Friday, January 2, 2015

A Bummer of a Life Update

First - I would like to extend to you the most sincere and heartfelt New Year greeting and the hopes from our family to yours that you have a happy and fruitful 2015.  

Another year has come, and with it an open and flexible set of possibilities...

Now to the Bummer Part...

A lot of you may be wondering why email has not been returned and updates have not been made since just prior to Christmas.  The reason for that is that life - but more specifically death - has gotten in the way.

For almost all of 2014 it was a mixed bag...  On the plus (good) side, there was a lot of cause for good feelings and celebration.  Babies were born, people important to us got married, other people who are important to us graduated and started new desired careers.

Things got written.  Things got done.  In fact save for some minor issues and maybe a few real bummers almost all of 2014 worked out to be a pretty good year.  In fact it seems like the ratio was easy to follow - around 46 of the first 50 weeks were pretty darn good!

La Mort de Socrate 1787 by Jacques-Louis David

But then week 51 arrived and, as the year slowly ground to a close, people started dying.

I don't get that.  I don't get it, I don't understand it, and I damn sure am not going to try, because if I did end up understanding it that would place too much logic on a set of events that are soaked in nothing but sad emotions and I simply cannot handle that.

Death has always been something of a mystery to me anyway.  Especially when people just die without any warning.  

Nothing to prepare you.  The phone rings, you answer it, and you learn someone you care about had died.  The reasons don't really matter when you get that call four times in the space of just three days.

The fact that none of those people were ill - none of them were in the process of dying (if we can say that?) and none seemed ready to leave.  And yet they did.  

Three in the middle of the night in their sleep, the fourth sat down at the breakfast table, tucked in their napkin, picked up the salt shaker, and then poof!  They closed their eyes, their hand dropped to the table, and they were gone.

How anyone can make sense out of that is beyond me.

In two cases the general consensus is they just got done living.  In the case of the other two opinion varies but it seems like a safe bet that something important wore out.

A Little Perspective
I'd like to help you understand what it is I am saying and to do that I need to give you a little bit of perspective here.  

In the abstract you are reading that four people who were important to me died, and with just that little bit of information to go on - depending on how much empathy you are equipped to feel - that will either be about as meaningful to you as a weather report, or it could make you sad for me.

Each of the four people were important to me - two were relatives, two were friends.  That is not the sort of distinction I tend to make as my feelings for each are equal mixtures of love and respect and that makes their absence a significant loss to me.

The relatives were both from the generation of my parents which is, arguably, on its way out and off the books anyway.  

The friends also happen to be from my parent's generation - one was a close family friend on my side, the other on my wife's.

So let's start with the latter. 

Friends We Choose
He was a man I barely knew and knew well.  That is to say I knew him well, but only the side of himself that he showed the world.  

My father-in-law knew him in a much deeper more personal way as they were best mates.  His loss to me is sad but to my father-in-law it is genuinely painful due to the regular nature of their daily visits and interaction with each other.  As both are fully retired that makes a certain sense.
I knew him well enough to invite him into my home without reservation; the sort of invitation that is open-ended, requires no advance notice, and will accommodate any inconvenience not simply out of respect and familiarity but because he deserved both.

Perhaps the fact that he was born elsewhere and chose to live in New England has something to do with it.  My father-in-law and myself, that friend, and a dozen others are all of a kind: we chose to live here and make our lives here and though these choices were all of different circumstances and reason, they amount to a common and shared experience.

In my case, I met a girl on a train station platform in Denver and that was that.  In his case, it is a far more complicated matter, but he - like my father-in-law - was a product of World War II and the hell and chaos out of which many Europeans emerged in the 1950s looking for a better life.

To say I respected him and his opinions, his always entertaining stories, and his very sharp mind is to practice in gross understatement.  

I will truly miss him, and the idea that he will never sit in my back yard and hoist a brew with us again comes very close to breaking my heart.

Death of Adonis 1764 by Anton Losenko

The Spy Who Awed Me
The second friend was a contemporary of my father -- and indeed it was through him that I first met her -- and came to know her.  And came to be a fan.

She was a brilliant mind cast loose in a world that did not choose to value that capacity in the weaker sex for much of her adult life.  

To the outside world her public face was that of civil servant for some department that dealt with the economics of tax on imported goods and the negotiation of international agreements for the same with foreign governments.

Her business cards suggested that she was some sort of a supervising economist - like my father - a solver of problems if you will.  I don't know what she actually did, only what her official role was declared to be (and as to that the situation is the same with my father - I have no idea what it was that he actually did for the government but I do know that it was far more than simply being an economist)...

I strongly suspect that she was an intelligence analyst.  I know from conversations with her that she was inordinately aware of WHY governments made decisions and how those decisions often resulted in unintended consequences they come to regret.

Not too many weeks ago I rang her to ask for an opinion on the downing of MAS17 - the Boeing jetliner that belonged to Malaysian Airlines that had been shot down in the Ukraine last July - in hopes that she would either have a fresh opinion to offer or, perhaps even better, would send me down a new and more exciting (or at the very least interesting) path...

I was working on an assignment for a travel site, the subject of which was modern air travel safety.

I needed to summarize the statistics for the year, so naturally MAS17 was one of the incidents I was reviewing.

There were also crashes by Nepal Airlines,TransAsia Air, and Air Algeric's Mali crash in July. A shooting incident involving Pakistan International Airlines Flight PK756 in June left one passenger dead others wounded and a number of bullet holes in the fuselage, and then there was Flight MH370 to be considered.  

The idea in my mind being that it was not just crashes (the explained and unexplained varieties) one had to consider, but other events as well.

I knew she would be able to answer my questions -- in the past she had been a valuable expert opinion and source for information, often sending me in new and previously never considered directions.  

I valued her opinion highly and this time was to be no exception as she explained to me how it was that an ignorant Ukrainian farmer of Russian extraction who was a member of a pro-Russian militia group found himself in possession of  a Buk surface-to-air missile system that he used, on 17 July 2014, to murder 298 innocent civilians.

I had asked her about it not actually expecting her to know details mind you - but rather I was seeking just a general idea of what had happened because none of the news reports made very much sense to me.  I knew just enough to know that I was not getting an accurate picture.

Whatever was used to shoot down MAS17 was not a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile like the media was suggesting.  Those just do not have that sort of range.

I had good cause to suspect that whatever was used had to be a beefier version of the standard SAM - and I could not imagine how a rebel could have gained access - let alone the expertise - to use that sort of kit to engage a jet airliner and not know that they were shooting down a civilian airliner.

I had pretty much concluded that Russia was lying through its teeth - that it would probably work out to be a regular Army unit that fired the fatal shot - but it turned out I was totally off-base in both respects, and as I sat in stunned silence she schooled me on the matter.

She explained to me that the launcher used to shoot down MAS17 was actually a Russian-built Almaz-Antey Buk-M1 ground-based air defense system (GBADS) that, while it was brand new and state-of-the-art in weapons tech terms when it rolled off of the assembly line in some Russian factory in February of 1973, the radar with which it was equipped was ":dumb radar incapable of ID'ing a target," she declared.

That informal briefing she gave me was just the sort of thing that she was paid to do as part of her career prior to retirement - though the level of detail she gave me suggested that she still kept one oar in the water even if she was retired.  

I should add that she never actually confirmed or denied that this was the sort of thing she did professionally - that was how she rolled.  How do you replace someone like that?  How obscene that death can just step in and take a person so unique and interesting.  Death sucks.  I miss her.

It's a Relative Thing

Dwelling on death is never a good idea, mostly because no matter what you think about it, you cannot change it.  Being afraid of death also does no good - fear can be a healthy thing, and it can even help in dealing with things that you can change - but you can't change death.

What makes me angry is the loss.  And I don't mean the loss of the physical literal presence of the person (though that is lamentable and part of it), but rather the loss of the essence and the history, of the experiences and the knowledge.

The closest that I can come to explaining this in simple terms is burning a book when that book happens to be the only copy of a unique story.  Once it is burned it is lost forever.  That is what death is to me.

The really odd thing is this: the news of their deaths hit harder than I could have expected it to, largely I suspect because it came one after the other - bang-bang-bang-bang over three days, and that just never happens.

It got to a point where I stopped answering the phone at all - declaring that if it was important they would text me.

Did I mention that Death Sucks?

I have been dealing with things - which is why I have been electronically absent the past week - but will be resuming life and my schedule tomorrow.  Please look for replies to begin then.

Oh, and I am totally not being sarcastic here at all, but do me a favor mates - let's make 2015 the year nobody we know dies?

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