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Monday, November 29, 2010

On dramas and dates

Scene from HMS Pinafore - it does have some relevance below!

I slept late today, after a night where I lay awake round 3 am for a long time. It happens, usually after a night when we’ve seen friends, had a glass of wine…. It’s not like this hasn’t happened before this tumour manifested – it’s often been the way. The waking up early I mean, after a stimulating night’s conversation, a little wine and probably foods I don’t normally eat.

I used to get up and do things. Now I tend to wait, still my consciousness and let it drift in calm waters, contemplate the fortunate things I have and stay away from the ones that gnaw away at peace of mind. Then I drift back into sleep and usually wake past the time I would normally get up. But it’s probably best for me to have such episodes earlier in the day, rather than late – the stimulation, I mean. More and more I seem to need routine in my life.

November is almost over. Last year at this time we were playing squash three times a week for an hour at a time, and I had just finished filming a musical. I loved doing that. After years of practice and making some terrible mistakes with technique, I was just starting to get good at some aspects of this craft. I loved getting to know the plot word for word, where every person on the stage was going to move for every second of the show, night after night getting the best angles possible under whatever conditions. 

Then going home afterwards and getting each show straight on to the computer, watching each second, groaning when I slipped up in the filming and vowing to correct that the next night. I could discuss each scene with Tracey, who spotted things I could not see. These were very special times.

HMS Pinafore closeup

Later, I would review all the various nights’ shows and put together a version for the performers and production team to view. They are all so busy when a show’s on that they never get to see what the audience does. This was my favourite time of all, as friends who had participated in some way and who knew the show very well could watch it, laugh at it, at each other, at the blooper section at the end….

Their enjoyment was my reward for the many hours put in editing video and sound, trying to show it all at its best.

All that disappeared for me in one minute when that fiery twitching in my right hand started nearly a year ago. The right hand index finger controls the speed of zoom of the lens, which is everything when switching from an intimate moment on the stage to a wide angle shot. Sometimes I could do that virtually imperceptibly. But that control disappeared in an instant, leaving me with shaking, pulsing right hand fingers over which I still have little control, a year down the track.

That was a world, a year ago, when an end point for life for me seemed as comfortable a mystery as it is for most people. And so it should, I believe. 

Once long ago I asked a fellow who I regarded as a strange chap in many ways, ‘Would you like to know the day you’re going to die?’

‘Oh, yes!’ he said without the least hesitation. ‘I could then plan my life perfectly.’

I was stunned. I couldn’t then and still can’t now imagine wanting to know the day I was going to die, whether it was near or not for decades. What a terrible burden that would be!

Then it occurred to me that maybe there are others who think the same way as he did. Maybe there was something that happened earlier in life that would make you desire this knowledge. Perhaps I am the odd one out. I wonder how many people feel like he did?


  1. Just thinking about your wondering; are there lots of other people who think that it would be a good thing to know when they’re going to die.
    I might be a control freak (like your strange chap fellow?) but I think I’d like to know. I think maybe if I found out with loads of time to go (say if I was told when I was 20 that I’d die at 80) it would be a great relief, in a way – not to be afraid of not knowing when it was going to happen.
    I imagine I would live my life fearlessly.
    I’m such a scaredy-cat! When I travel, I’m scared of almost everything – the people (ok, some of them actually did have machetes…), the buses (ok, some of them were going really fast, very close to the cliff edges and they certainly didn’t have seatbelts…), the food (well, they don’t have fridges in some of the places we went and I’m not sure what kind of meat that really was…) the dark alleyways….
    If I knew the end date, I wouldn’t be scared of scuba diving (sharks!!! being left in the middle of the ocean!!), or riding a motor cycle (100ks an hour, just my skin protecting me!!), camping in the national forest (Ivan Milat…), flying over oceans (watched too many movies with planes crashing…), those wizzy upside-down rides at the show (well, it could fly off and crash…), racing up four flights of stairs to my apartment, fumbling with my key, imagining there’s a murderer after me (ok, that’s just my imagination running away with me). I’d like not to be so frightened.
    I think if I had plenty of time between finding out when I was going to die and the actual day, I wouldn’t consider the knowledge a burden – but maybe I’m missing the point, seeing the knowledge as a guarantee of life ‘til 80 instead of a death sentence??? Probably wouldn’t work that way!

  2. Maybe I'll wait and see if anyone else comments first! :)

  3. While there is an appeal to knowing it would tend to make optimism an increasingly recessive characteristic!
    Although since your first seizure three other friends have gone from being 'as normal' to not here at all in just a few weeks or days :( So no guarantees for anyone.

  4. I think you have hit on one important point, Mal. Sylvie: we can discuss this more in about 3 weeks, but I suppose too that we have to bear in mind that this is hypothetical and that means we haven't discussed the other variables. You have of course chosen one of the most optimistic of scenarios, but that may not be your lot in life. But let's say that at 20 you knew you were going to live to 80. You might feel safe in that bus in the Andes but it could still roll off the cliff, leaving you a quadriplegic in terrible pain for the next 60 years.... Are you sure you want to know that? In all those other scenarios, you assume you come out of it totally unscathed. Or what if it said you had just a day or a week to live? Do you think you would like to spend the remaining time in fear of how this is going to play out? Few people know what it's like to face the genuine prospect of death, except for a condemned prisoner who has no chance of reprieve, or maybe a person determined to suicide. Or maybe some medical cases.
    I just feel that this knowledge, without knowing what your remaining life would actually be like, would be much too dangerous to be able to handle, and you would enjoy the remainder far more without that knowledge hanging over you!

  5. I suppose if we ALL knew when we were going to die, maybe death would feel more 'normal' -we'd all tell each other of our death date, we'd organise our lives accordingly. So a person diagnosed with a fatal illness wouldn't feel isolated, like 'the odd one out'; it would just be 'their time' and Henry's is next November and Mary's was last July. Michael says it's like a train leaving that you're going to catch.
    If you were the only person who knew their death date, on the other hand, then I think it might loom over you, depending on how you think about death, maybe. The warrior code (eg the Samurai or American Indians 'today is a good day to die')would say that every day is the day you should be prepared to die.

  6. PS Easy enough for me to say -I'm not ready to die today! But I agree that I should be...I've certainly thought about it often enough.

  7. If for no other reason than that, I remain convinced that the worst disaster that could befall you or just about anyone else living a 'normal' life would be to know the day they're going to die! And fortunately, most people won't, until it's very close, at least. I remain unanimous in that! :)

  8. But what if everyone knew their own death date? Don't you think that would 'normalise' death more ? I've come to see if you'd answered this because I find it very interesting.
    Of course that is not how it is meant to be (as far as we can tell) or else we WOULD all know..

  9. Well, if we did, society certainly would be totally different, no doubt. Life for each person would be different. So different in fact, that I can't imagine it, and I think that's my problem in responding. It is so hypothetical that without taking into account things like quality of life it becomes meaningless. There seems to be an assumption that it's going to be good right to the last days, that we are going to be rational to the end.
    I suspect it would turn people into hypochondriacs or irrational daredevils, basing their estimates of the future on insanely wrong premises. [e.g., young kid knows he's going to live till 80. Drives recklessly on the strength of this and kills people, and spends much of the remainder of life in jail.]
    There's no life form in nature that I can think of that has awareness of its moment of death until it is quite close. I suspect we are biologically primed for and by this lack of awareness.
    The thought experiment here is apparently based on how rational, intelligent people would handle such powerful information. I can think of an awful lot of people who aren't. And I don't just mean someone training to be a suicide bomber on the West Bank. I mean some powerful, Godfearing Christians controlling the loyalties of thousands of followers in the mid-west of USA, e.g. I'm not sure their knowing their own death day would help anybody. On the contrary!
    Sorry - very randomised thoughts on something that's [thankfully!] probably not going to happen for the multitudes!

  10. That's OK. I was philosophising. I couldn't separate me knowing my death date to everyone else knowing theirs, and that changed the whole question immediately. Yep, it's unimaginable. But maybe it would make people better as humans rather than more opportunistic,as they might not be so entirely materially focused. Thanks for answering :)


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