SShel Silverstein wrote a bunch of country music lyrics in the 1980s. Then he got a bunch of country music legends like Waylon Jennings to sing it. They called themselves “The Old Dogs.”
Part parody, part loving homage to the form, it’s actually quite listenable even today.
Their one big hit had the singsongy quality that makes all decent country music memorable:
You can quit smokin’ but you’re still gonna die
Cut out cokin’ but your still gonna die
Eliminate everything fatty or fried
And you’ll get real healthy, but you’re still gonna die
The song continues in the same vein, with a kind of black humor that you wouldn’t really expect from the author of “Where the Sidewalk Ends.”
I find it hilarious. But then, I would.
From my earliest memories my Mom would stop on the side of the road if we found an old cemetery and we’d go pick around at old tombstones to read inscriptions. I don’t exactly know why she was into that. Just a quirk I guess.
It stuck with me, though. Maybe it was the fundamentalist belief in the heavenly afterlife that made death more of a curiosity than a terror. Of course, good old fundamentalist hypocrisy made me a complete coward on the few occasions I’ve been close to crossing over Jordan to that far shore.
I’ve been accused of being morbid. I don’t care. I see it as inevitable and fearing the inevitable feels pointless.
Every couple of years something comes along that’s going to kill us all. In times like that, I don’t worry too much. Once you’ve been through an “amicable” divorce and your lovey bride’s first question was “what’s the max I can get”? The prospect of living forever in this world has become far less attractive than it once was. Embracing change is a virtue, and the eventuality of death is just another change, at the end of the day.
I guess the reason I don’t fear death in the abstract because without it, life has absolutely no purpose. A game with no rules is no fun. And the number one rule in life (well, a competitor for number one, anyway) is that no one gets out alive.
I eat healthy. Go to the gym. I have not had a drink before I drove in several presidential administrations. And I could wake up in the morning with a splitting headache and find out about an aneurysm that has turned my brain to mush. Or not wake up at all.
It wouldn’t be fair, but sometimes the idea of fairness itself is the enemy. There’s just what is.
So now we’ve got this virus that’s going to be the death of us all. Well, okay. The little boys have cried wolf so much at this point, the best I can muster is a disinterested nod of the head. The functional equivalent of a teenager ignoring you while he listens to Lil Something Something caterwaul his newest hit in which he says, earnestly “yeah, yeah,” for seventeen minutes via auto tune over a sampled three quarter ton truck driving over a cattle gap during a thunderstorm.
I wish I had made this up, but I didn’t. Iran is one of the least fun countries in the world, at least according to the young people who live there and protest right up until they get thrown into even more unfun prisons. We all know this. Killer virus du jour broke out in that godforsaken republic run by very religious men in bath robes. But Iran wasn’t always unfun. Once it was Persia. So there are still rumors of normal human life. Especially in the boondocks. Kinda like the world I grew up in, where my grandfather had a still well into Ronald Reagan’s term as president.
A couple of enterprising gents in the region of Khuzestan (which sounds remarkably like the place where foam rubber wrappers for beer cans should have been invented) spread the rumor that alcohol counteracts the thing that will kill us all this week.
Problem is, alcohol is banned in Iran and has been for about 40 years. So these old boys are a little out of practice. Happens to the best of us, doesn’t it? I mean once, I was a bonafide silver-tongued devil. These days I’ve reverted to more of a mush tongued demon third class. As Bill Clinton would say, “I feel their pain.” Kind of.
So instead of sour mash or whiskey, they made wood alcohol. Rather than getting free of the virus, their cares and worries, a hangover and possibly an STD, they got poisoned.
More people died from drinking the bad moonshine in that little corner of Iran than have died from the virus which shall not be named.
I have also wondered how many people have had car accidents, even fatal ones, while reading on their cell phones about the new plague instead of paying attention to the road. I’ll be willing to bet the number isn’t zero. Not that they’d admit it, of course.
The panic has spread to the stock market because, well, panic is what people do. Stocks are in the toilet. Given the irrational response of American shoppers, I’d bet Charmin’s stock is doing quite well, thanks.
Back when I was in ministry, the question I got more than any other from people who were curious about religion was, “what happens when you die?”
Since the Black Death killed 30-40% of Europe the answer Christianity has offered has been variations on a theme. The theme is you go to Heaven or Hell, more or less. The Catholic Church in Luther’s time offered a “pay-as-you-go” plan that basically was the greatest fundraising scheme in history. People were offered the chance to buy indulgences. Grandma had a dirty mind and spent some time in purgatory? Have I got a deal for you!
Johann Tetzel has one of the great marketing slogans of all time:
“As soon a coin in the bowl rings, a soul from purgatory springs.”
It was crass, callous and wrong. But highly effective. St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome might not exist today were it not for his efforts. Luther called him on it, though and eventually the Protestant Reformation happened, in part because of his sleazy marketing scheme gone wrong.
It was also instructive for how to deal with fear-mongers and fear-profiteers today.
I’ve read the Bible through dozens of times and there’s shockingly little about what happens when you die. Aside from the description of Revelation of the streets of gold et cetera, Jesus’ final consolation to the other “insurrectionist” on the cross next door that “today you will be with me in paradise” most of what you will hear from a pulpit is purely made up. Yes, Jesus said, “in my father’s house are many rooms (not ‘mansions’ because that would be stupid and the Greek word means ‘rooms’). Outside of that, they’ve been spitballing for millennia.
The truth is beyond images and generalities, directly from the Bible even Christians don’t know what happens when you die. And if you’re not a believer in that sort of thing, you really don’t have a clue. It’s just whatever you make up.
I got very tired of having to defend conflicting visions of “Heaven.” And even less is known about the traditional notion of Hell, which largely came into existence thanks to Dante and John Milton. There’s fire, outer darkness, wailing and gnashing of teeth, apparently. In all honesty that sounds a lot like a barbecue with my ex wife’s family.
Maybe going back to church wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all. I don’t care how many Hail Marys I have to say or how many casseroles I have to bring to dinner on the grounds, an eternity of that should be avoided at all costs.
In truth, that’s what people fear the most about death, I think. They don’t know. What you don’t know, you can’t control. And it’s the illusion of control that brings the illusion of order to a chaotic world.
Guess what? You can’t control what you DO know. Ever had a diet you wanted to stick to? Ever made a New Year’s Resolution? What’s your teenage daughter up to when she leaves the house?
Circumstances and exigencies are always changing. Your response today, though perfectly acceptable and even prudent can be revealed as pure folly five, 10 or 20 years from now.
And you take the good with the bad. I never expected for some of the bad things that have happened to me to come along. But, then I never expected ANY of the good things that came into my life to be there. At least, not at first. The most exciting thing in life is not the accomplishment of a significant goal at the end of a long road. That’s satisfying, yes. But generally you’re exhausted and a little weary of the journey. The really good part is remembering that first moment when it occurs to you, “I can do this.”
I could (and probably should more often) list the happy surprises that have come unexpectedly into my life. In a lot of ways, it really has been a gamble. And they don’t build big fancy casinos because you always go home with money. In the end the house always wins.
Which brings us back to death. Because there’s pretty much nothing you can take with you, why on Earth would you sit and worry and fret and drown yourself in hand sanitizer and build a castle of toilet paper in your living room and obsess about things outside of your control over a virus?
You. Will. Die. It’s that simple.
The real question is how you will have lived. Did you leave it all on the line for what mattered to you, wrongheaded at the time or not? Did you stand for what mattered to you? Did the people you love wonder if you loved them or what they could do for you? God knows I’ve had a mixed bag at all of those. And yet death still stalks us all, ready to close accounts with every breath.
The Stoics has a saying that I wear on a necklace. I view “memento mori” not as a call to freak out but as a remembrance that life is short and that the big questions still need better answers than I’ve given them thus far. So I don’t worry about a breath from a virus ending my life. I worry about already living as if I’m dead or clinging on to “life” in such a way that mocks the meaning of the word.