Big tech, big data, big money. That’s why Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft are all-powerful and all-seeing. Collectively, they know everything about everybody, monetize that knowledge with mysterious algorithms and control our lives while pretending to help us understand the mysteries of existence.
That’s why I turned to Google to understand two of those mysteries: How do we die and what do we do with all of our stuff?
For my advanced age (born the day that FDR was elected to a third term, so do the math) I’m in great health, but I have too much stuff. How long can I hang on to my treasures (art on the walls, books everywhere, a basement full of things that I’ll probably never look at again but still want to keep) and how/when can I expect to croak?
Data from the CDC’s National Vital Statistics is robust but uninformative. The 10 leading causes of death are presented only as broad, all-encompassing categories, such as heart disease, cancer, unintentional injuries, Alzheimer’s disease and suicide. Interestingly, old age isn’t considered a statistical cause of death — stop breathing at 117, and they’ll stick you into one of the officially approved categories. In our utilitarian age of uniform data collection and aggregation, an individual’s death is less than nothing — a tiny statistical blip. If we want real information, let’s look at the “diseases and casualties” of London during 1632. Sixty-three different causes of death were listed, including “Bit with a mad dog 1,” “Consumption 1,797,” “Grief 11,” “Aged 628” and “Dead in the street, and starved 6.”
The parish clerks who collectively compiled these unfiltered “bills of mortality” left us a richly detailed snapshot of their city. Alas, our vast medical/industrial/bureaucratic complex will leave only forests of data to be sorted by future algorithms. The Grim Reaper will show up one of these days, but I know less about when and how then did a 17th century Londoner.
OK, I can live (or die) with that — but what about my stuff? I’ve spent much of the last 40 years accumulating it, and now Karen and I have a big, rickety old house on the Westside full of not-so-precious possessions.
“You ought to call this place the Hazlehurst Museum of Deservedly Obscure Art,” said one of our snarky friends, looking with dismay at the artworks hung from floor to ceiling. “You could give it all to the Pioneers Museum, but I don’t think they have enough room.”
He was right. While the museum is the preferred repository for local art, artifacts, journals and documents, it’s not the city’s attic. Once we’re gone, our kids will take what they want and send the rest to auction to find new homes, new collectors or new art hoarders.
Yet among all the artistic debris, there’s a dilemma. Thirty years ago, I bought a decaying mansion near downtown for $290,000 (yeah, I know — I should never have sold it!). Julia Duke, who had owned it for half a century, had been a mega-hoarder — every room was full of stuff, as was the vast basement. Among the discoveries were two ancient trunks filled with rolled-up airline posters from the 1940s and early ’50s. I still have them.
As a young woman, Julia had been wealthy, vivacious and improbably beautiful. With her equally handsome spouse, she traveled the world — jet setters before there were jets. The posters, likely given to her by travel agents, are mostly pristine and beautiful. They depict Lockheed Constellations and Douglas DC-6’s flying over exotic destinations such as Tokyo, Paris, New York and Chicago. It’s a unique Colorado Springs collection, preserved in its entirety — an interesting glimpse into our history. I’ve thought of giving them all to the museum, but I’m afraid that they’ll just sit in storage for a few more decades. I can’t afford to frame them, and in any case there’s not enough room to hang them at home. Yet I want to see them on a wall, as a collection, here in CS.
So there you are — the hoarder’s dilemma. You have too much stuff, and you want more. I won’t worry — might as well contemplate death. And since we share our home with three big, cranky ill-behaved dogs, maybe the Grim Reaper was signaling me from 1632.
Bit by a mad dog…