Friday night I headed to Orlando to attend the Center For Inquiry's annual conference. Work kept me from making it in time for the Friday opening events, but I stopped in at the hotel anyway just to see if anything was still going on, and ended up running into Rudi and Terry, two other Alcor members that I knew would be there. We ended up staying up chatting with the other folks there (mostly people there for the CFI conference, but also a small contingent of radical Libertarians from UF) until waaaaay too late. I eventually tore myself away from the conversation and headed to joreth's place to get a little (very little!) sleep.
A few hours and a couple of photos of joreth with a cat standing on her later I was back at the conference hotel meeting Terry & Rudi for breakfast. We largely stuck together throughout the day, and it was definitely a bonding experience.
The conference was, in short, fantastic. The presentation topics varied from stem cells and the moral definition of personhood to the Dover County Intelligent Design trial to the biological seat of consciousness. It was very informative, thought-provoking stuff being presented by people closely involved in their respective fields, and I took fairly copious notes.
As interesting and high-brow as the presentations were though, I think that the high point was the informal conversation and fellowship that spontaneously arose. There were only about 50 people total in attendance, so there was plenty of opportunity to interact with just about everyone, and this was a fascinating and intelligent group of people! I see a lot of value in getting information and opinion from diverse sources, but every once in a while it's nice to enjoy the exclusive company of like-minded folks who share your basic world view. I didn't necessarily agree with everything that was said, but it was a real treat to have a skeptical, secular humanist position be the baseline starting point of conversation rather than being the topic in and of itself.
I finally got to have lunch with James Hughes, author of Citizen Cyborg, who was one of the presenters. I'd missed out on an opportunity to meet him along with serolynne, tacit, and some other folks interested in transhumanism a couple of years ago.
I was pleasantly surprised by the diverse age range of the attendees, though honestly it wasn't a factor at all. I was also surprised that one of the youngest people there (I believe she's 19) expressed a strong interest in cryonics, and the three of us were all to happy to discuss it with her and a few of the other attendees. Rudi provides life insurance funding for cryonics and is an even more outspoken proponent of it than I am (yes, that's possible!), and he came away from the event with a few referrals.
While I was at the conference I got an SMS message from femetal letting me know that her Grandma Bobye Jo was dying. I called her and we decided to head to Boca Raton Sunday afternoon and see her on Monday.
I'm not terribly close to Bobye Jo, but I've always been fond of her for several reasons. She's a genuinely impressive woman, and I think that many of the traits that I love in femetal- intelligence, strength, independence, and a love of office supplies- are directly attributable to her influence.
Her health has been declining for the last few years, but to see her on Monday was heartbreaking. She was being fairly heavily medicated, but it was clear that it was only going so far toward making her more comfortable. I think I only saw her open her eyes once very briefly when Kim's cousin Nicole (who's been her primary caretaker for some time) let her know that we were there. She wasn't even really capable of speaking, only managing to grunt out a mostly-unintelligible word here and there.
In this situation, completely incapacitated and on her death bed, her true character still showed through. As we spent the day with her it became ever so slightly easier to understand her speech (though at best maybe 1 word in 20 was really comprehensible). When asked if she'd like to be repositioned or have her fan moved, her affirmative response was "yes, please." Think about that for a moment. In a situation where breathing is agony and uttering even a single syllable is a herculean effort, she still placed such value on courtesy and decorum that a mere "yes" was not enough. "Yes please." The clearest words I heard during our entire visit were "thank you."
I was floored by this display of character, but also torn apart by the realization that accompanied it- She's still in there! She was aware of her situation and what was going on around her, and I can't imagine how she must have been suffering physically, but despite her best efforts couldn't communicate her needs and desires to the family gathered around her. So we stood around, largely impotent, and tried to guess at what would make her more comfortable. The frustration of being trapped inside oneself and unable to say "my foot itches" or "that pillow is poking me in the side" or "I can't fucking breathe" had to be terrible- possibly the worst part of the entire situation.
I wanted so desperately to fix it! Why couldn't we just move her still-functioning brain into a non-broken body? Why couldn't we at least upload her so that her experience and personality and presence aren't so easily and so permanently lost? Why couldn't I just read her mind to find out how to make her comfortable? Why couldn't I take a simple good, deep breath for her? Seriously, somebody needs to develop an efficient mechanism with a low learning curve that will allow people with extremely limited motor control to communicate basic needs. I'm thinking of something faster than what Stephen Hawking uses, with the acceptable trade-off of perhaps more constrained communication, where the user can quickly and easily say "left foot itch" or "too hot" or "hungry" or "can't breathe".
I am not a friend of death, but I don't think I've ever really understood what motivated anklesnake to take up her "dragonslayer" quest on such a visceral level before that day.
Bobye Jo Kirkland died late Monday night, 2/25/2008 at the age of 83. :-( As I type this we're back in Boca, and the memorial service will be tomorrow afternoon.