particularly anyone severely depressed, it underscores how vapid and pointless daily life can be; death is ever-present, so why bother sticking around? For me, I’ve come to realize that life’s inherent meaninglessness isn’t a bad thing; as Nietzsche once explained, you can give life your own meaning. Skipping out early is an option, but there are so many, many better ones to try first. Since death is coming regardless, might as well do – and be – something awesome to pass the time. It’s not easy to do – I still have moments when I feel the exact opposite, and I do not look forward to growing old – but it’s more fulfilling than the alternative. My problem is finding happiness and fulfillment, but that’s a whole other issue.
As for death, it’ll stop by and visit eventually. I intend to make the wait worthwhile.
This week’s challenge is all about stuff being enveloped, and I remembered a particularly spectacular February evening in San Francisco. This was taken at the very end of Divisadero Street, by the marina. Not only was the sunset amazing, but the clouds coming in seemed to swallow the city whole. Large version available here.
Hey, folks. Yesterday’s Daily Prompt was all about passing time. Specifically, passing time when you’re stuck in an airport for more than six hours, and you’ve got no electronics to fall back on. This exact scenario actually happened to me on the way back from Aruba in 2013. Due to how the connecting flights played out, I was stuck at LAX from midnight to about 8:30 AM. And I’ve posted pictures to prove it. As you can probably imagine, being alone in an airport all night isn’t fun. Actually, it’s kinda creepy. All the stores were locked up, and I was the only human being in that area for quite a while. I’m the type that loves solitude, but I was getting some serious Langoliers vibes after a couple of hours.
I’ve never been the type to depend so much on electronics for boredom. My iPod gets some time, but I tend to leave it off to spare the battery, or if I’m exploring someplace new. Though I work primarily from a laptop, I never take it with me while I travel. I didn’t even get a smart phone until about a month ago, and I’ve made maybe ten calls on it since. When I was in LAX, I still had a flip phone from 2003. I also had my 3DS, but I was saving its remaining power for the rest of the flight home. Instead, I did something far more engrossing: I read. I read for hours. I’m used to doing so on cramped, loud subways and buses, so reading in a silent airport gate was a godsend. A janitor crew came by at some point, but ignored me. I burned through American Gods and most of Norwegian Wood, then eventually fell asleep. You’d be surprised how comfortable those chairs can be. I woke up to the sound of someone opening the security gate at the Starbucks down the hall. Half an hour later, and my once-peaceful world was overrun with weary tourists and screaming kids.
It was good while it lasted.
It’s getting dark. It’ll be another half an hour before the sun sets below the Bay Area’s horizon, but it’s already vanished behind the hill of my neighborhood. A few remnants of daylight peek between the trees up the street, but it won’t last long. The streetlamp just beyond my driveway flickers to life, bathing a small circle of sidewalk in pale yellow. It’s not enough.
This will have to be quick.
I shuffle down the brick steps, swatting a cloud of gnats out of my way. The wooden railing on the stairs is chipped on one end, and there’s a fresh spiderweb on it. I wish our front walk could produce as many flowers as insects. The only things growing right now are small patch of wildflowers by the sidewalk. They’re tiny, but look beautiful close up. Most have shriveled in the last week or so; the heat hasn’t been kind. The weeds don’t seem to mind, though. Most of the pavement on this street is cracked or warped, and green leaves are sprouting everywhere. The breeze kicks in for a moment, and a plastic bag drifts down the sidewalk like a tumbleweed. I quickly grab and drop it into a nearby garbage can. Good thing pickup is tomorrow.
I turn left and stride up the hill at a steady pace. It’s an easy, familiar climb; if I’m home and have some free time on Sundays, I do 10-20 laps up and around it. This time is different, though; I’m doing this without the benefit of sunlight, and that makes a world of difference. I’ve written before about how dangerous my neighborhood is at night, and even now I’m mentally kicking myself for going out at this hour. No one else is out right now. All of the neighbors are home, but the shades are drawn and the porch lights are off. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that the buildings are all abandoned. When I was a child, I imagined houses as living creatures, with the windows and doors as eyes and mouths respectively. But now? Each of these Victorian-era behemoths stand dark and quiet, like massive tombs of a bygone civilization. Shadowy entryways, unkempt grounds, and unnatural stillness. Houses are reflections of our own mortality; some age with dignity and grandeur, and others rot and fade into obscurity.
A hundred years ago, this area used to be a high-end neighborhood. These sprawling, wonderfully lavish homes were a far cry from the relatively low-budget places built after the end of World War II. I’m not sure what happened in the last sixty years, but the decline has been evident. I’ve seen old reel footage from what this place used to look like in the 50s; it was still safe enough to have street parades without having to worry about drive-bys. What changed? Was it the influx of people who couldn’t afford to live in Oakland or San Francisco? Was it corruption? Poor planning? All of the above? Whatever it was, this place has been perpetually broke since the turn of the century. This side of town has borne the brunt of it; all the modern establishments are far off in the hills. The schools here have a 30% dropout rate, crime is common, and even Starbucks won’t dare come within three miles of this area. The old Main Street is just a couple of blocks away, but aside from the local tavern, most of its storefronts are abandoned. It’s not safe – both physically and financially – to have a business in an area like this.
I pass by a rusted pickup truck and look at a neighbor’s window. The shades are drawn, but the sound of baseball on TV barely filters through. A police siren fades off into the distance, and I quicken my pace. The night is still young, after all. The top of the hill is there in a few seconds, and I lean against a decorative rock wall. Three trees grew for decades on this corner, but now there are only two. About a month ago, one was toppled in a storm, cutting off the street from two directions and nearly flattening the stop sign. It took almost a week for all the wood to be chopped and cleared out, leaving only a gargantuan stump in its wake. As I stare and reminisce, a cacophony of barks and howls brings me back to the present. A neighbor across the street has three dobermans, all locked up behind high and thickly-veiled fences. No one can walk by that house without getting an earful of snarls and yaps.
Not wanting to be mistaken for a prowler, I make an about face and head for the alleyway that runs back down the hill. I spare a glance down the adjacent street and freeze. There’s a seedy drugstore and adult novelty shop on the far corner, illuminated by a single streetlight. I can see the silhouette of someone leaning against the building in the shadows. Could be waiting for an escort, could be getting high. Maybe both. No one just stands out there idly at this hour. Not long ago, a man was killed in broad daylight in the middle of the street here. Hoping that I wasn’t seen, I duck into the alley and start circling back to my neck of the woods. The areas back here are in even worse shape than the front. Faded green paint chips away from an abandoned house, and weeds have consumed a backyard and part of a chain link fence. A window was broken recently, but it was boarded up and left unfixed. There were wisterias blooming here months ago, but they’re long gone. As I pass by a thicket, I notice a trash bag, empty bottles, and a single, muddy shoe. Those weren’t there last week; a homeless person must have camped out. I take the time to inspect the back fences that connect our properties. The barricades and boarded sections are still undisturbed.
I practically jog the rest of the way down the hill and round the corner. Weathered sedans and jeeps roar by on the main drag, radios blaring and headlights already on. I pass by my block’s lone palm tree, a odd landmark that was originally planted sometime around 1900. If anything of this place will survive, it’ll be that. The few remaining blackberry bushes are still months away from producing anything, though. The wooden fence running alongside the pavement is starting to sag under its own weight; if the trees and shrubbery are removed, the entire thing will likely collapse. The paint has long faded into a murky, curdled white, peeling away one tiny strand at a time. It needs to be fixed. Everything needs to be fixed.
I make it back home and lock the door behind me, not looking back once. It’s time for dinner, and for some reason I really need some food and a Giants game right now. I just got back from my vacation this week; it’s time to settle in and return to the daily grind.
I can’t wait to leave this place again.