Thursday, August 26, 2010


I near the end of this “summer of death”. It appears as if every other e-mail I get is informing me about the particulars of somebody’s death. I was just informed the other day about the death of a relative whom I have never met. The e-mail’s title was her name and the word “died”. It took me a few minutes to figure out who she was. Apparently she was the third wife of the father of my step-mother. Never met the deceased woman, only met him a couple of times back over 20 years ago. She was nice people as far as I know, but I have to reach in order to make a connection between myself and this woman. When I do make the connection she nestles comfortably into the deadly gestalt I have made of this summer.

Pattern making is something the human brain does very well. It would not be too far off the mark to state that the human brain is a pattern-making machine. One can easily imagine the selective advantage gleaned from making connections between important events, and then identifying correlated phenomena. The patterns can even become self-referentially enabled. For instance a proto-human named Bob sees zebras running just before Carl is eaten by a lion; the next time zebras are running Bob runs also and is not eaten, and this proves a correlation between zebras running and being eaten by a lion. The pattern is created by the events surrounding Carl’s demise, and subsequent activities -simply by fitting into the pattern- help to prove the pattern.

What happens when there is no underlying cause unifying the correlated events? Correlation does not require causation. We can imagine how the zebra’s flight might be caused by the same hungry lion that ate Carl. What if Bob noticed a peculiarly shaped stone when Carl was eaten so every time he saw a similar shape of stone he ran, and was subsequently not eaten by a lion? It is obvious that foolish patterns could result.

I do not think there is any unifying causation in the multitude of deaths connected with me this summer. I cannot imagine any rational connection between an old woman’s death in Wisconsin and a middle-aged smoker’s death in Connecticut, and …and... any of the other three recent deaths. My mind grasps for a connection where there is not one. In the absence of rational connection I am perfectly capable of imagining irrational ones.

I can pick away at the set of irrational links with a small amount of rational examination. The fact that I am connected to each of the deaths can easily be explained away by the subjectivity principal. None of the deaths would be put into the pattern machine if I had not been connected to the death or the person who died. In other words: “If I was not thinking about the death then I would not be thinking about the death”. There are just too many people dying in the world for these deaths to make a pattern just because they happened in my cognitive vicinity.

Some other correlations I dismiss out of hand. "His noodly appendage" is not communicating lottery numbers through the combination of the Julian death dates of the departed (I’m sorry my pirate friends). The birthdates of the departed cannot be combined to yield the time the world will end. There are many potential causations whose implications outstrip the impact of the events themselves, and I dismiss these with impunity.

Still the mind forces connections. I felt the electricity of a summer thunderstorm, and watched its grey tendrils sweep across a desert valley; I connected this to the personalities of the dead.  I saw the full moon setting over a mountain ragged western horizon this morning, and made connections to the timing of this summer of death. I could feel the impact of the moonlight as if it bathed me in warmth transcendent of the very efficient mini-van temperature-control I was enjoying.

“Labor day is coming” I thought “One more new moon before summer slips into fall. The Autumnal equinox will be here soon enough.”

The full moon is iconic. There is a primordial urge to connect the moon's cyclic patterns of illumination with everything. When I connected the feeling generated by the full moon with the incomplete pattern agonized over by my mind it felt like the key had found the lock.

There is, of course, no causal connection between the moon’s phase, the sun’s position in the sky, and these random deaths. I can drive a correlation. As the equinox arrives, and the deaths diminish (or hopefully stop) it will enable my pattern. Time is measured in cycles of the moon, and after a certain amount of time this statistical clustering of events will end.

This too shall pass.

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