Death row, life row

Every year by All Saints Day we remember the deceased and perhaps, just for an instant, think about death. A great deal all philosophy and religion is a meditation on death. In literature there is the recent Nothing to be frightened of by Julian Barnes.

I remember some news about a book written by a Texas Death Row Chef. In the USA those going to be executed have the right to see their spiritual adviser, choose a last meal (a site with some examples: and  prepare a last statement to be released (a list by the Texas department of criminal Justice).
I confess that I couldn’t resist the curiosity, whatever morbid, of taking a look at them. I feel justified when I realise that, as I’m not going to escape death, somehow I’m in the Death Row too. Last meal and statement are a good opportunity to think about one’s own attitude towards death.
Most of last meal requests are not elaborate cooking, just fast food, for instance “a bacon cheeseburger with jalapeños, french fries, two slices of apple pie with vanilla ice cream and sweetened iced tea” or “One whole fried chicken (extra crispy), salad with Thousand Island dressing, French toast, two diet Cokes, one apple pie, and French fries“ (Why diet coke?)
The problem of choosing one’s last menu is a reduced version of the question “What makes me happy?” after a “Carpe Diem” invitation. An extended version would include the possibility of choosing a last view or scene, listening to a particular music, perhaps a last trip to some place. I’m not sure what my elections would be. From the point of view of the last opportunity, everything seems precious, a sophisticated menu or just an apple, may be red wine and cheese; a last trip to a lake in the Pyrennees or contemplating the faces of people commuting to work in the morning.
Many of the last statements I’ve read express regret to the families of the victims killed, and love to their own. Often they have found comfort in religion. Some of them address too the other fellows on the Row and the wardens. Some declined the opportunity of making a statement and a few can’t help a profanity.

Yes I do.  To my family, to my friends, and people who have accepted me for being the person that I am.  To the Sullivan and Hayden families, I do not come here with the intention to make myself out to be a person that I am not.  I never claimed to be the best person.  I am not the best father, the best son, or the best friend in the world.  I did the best I could with what I had.  I come with no hate in my heart or bitterness.  To my family and to you people, I can only apologize for all the pain I caused you.  May God forgive us on this day.  I am ready when you are.

Yes. I just want to let you all know that I appreciate the love and support over the years. I will see you when you get there. Keep your heads up. To all the fellows on the Row, the same thing. Keep your head up and continue to fight. Same thing to all my pen friends and other friends, I love you all. I can taste it.

Uh, I don’t know, Um, I don’t know what to say.  I don’t know.  (pauses)  I didn’t know anybody was there.  Howdy.

The reading is devastating,  particularly for the frequent “I’m ready, Warden” at the end. This statement allows the condemned to release a balance, an account of life, ask forgiveness for the evil done and express affection. While it’s unlikely that most of us are going to make explicit such a balance, I guess that sometime we will think about people we did harm, whether intentionally or not, or people we would have liked to express affection, and did not. When I think what I would say it is not an easy exercise.
For those who really would like to do it, there is what is called a “legacy letter”, or “ethical will” where people express love, or regret and try to transmit their values. This can be particularly important in case of parents terminally ill that want to leave a guidance message for their children.
I said that somehow, as we cannot escape it, we too are living in the Death Row. It’s just the execution date is not fixed and, of course, our cell can be quite comfortable, perhaps a couch and TV set, some books and even a nice view. We can attend visitors or share the cell with whoever. We can cook the meals we want or even go out to a restaurant. No wardens are watching us, we can go out, wander, explore neighbourhoods, cities, mountains, rivers and go back only if we want to. There are so many differences that it reminds me of an old joke: “Waiter, please, cafè latte, but no milk, and instead of coffee, I’d like whisky”. Well that’s a whisky, not cafè latte. This is not Death Row, but Life Row!


The track of Life, emotional geographies

A life long GPS track would provide information about where we have been every minute, the geographical coordinates of the places we have been living in, places we have travelled to. But we wouldn’t know whether, at that particular time we were in a creative mood, or on the contrary, crossing spaces of routine following the crowd, enjoying leisure or enduring hard work, interested in projects or bored, happy or depressed. Those would be coordinates to locate in a vital or emotional geography. It could be something like this:

1. Following the crowd
2.Doped with entertainment
3.the plain of boredom
4.a deep hole of depression
5.carrying a heavy load up a steep hill, like Sisyphus
6.moving the waterwheel of routine
7.the delightful garden of love
8.the room of arts, science and literature
9.the creativity workshop, building projects
10.exploring wonders, landscapes, cultures
11.the yard of leisure, play and relax
12.on the cloud of ecstasy
Those poor scribbles have illustre precedents, most of them can be seen at the superb site strangemaps.
The german map of the Empire of Love (Reich der Liebe) de 1777, depicts trips from the Land of Youth, where there are the forest of love or the river of Wish, to other territories such as the Land of Rest, the Land of Mourning Love, with the Flood of Tears and Whim Mountain; the Land of Lust with Illness Valley, the wonderful Land of Happy Love where we can find  “Pleasant View”  or the fountain of Joy; Bachelor Country or the dangerous Land of Obsessions  with the City of Dreams. Who can deny having visited some of those lands?
There is also the french “Carte de Tendre”, with the geography of love, measured in “lieues d’amitié” (love miles). We follow the course of “Inclination River” from the “New Friendship” village to the city of Tendre-sur-Reconnaissance, crossing the towns of “Petits soins” or “Great Favours”, avoiding other places like the fortress of Pride, or the Village of Oblivion that could lead us to the Sea of Enmity or the Lac of Indifferance. Don’t you know someone that lost his way because of orientation difficulties?
And more recently, in 2004, by Grayson Perry, “Every englishman is an island” a geography of mind depicted as an island with the seas of mental disorders around. There regions such as Posh (where we find Classic FM, Chardonnay, Ioga), Sex, Romance and Love, Cliche, Dreams (motorbikes, sixties), Wishes or Fear. How would our map look like?