Measuring Men

When I was very young, 12 or so, I thought you could judge people only by the descendants they left behind.

In a way, that has a certain validity.  I mean, if you don’t have children, your genetics aren’t going to show up in future humanity.

It took me years to realize that people like Shakespeare and Heinlein had left countless non-genetic descendants.  For Shakespeare, arguably, most of western civ.  For Heinlein, only the future will tell, but I’m sort of hoping he’ll be the father of many new worlds.

Which brings us to measuring humans and your life.

Many humans and a lot of politicians are convinced he who is remembered the longest wins.

There is something to be said for that, of course.  To quote the late Sir Pterry, a man is not dead as long as his name is spoken.  And we’ll be sending Pterry’s name home in the sf/f virtual clacks for a long time to come.

I always liked when I attended worldcon, the huge display during the awards with the names of all who had gone during the year since the last worldcon.  It was useful, in terms of some of us realizing con-friends had died unexpectedly, but most of all it was “sending their name home.”  Most of us (self being exception, among a few others) leave no descendants, most (self included) are somewhat of a puzzle to birth family, most have family by choice, yes, but a lot of it scattered all over the world.  It is good to have our name spoken one last time, sent on its way with good wishes by those who knew them best/shared their passions.

Last month one of you, occasional blog readers, book readers, Odds and Huns, contacted me.  The occasion of that was OF COURSE a demand for more books.  I’m not going to name him, because I barely knew him in terms of time, and many of the readers here actually knew him and are mourning him, with more right than I have.

He could be any of you.  He pinged me on FB to demand more books, moar!  Normally I answer politely and excuse myself (no, it’s not just you.  I’m short on time.)  BUT I had become newly-fried on writing and was drinking a beer and hanging out with my posse online, anyway.  So, this gentleman and I talked books, starting with mine, moving to Kate’s (whose fan he also was) moved on to our dismal politics.

He felt like… family.  Like someone I’d known forever.  (One is tempted to believe the Mormon doctrine of pre-incarnation ensoulment sometimes, because there are people we’ve just met but have known forever.  However perhaps it suffices RES’s and my son’s theory that the soul is eternal and multidimmensional.  So sometimes you’ve known people before and after and forever (not a way to explain something out of time) our brief carnal sojourn on Earth.)

Turned out he was dying.  We had hopes.  There were experimental treatments.  But he died, suddenly, far too quickly.

In the time I knew him I got used to sending fight scenes and gun stuffery to him for proofing/suggestions.  In the time I knew him he taught me a lot.

This last week, I’ve been watching the hole he left behind in the lives of those who had contact with him.

And I think that’s the measure.  Look, if you have descendants or not might not be wholly under your control.  Sometimes you don’t meet anyone you want to have them with in time.  Sometimes health forbids it.  Sometimes it just doesn’t happen.

And as for being remembered, there are limits.  Unless you’re the new Julius Caesar, you might be remembered as much as centuries after your death, but it doesn’t last.  Human memory is frangible, ephemeral.  You might be “remembered” but that might not have ANYTHING to do with who you were actually or what you actually did.

But you can live each day as if it matters.  you can try to be as good as you can to those around you, generous with your time, gentle with the weak, fair with the strong.

You’ll fail sometimes, of course, but this is a game of averages.

Live so that when you go what you leave behind is not “Thank G-d, he’s gone” but a million little things where people think “I wish I could tell him/her this joke” and “I wish I knew what he/she thinks of this” and “man I miss him/her.”

Unraveling your myriad kindnesses and help from their lives will give your friends, relatives, acquaintances and passing strangers a momentary pain.  But it is a good pain.  It means you didn’t live or die in vain.

44 thoughts on “Measuring Men

  1. I think you got that exactly right. The proper measure of a person is the hole they leave in the lives of their acquaintances when they’re gone.

  2. Eternity is filled with small pieces of the Great Soul, cast adrift to settle in temporary harbors, then returning to the source.
    Not good theology; not even good prose. But it helps fill the void when we lose a loved one.

  3. This is a famous poem, which provides some solace after my mother’s death:

    Gone From My Sight

    I am standing upon the seashore. A ship, at my side,
    spreads her white sails to the moving breeze and starts
    for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength.
    I stand and watch her until, at length, she hangs like a speck
    of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.

    Then, someone at my side says, “There, she is gone.”

    Gone where?

    Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast,
    hull and spar as she was when she left my side.
    And, she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.
    Her diminished size is in me — not in her.

    And, just at the moment when someone says, “There, she is gone,”
    there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices
    ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!”

    And that is dying…

    1. Sunset and evening star,
      And one clear call for me!
      And may there be no moaning of the bar,
      When I put out to sea,

      But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
      Too full for sound and foam,
      When that which drew from out the boundless deep
      Turns again home.

      Twilight and evening bell,
      And after that the dark!
      And may there be no sadness of farewell,
      When I embark;

      For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
      The flood may bear me far,
      I hope to see my Pilot face to face
      When I have crost the bar.

    2. This is a less famous piece written by an SCAdian for a year of great loss. (A large number of unexpected deaths in a very short time.) It was revived a couple of years back for another tragedy.

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  4. I somehow doubt it is a good idea to encourage men to begin measuring themselves.

    After all, we all know that it ain’t the meat, it’s the emotion.

  5. Damn it, can people please stop dying this year? It’s getting to be too much too quickly.

  6. “it is a good pain.”

    A truth that far to many do not understand.
    Thank you for your words.

  7. I don’t remember where i got the idea but have been fascinated with the idea that everyone you ever see lives on inside of your mind. Inside that person’s mind (at least the memory image is also a snapshot of every person they’ve ever seen). What if there was a device/mental technique that you could use to go through all those people’s memory until you found some historic figure or distant ancestor that you could then chat with?

    Probably not doing the best job of explaining. Sorry for the loss of somebody that sounds like an interesting person!

    1. Hofstadter writes something similar:

      A loop being a concept that is self-referential. For everyone you know, you are capable of creating a low-resolution of that person, dog or cat.
      As Sarah suggests, we can imagine the person’s reaction to a new joke or situation, and even remembering past events touches on that unique self-referential loop.
      Our memories and descendants combine to leave an immutable mark on this world, and it is a sort of immortality we can be confident exists. The multidimensional and eternal soul is something I also believe in; however, that requires an act of faith; however, quantum computing may provide insights as to how such a soul manifests.

      1. The longer I live the more I learn how great an act of faith is required to accept the existence of a “reality” as absurd and incoherent as this one.

  8. “Measuring men”, huh?

    Didn’t you post a link on Instapundit a few days ago that was about women enjoying sex, and you said it depends on sample size?

    Or at least, that’s how I (intentionally mis)understood it.

    1. (and now I wish I’d read the post and existing comments before adding a joke to the thread :/ )

      1. The post title can often bring alternate topics to mind. The other day’s UN-think.
        I immediately thought we were going to be discussing the mind-set of the United Nations sycophant. Sarah’s topic was far superior to my initial thought.

  9. The other regret is I wish my dad (and or Mom) could see how his grandkids turned out or I wish my kids could talk to their grand parents. Of course, there is I am so glad my parents did see what my kids did.

  10. Well, I think when I pass on, there will be a hole in some people’s lives. However, it will be up to them to measure it.

    “Being remembered” as a goal, though, is rather poor. After all, Nero is still quite well remembered. Or the Pharaoh of the Exodus for that matter (although his exact name is still disputed).

    1. Honestly? While I joke that my wife can sell tickets to my funeral because people will pay for what they want to see, I don’t expect a large turn-out for mine. Funerals are for the living, and my family will probably have other ideas, but they could just have a short graveside service as it’s likely to be a mighty empty church. So many friends and family have gone on.

      The world is all temporal, anyway. Five thousand years from now, the faces on Mount Rushmore will still be there, but most likely no one will know their names. If archeology remains the same, it’ll probably be written off as a religious artifact. While someone was discussing a new granite counter top at lunch, I suddenly suspected that my slab might one day wind up in someone’s kitchen, because people tend to reuse things.

      Depressing? Morbid? Maybe. Or maybe it’s the practical streak coming out. My father and I long ago planned to make our own caskets to save the family money, but my mother and my wife wouldn’t hear of it. My wife observed no one would probably be able to carry one we made (though that raised the possibility of picking people we didn’t like to be active pallbearers). And I’ve not forgotten that cemeteries in Europe are often recycled as a matter of practicality.

      The eternal, though, now that’s another issue, but it brings in the religious, and I’ll not go there. Well, one day I will, but you know what I mean.

      1. > Rushmore

        Some kind of gods. Obviously no civilization would put forth that kind of effort for anything less.

        Makes me wonder what they’d make of Crazy Horse…

        1. Crazy Horse was obviously a particularly arrogant king who designed himself a monument so grandiose that the primitives of his day couldn’t come anywhere near finishing it.

      2. This is a hair skewed to the topic, but it’s a real issue: What people want at their decease. My godmother died in 1999, and she explicitly told me she did *not* want a wake, because wakes are painful to the living. (She did want and did have a funeral mass.) We acceded to her desires, and there was no wake. The next summer my own mother died, and said nothing about her arrangements. We had a wake. People I barely knew came by and told me what a good person my mother was, as well as people (like the den mother of my Cub Scout pack!) whom I had not seen in decades. We laughed, we hugged one another, we told stories, and, yes, many of us cried. That’s how mourning works. Ducking out as quickly and as quietly as possible does not help the living through mourning.

        1. The (large) maternal side of the Red clan looks at funerals as a form of family reunions. Everyone shows up, we all bring food or chip in some other way, there’s a nice religious service, then we eat and catch up and tell stories. Mom Red’s generation had about two dozen cousins, so extended family means really, really extended, and that’s not counting the children of the cotton-patch cousins and cousins-by-second-marriage.

        2. Maybe it’s the Irish side of my family but the wake for us tend to be the memory of life and celebration of those still there while the funeral is the good-by.

    2. of course he Pharoah’s name is disputed, because the Egyptians kept records threat were more and more complete (better records the further along they were) and well, some people don’t like the idea of us saying “Moses fled Egypt in 2016 B.C.”

  11. I wonder how many of you writers will go to heaven thinking to enter a deserved rest only to be met by the rest of us who will repeatedly plead, “One more book please”? (Joke: does this come under the heading of not rest for the wicked?) I loved the poem about the ship and have copied it. Thanks.

  12. All things end, as all things must.
    The stars burn down and go to dust
    And so we bow our heads, and weep,
    But darling child, this secret keep
    They live, all that were bright and loved
    Forever, in the mind of God.

  13. In his book-long rant against his own (baby boom) generation Joe Queenan took time to rip the ‘trendy’ funeral. He claimed that after a particularly egregious one he went home and handed his son a baseball bat, telling the boy (amoung other things) that if, at his (Queenan’s) funeral anyone so much as mentioned the Tibetian Book of the Dead the kid should break their mf’ing knees.

    Funerals are ceremonies long on ritual and short on innovation for a reason.

    BTW the book is BALSAMIC DREAMS

    1. Shortest funeral I ever attended was of a friend who worked the Burma Hump in WWII. The preacher stepped to the front of the church and said he (the deceased), always believed that each of us preach our own funerals with our lives, and that being the case, would we all go to the graveside.

    2. A friend had terminal cancer. He wanted a funeral with beer and a New Orleans style marching band. When she made the funeral arrangements she rented the kegs and hired the band.

      His parents were appalled at the “disrespect” and tried all manner of methods to block it, including an attempt to get a court order. The beer and band showed up and the ceremony proceeded in due course.

      We’re pretty far inland, otherwise I suspect he would have demanded a Viking style funeral…

      1. I once wanted a Dixieland style funeral, but as I grew older realized just how true are the words of the mortician I heard say funerals are for the living, not the dead. My family will pick what they want.

      2. My grandmother had planned her entire funeral out but we never found the notebook with plans since it was completely unexpected. All we knew was the saints go marching on was to be the recessional and so it was

  14. Funeral Masses are for praying for the dead and encouraging the living to live better lives, in Catholic tradition, which leaves the pre- and post-funeral time open for wakes. (And that would be the time for beer, jokes, and the decedent’s favorite pop music.) Shoving the wake into Mass is less than a good idea, in my experience, even though a lot of people try to do it.

    One of the most comforting things I have done was attending the annual Requiem Mass at the CMAA Colloquium. It prays for all of the group’s dead members and for all the deceased relatives and friends of the membership, living and dead, as well as the dead of anyone who attends. There is nothing like it for strengthening the idea of the Communion of Saints, and that they are praying for us, too. (And it is curious how many grieving people just happen to come to church when a Requiem Mass is being said.)

    I love the drama of the “Dies Irae” (which is indeed meant for the living rather than the dead!), but I also love the traditional chant “In Paradisum” at the end of a funeral Mass. I only wish I had known it when we had funerals in the family when I was younger:

    “May the angels lead you into Paradise.
    At your coming, may the martyrs take you in,
    And lead you on into the holy city, Jerusalem.

    “May the choirs of angels receive you,
    And with Lazarus who once was poor,
    May you have eternal rest.”

    1. During every Orthodox liturgy, the priest prays these words:

      Again we pray for the blessed and ever-memorable, holy Orthodox patriarchs; for pious kings and right-believing queens; and for the founders of this holy temple, and for our fathers and brethren gone to their rest before us, and for the Orthodox here and everywhere laid to rest.

      At every Divine Liturgy the dead are prayed for.

      1. Every Catholic Mass, every Eucharistic prayer:
        Remember those who have died in the peace of Christ and all the dead whose faith is known to you alone.

  15. I will take this opportunity to honor a man I never met. Alan Caruba had a blog called Warning Signs. ( He died after surgery almost a year ago. I have not taken his link from my RSS feeder, I really enjoyed his opinions and his take on things. He still lives in my mind. I hope there are others who feel that way about him.

    1. Tsk – I am saddened at this news. I recall reading his Warning Signs regularly a decade or so ago, when I had more time for such leisure and before losing all my bookmarks several generations of computer ago. A clear thinker and accurate writer.

      And just now, while looking for a different name entirely I have learned of the passing of Dave Swarbrick, a fiddler of surpassing grace, whose collaborations with guitarist Martin Carthy helped launch Britain’s folk revival of the mid-Sixties.

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