Monday, April 15, 2013

We All Have to Die, So Why Not Plan How to Do It?

[for fullscreen click 4 outward-pointing arrows at lower right corner of video]

As one gets older, more and more of the people one knew begin to die.  My parents are both gone, my mother from lung cancer, my father from complications of diabetes.  My sister Miriam died of heart failure.  My Aunt Sophie died of bone cancer.  My friend Otis also died of bone cancer.  Danny died either of a heart attack or a drug overdose.  Jay Trachman died of lung cancer.  Rita's late husband Maurice died of prostate cancer.  My relative Bob Jaffe just died of liver cancer.

Most of them died in hospitals hooked up to machines.  Commonly when their cases became hopeless they were transferred to palliative care to make their last days or hours as comfortable as could be arranged.  The palliative care usually consists at the end of increasing and finally lethal doses of morphine.

While perfectly reasonable and understandable, this seems like an unconsidered, cramped way to go.  Death is an important moment in one's life and it should be done well if possible.   We are familiar with the notion of nobly dying in battle for one's country but the increasing technical improvements in combat mean that in the future the risks of combat will be that one might strain a thumb operating the trackball controller of a drone.  And in any case death in battle contemplates both that one is young and in the military, neither of which the old and infirm ever are.

As a lifelong Zionist, I wondered whether after a confirmed diagnosis of fully metastasized stage four cancer, I might try to infiltrate either Gaza or Teheran and blow myself up next to some Hamas or Iranian bigshot.  But there is too much wrong with terrorism to do it, even at no cost to myself.

I have been close enough to death to think about it a few times.  Once I worked on a halibut boat in Sheepshead Bay in Alaska for a man named Shorty Jessup.  The dory had an outboard but the pressure release on the motor didn't work so Shorty couldn't start it.  Which meant that if I fell in the water that he couldn't come after me.  The water was no more than a degree above freezing so if I fell in I would be dead of hypothermia in 20 minutes.  I thought that I was a middle class college graduate and I was doing this as an adventure and for the romance of it, not as a career that I was committed to.  I thought of telling Shorty that we had to go back.  But then it occurred to me that instead I could rely on myself to hold on tight, be prudent about what I did, and take personal responsibility for my not falling out of the boat.  I put my own abilities between me and death and that was enough.  One can, and indeed must, live without guarantees.

Another time, I and a friend were rock climbing in Yosemite.  We had started late, had lost the light, and had lost our way.  We were beginning to tire and it was starting to rain.  I begin to see how it was becoming possible that we weren't going home that night nor any other night.  While I was seconding my partner I had time to think.  I was in my early 40's then but in looking back on my life, though it had been shorter than I would have liked, what I had lived had been good enough that I could settle for it.  I had lived enough that I could die content.  That realization enabled me to relax and not be afraid.

These experiences gave me the notion that death is not really that terrifying.  It is not huge and existential.  It is just something one does on one day of the week, either in the AM or in the PM.  It is just one last thing to do.  Everybody does it sooner or later.

We have gotten so used to the trivialization of the expression 'quality of life' as an excuse for euthanasia that we don't hear it anymore.  All we mean by it now is dulling suffering with drugs or death.  All our lives we are hemmed in and weighed down by concerns about safety and prudence.  We hear our mothers inveighing against running with scissors.  Finally at the end of life when the jig is up, we are for a moment free of caution if we are willing to accept it.  Why can't the proximity of death mean an end-of-life life full of thrills, beauty, and adventure instead of drugs and hospitals?  

Which makes thinking about how to do it not morbid at all.  Planning one's death is as reasonable and ordinary as making a will.  But I still hadn't thought of an exciting or interesting way to do it when the time comes.

Last night everything changed.  Rita and I saw a documentary on television.  Now I know how I want to go.  I had considered skydiving but it seemed (and still seems) stupid.  One jumps out of an airplane to scare the crap out of oneself (often literally) but other than that just falls until the parachute opens and then just hangs until one alights.  It just didn't seem that interesting.

Things started to change with the invention of steerable-wing parachutes.  These ingenious devices are a silken wing composed of aerodynamic cells and the parachutist hangs in a harness below it.   The glide ratios of these things have been improved so much that they can be flown in places with updrafts all afternoon long.  I have seen steep-sided valleys in the French Alpes with the air crowded with flocks of brightly-colored wing-parachutes and their passengers floating in them.

The wing parachute has in the past few years dwindled to a minor pastime for those too faint of heart for wingsuit flying.  Wing parachutes have a merely vestigial role in wing suit flying.  Wingsuit flying converts a mere mortal into a flying squirrel.  Wingsuit flying is probably as close as human beings will ever come to actual human flight though in actual fact it is really a fast steerable glide.  At the end, instead of dying, one pops a wing-parachute to land.

Judging from the videos I have seen, such as the one above, it is about as close to completely exhilarating as one can get.  Everyone agrees that it is thoroughly dangerous since it involves flying through the air at around 100 mph (160 kph).  One of the pilots said in an interview with apparently no exaggeration, that if one hits anything, anything at all, a tree branch, a glancing blow off a cliff face, one is certain to die.  Having on occasion ridden bicycles downhill as fast as 30-odd miles per hour, I fully agree.  At 100 mph there are no serious injuries, only death.

Initially the purpose of the sport was to fly as far from the jumping-off point as possible and in the process to stay as far away from obstacles such as the ground, as possible.  As glide ratios improved, airplane jumps gave way to jumping off high mountain cliffs, now called 'base jumping'.

The day came when some American wingsuit flyers saw an anonymous Frenchman glide down the face of Mont Blanc, going not as high as he could but as low.  This was a revelation and a revolution.  Wingsuit flying became flying as close to the terrain as possible.  Instead of the terrain and its features being seen hundreds of feet below, one now saw them rushing by at three digit speeds only a few feet, and even fewer meters, below.  Wingsuits which had been flown only for stable lengthy flight, now were flown for maneuverability, agility, and dash.  This is called proximity wingsuit gliding, or just proximity gliding.  It is, judging by the videos shot from the pilots' helmets, the most exciting sport in the world.

The caveat for me is my ferocious acrophobia.  Even watching videos of other people jumping out of airplanes or off cliffs greatly upsets me, even though I am safe in my bed at home.  Standing near a precipice with anything less than an immovable armpits-high barrier in front of me induces panic.  I get agitated on some elevated sections of freeway and driving, let alone bicycling, next to drop-offs requires studied suppression of panic.

But I remember that I was able to diminish or perhaps to push down the panic by conditioning and by force of will.  I had to keep my eyes closed on ski lifts and would ask the person next to me to tell me when we were getting close to the hopping off station at the top.  With practice I could keep my eyes open longer at the beginning and open them sooner at the end.

This mitigation of the terror enabled me to undertake technical rock climbing.  There is an interior monologue in which one tells oneself that now (while one is climbing hundreds of feet up a cliff face) is  not the time to panic.  I will panic later when I am off this climb.  With real justifiable fear to back up one's arguments, even panic can be reasoned with, pushed down, but it never completely goes away.

I climbed for several years and though I was never good at it, I was able to follow easy 5.9's and to lead easy 5.8's.   On the Yosemite Scale, the 5 indicates technical climbing and the number after the dot measures the difficulty of the climb.  For perspective, the scale now goes up to 5.14 and is logarithmic, so each subsequent digit is at least half again as difficult as the one before it.  Any normal healthy young adult can climb 5.5 right now without really thinking about it, and can climb 5.6 if she pays attention to what she is doing.  So I wasn't that good.  On the other end of the scale, 5.14 is close to climbing across the bottom of a horizontal sheet of glass.  There are guys who can do things on rock that one doesn't believe even though one just saw it done.  I am not one of them.

The acrophobia was always somewhere nearby, right at my elbow, but I pushed it away as best I could and climbed anyway.  So here's the parlay.  To get to the top of really high mountain cliffs, one does not hike to them, one climbs to them.  These people do a long technical climb just to get to their jumping off place.  They reach the lip of an immense cliff face.  And jump off.   Intuitively what follows next is their bodies being crushed to a broken bloody mess on the rocks, moments of agony, then nothing, tears of those who cared about them, a funeral, and then after a decent interval, she remarries.  But that doesn't happen.  Instead they fly.

After millennia of envying birds, we can at last do it, we can fly.   But the miracle comes now, only now when I am old, fat and feeble.  The old is not negotiable, the fat I am fixing in 2013, and the feeble I mean to fix in 2014 as best I can.

If I don't get killed doing it, then I can go up and do it again.  If I do, then as Shakespeare says of some of his characters, "[exit laughing]".


  1. They require 200 or more sky dive jumps before one can even attempt flying suit jumping. I don't see that happening anytime soon so this probably won't happen. Second best would be paragliding. That only requires a five day course to get a beginner license. Sigh...

  2. Of course if one doesn't mind getting killed because one has an incurable disease and will be dead for sure on Wednesday, why not go flying suit jumping on Tuesday?