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Left Coast/Right Coast: How we celebrate a life and its passing.

A friend of mine passed away a few days ago. He was not a close personal friend – but someone with whom I had fairly regular dealings. I got to thinking about how we mourn. We all mourn in our own private ways.
Mike Gold is a retired entrepreneur providing his views on the Northwest. Photo credit: Katie Stearns.

Mike Gold writes for the News of Mill Creek on a regular basis. He is a retired entrepreneur and describes himself as a, “relatively recent transplant to the West Coast. I have lived (born and raised) in the Northeastern U.S. So these observations are based upon ‘living the dream’ in the Pacific Northwest.”

A friend of mine passed away a few days ago. He was not a close personal friend – but someone with whom I had fairly regular dealings. It does not matter, he went at a too young age.

I got to thinking about how we mourn. We all mourn in our own private ways. Some of us can’t face this prospect (which faces us all) and don’t deal with it directly. Others jump in with both feet – offering help/support to friends and family. I like to think about two of my favorite writers/comedians, who have each produced what I consider an important work on this subject.

First, Albert Brooks. He wrote and produced a movie called “Defending Your Life.” The story, fictional, is about a way station called Judgment City – to which everyone who passes on is transported upon his or her death.

The idea is that everyone who dies must “defend” themselves and the life they just completed to a panel of people in Judgment City. If you “pass” (the movie doesn’t explain what that means), you also can “move on” (again, the movie isn’t clear what that means). If you “fail,” you are recycled back to earth to try again.

The key is that “fear” (of everything in daily life) is the measure against which you are judged. Brook’s premise is that fear is behind most of what most of us deal with in our daily “trip” through life. It clouds your judgment and impairs your ability to think clearly. He makes the point that you have to conquer your fears in order to “move on.”

Another theme of this brilliant film is that while on Earth, we only use about 3% of our brain, whereas, when you “move on,” you can use up to 55% of your brain (and when you use 55% of your brain, you don’t want to be on Earth). If you can get beyond your fears, this 55% brain-use opens up all types of opportunities.

For example, eating “special food” reserved for those who have “moved on” which resembles rabbit turds and tastes like caviar to the especially bright (vs. tasting like rabbit turds to the 3%-ers - the tiny brains). I’m not sure this is a motivation for “moving on.”

Brooks was raised on the West Coast. And his treatise, I think, is a unique West Coast look at the afterlife. Judgment City, in fact, looks like many western cities. The weather is always 72 degrees, and the topography looks, to me, like Las Vegas or Phoenix.

Woody Allen, on the other hand, is a New York born and raised institution. His angst could only be created by a New York upbringing. You can watch any Woody Allen movie and feel the chaos of his New York roots. Only the oppressive surroundings of New York could possibly create such a twisted neurotic personality.

In every Allen film, he deals, one way or the other, with “what is next.” I like, best of all, his soliloquy in Annie Hall. (Best Picture 1978). He plays a neurotic comedian (not a stretch for Allen) whose girlfriend is the very “mid-west values” Diane Keaton. We’ll ignore that she is a pot-smoking free-love advocate.

Allen is obsessed with the subject of death and he decides to “educate” Keaton in how to approach the subject. So he takes her to a bookstore and picks out all the appropriate books for her to read:

  • “Death in Venice,”
  • “Death of a Salesman,”
  • “Fear and Trembling – The Sickness Unto Death.”

As they’re headed to the register, Keaton asks, “Why all the books with death in the title?”

Allen responds, “Look, you have to understand death is a very big subject to me. I think life is divided into two categories. The horrible and the miserable. Horrible are the blind, amputees, terminally ill, people like that. I don’t know how they get through the day. All the rest of us are just miserable. So you should thank God you’re just miserable.”

Allen later explains his attitude toward life by describing an exchange between two women, “Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of 'em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know; and such small portions.’ Well, that's essentially how I feel about life - full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly.”

Quite a philosophy by which to live, eh? This theme of Allen’s shows up in every movie he’s ever made. While he makes extraordinarily funny sit-coms out of this subject, you can tell it’s important to him.

I think both Brooks and Allen have dealt with death in their very own way. But each brings a whole lot of laughs (if possible) to the subject.

Now there is a very rich tradition on the East Coast – especially in the Boston area. It’s called an Irish Wake. You’re either Irish or Italian if you’re from Boston – or you pretend to be.

Irish Wakes, Boston style, involve a huge amount of drinking, a good fistfight or two, several non-life threatening injuries (alcohol is almost always involved) and at the end a rousing rendition of Danny Boy. Those who engaged in the earlier fisticuffs or who have been revived (from being passed out) deliver the finest rendition of this truly wonderful song.

The main difference between Irish Wakes and Italian Wakes, is that the Italian Wake can also close out with Amazing Grace. I like the bagpipe version even better. (Amazing Grace - bagpipes)

Now both the Irish and Italians are typically Catholic. Or as Woody Allen says in "Hannah and Her Sisters" (he’s Jewish), “Die now, pay later.”

These wakes are clearly for the living – through which we learn to appreciate each day the Lord gives us.

As to how other "fringe" religions deal with death (Allen particularly likes Hare Krishna as they believe in reincarnation - although with his luck, he'd come back as a javelin catcher), Allen said in "Annie Hall," “I can’t get serious about any religion that advertises in Popular Mechanics.”

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