I Enjoy Tres Dias de Muertos at Mount Mercy


She leaps, she bends, she snacks the ball hard...an MMU volleyball player Wednesday night. The Mustangs routed SAU. What does this have to do with death? Read on, reader, read on.

She leaps, she bends, she snacks the ball hard…an MMU volleyball player Wednesday night. The Mustangs routed SAU. What does this have to do with death? Read on, reader, read on.

This week at Mount Mercy University finished with a flurry of cultural events on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Somehow, as the weather turns colder (we finally have had a couple of decent freezes and expect at least one night in the teens next week), the fact that all three at least indirectly concerned mortality doesn’t seem out of place.

In Mexico, what we call All Saints Day—Nov. 1—is Dia de Muertos, day of the dead. Well, Wednesday, through Friday of this week weren’t exactly three days of the dead—some of the events I think are more about life persisting through struggles—but there was an impermanence of life theme.

The three cultural events I attended at Mount Mercy University included:

  • A thought-provoking lecture on the nature of writing by graphic artist, cartoonist and author Matt Freedman.
  • A speech about the worldwide flu pandemic of 1918-1920 by Dr. Mary Tarbox.
  • A play, “Crimes of the Heart,” by Beth Henley, about three sisters, one of whom has just tried to kill her husband and all of whom struggle, years later, with the suicide of their mother.

As if that weren’t enough, also on Wednesday I attended my first volleyball match at Mount Mercy University. Volleyball doesn’t exactly fit into the life and death theme—it is, after all, a very lively, vigorous sport. But I suppose watching those young women impossibly toss themselves into the air and onto the floor is a sight that can remind an old man he is no longer young. One young lady I saw play was a student I met last year, and she is taller than me, but lithe. In volleyball, she’s superwoman fast, and seeing her fly up and bend back and smack a ball with long delicate fingers with such force that it seems a miracle her fingers didn’t fly off—well, it was a sight.

It reminded me of a time about 20 years ago when I was a business journalist and there were a group of high school and college interns at the publishing company I worked with—all of them young women. At a summer picnic, we had a staff vs. intern basketball game. Although at least two of our staff were relatively tall, relatively young men who had played basketball in school, the interns easily and casually crushed the staff. Most impressive of all, this being a summer picnic in a small Iowa town—most of those interns were wearing sandals or flip flops.

Anyway, I have no doubt that each of the students who I watched play volleyball for the Mustangs Wednesday night could beat me at any athletic competition—wearing flip flops, clogs, cowboy boots or barefoot—even if I get the best Nikes in the world.

I was impressed by the volleyball match. It looks like a very serious, very athletic sport.

Of all the events of these three busy days, it was clearest celebration of life. But one reason life is celebrated is because it’s not permanent.

Writer and Artist Speaks on Cancer Journal
Matt Freedman is certainly dealing with the temporary nature of his fleshy shell. The New York author of “Relatively Indolent But Relentless: A Cancer Treatment Journal” spoke Wednesday at MMU. He appeared three times in Betty Cherry, first to ruminate on creating his book, second to describe his experience from a medical point of view, and finally to both draw and speak in the evening.

Audience in Betty Cherry listens to Matt Freeman Wednesday afternoon.

Audience in Betty Cherry listens to Matt Freedman Wednesday afternoon.

I wish that I had been able to go to the evening event, but that was the night I was accompanying a new newspaper staff member to the volleyball match. Anyway, I attended the first event, his hour-long presentation about the writing (and drawing) of his journal.

The book covers a rough time in his life—medical treatment for a relatively rare cancer that he is living with. The cancer is slow growing but deadly—which Freedman said is a match for his memoir because it also describes his working style. He takes on large projects and works away at them bit by bit.

While he was being treated for cancer, he had a 240-page sketch book that his colleagues had given him, which he determined to make a journal of the experience by writing and drawing four pages a day (60 day treatment thus yields a 240-page book).

In his presentation, several points stood out to me.

For one thing, Freedman urged students not to buy into “writer’s block.” If you want to write, you must force yourself to actually write—to create something. And you also must allow yourself to surprise yourself by what you write. Let yourself go beyond your comfort zone in creating something new.

Freedman also noted how he wanted to do four pages a day to record the actual raw experience as it happened, rather than waiting and having his reflection less accurate due to the passage of time. But he also stated that the very act of writing about something necessarily distorts it.

Add to that the dynamic of the reader, who interprets whatever she perceives from her own perspective. (I have six sisters so most of my readers are female), and you understand how difficult true communication is.

Freedman speaks.

Freedman speaks.

But, the work of a writer stands apart from the writer. As creators, we ought not to be too disturbed by the notion that our works will be misinterpreted. The point is that readers legitimately can extract their own experience from our writing in surprising ways—in effect, the work , once published, stands apart from the writer and is not entirely his or hers anymore.

Of course, I think some interpretations are more legitimate than others. I don’t think you can pin the Tate-LaBianca murders on the Beatles because Charles Manson was a lunatic when he listed to The White Album. But I find the notion that the work stands apart and has a unique impact on both its creator and its audience to be fascinating.

I guess creating something that has a life of its own is one way to cheat our mortal natures, a bit.

Nursing Professor Explores Deadly Flu
Second on our little tour of this temporary existence in the form of our event trio, we have Thursday night’s presentation by Dr. Mary Tarbox on the flu pandemic of 1918-1920.

World War I was a trauma that shaped our contemporary reality, which is one reason why we at Mount Mercy have had an almost semester-long rumination on various aspects of the war at its 100th anniversary. Our series ends Nov. 11 with a 7 p.m. concert and series of readings—come on down to the Chapel of Mercy if you can.

Anyway, I had arranged for Dr. Tarbox to speak in a large lecture hall in the nursing building, but when we learned how many nursing students were being bribed with credit by their professors to attend, it became obvious that hall would not do. So, Dr. Tarbox spoke instead in the Chapel of Mercy.

It was a sobering speech. As she noted, the flu pandemic that punctuated the end of World War I was the deadliest infectious disease event in the history of mankind—a fast-moving, highly contagious, airborne respiratory disease that swept across the globe in two great waves, aided in its migration first by American soldiers going to Europe to fight, and then by soldiers from everywhere returning home once the “guns of August” finally grew silent on Nov. 11, 1918. By comparison, so far the Ebola virus has sickened a total of around 13,000 people globally, and killed less than 5,000. True, Ebola is not yet over and history will record what it ends up being—but it’s likely to be a pale imitation of H1N1 flu virus, which claimed around 675,000 American lives among its many millions of victims worldwide.

The new strain of H1N1 in 1918 was apparently a deadly amalgam of flu viruses that orginated from pigs and chickens—it was a superbug that may have been born at Fort Riley, Kansas, were the first victims were servicemen disposing of waste materials from both animals.

The flu particularly targeted the young and healthy. Many more American fighting men died from it then were killed by German shells, bullets or gas. And many more civilians would also perish. World War I represented a massive slaughter—more than 9 million combat deaths. But the amazing thing is that we talk so much about it today—but not so much about the flu. Yet, that flu killed between 50 million and 100 million people globally in half the time it took the war to chew up those 9 million.

And it was often a quick, but gruesome death. A person would be young and vigorous on Saturday, sneeze for the first time Sunday and then quickly fall deathly ill, sometimes dying before noon on Monday. Others would linger long enough for their flu-ravaged lungs to succumb to a secondary bacterial infection—if the flu didn’t kill you outright, you could easily suffer death by pneumonia.

Why the young? I’ve read before that the body’s own immune defenses would, if vigorous enough, cause, in Dr. Tarbox’s graphic words, “your lungs to explode.” It’s also true that previous flu infections that spread before 1890 meant that older people had some degree of immunity not present in the young.

So, lesson one for those of you at home, get your annual flu shot.

The impact of the flu on Iowa was hard to fathom. There were hundreds of thousands of flu cases in our tiny state and thousands of deaths. Dr. Tarbox read some chilling messages that a nurse at Iowa’s Fort Dodge, Irene Robb, sent to her family describing her hectic, long days as the infirmary at the Army camp was overrun with dying soldiers in 1918.

I suppose one reason the flu isn’t covered more in history is because it was a random act of nature. There’s no human to blame, no Kaiser to vilify, no Lenin to fault for the October Revolution. The great lessons of history are sometimes that we don’t always pay attention the most important events because they don’t have an easily understood villain or hero.

Anyway, about 200 people showed up for the lecture by Dr. Tarbox. It was a good thing I had moved it to the chapel. I can only hope that our final event Nov. 11, Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the chapel, draws a similarly large crowd.

Dr. Mary Tarbox, chair of the Department of Nursing at MMU, speaks in the Chapel of Mercy Thursday about the flu.

Dr. Mary Tarbox, chair of the Department of Nursing at MMU, speaks in the Chapel of Mercy Thursday about the flu.

Three Sisters Wonder: Why Also Hang The Cat?
The final cultural event was when my wife and I Friday attended the play “Crimes of the Heart.” If you read this and can, go see it Sunday afternoon. My colleague in communication at Mount Mercy, Dr. David Klope, also saw the play Friday, and observed at intermission that he was seeing some of the finest acting he’s ever observed on the MMU stage.

I agree with him. The play is riveting. It’s got comedic elements but is also a serious drama. In the play, one sister has shot her husband—who survives—and she is out on bail. One sister has moved away to California and comes back due to the family crisis. A third sister celebrates a lonely 30th birthday because her life has been consumed with caring for their ailing grandfather who raised the sisters following their mother’s suicide. One mystery, which is hypothetically solved during the play, is why their mother hung a cat with her the day she killed herself.

The play sounds pretty dark, and does have dark elements, but it’s much lighter than the plot summary makes it sound. You do struggle to resist chuckling along when two of the sisters who can’t resist laughing because grandpa in in a coma—and that’s the way life sometimes is.

We laugh at tragedy at times, and I don’t think that’s always the worst way to cope.

It was quite a week. I’m very behind on work, and this will be a challenging weekend with a mountain of grading and a newspaper to work on. So of course, I spent part of it writing a long blog post. But it does feel good to debrief a bit after this week of life and death issues. Despite the busyness of it, it’s the kind of week that makes me happy to work at a university.

Life is too short, so it’s good to enjoy such things as the cultural events of this week while you can.

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