Sally Daniels Pettit (1922-2015)
Sally Daniels Pettit was born on August 29, 1922 in Worcester, MA the daughter of Dwight and Esther Daniels. She had one sister, Mary. After graduating from Garland Junior College in Boston, MA, she served the country in World War II, stationed with the US Navy from 1943 to 1946 as a Pharmacist Mate. After the war, on December 23, 1946 she married William Oscar Pettit, Jr. They had two children, Sarah and Bill, and four grandchildren, Emily, Sarah, Robert and Cynthia.
Sally was President of the Worcester Garden Club. She was an expert in Ikibana, (the Japanese art of flower arranging) and a gifted watercolorist. Sally volunteered at the Memorial Hospital, the Junior League of Worcester, and the All Saints Church Worcester. On February 24, 2015, Sally Daniels Pettit died peacefully at her home.
What is this convention “The End?” Why do we write the words out: “The End?” on the last page of a novel, or the last frame of a film. Isn’t it self evident that the movie is over? I suppose the words themselves act a framing device: this is the end of the defined story arc, this is the closing bracket of a finite set of themes, here are the edges of meaning. Yet, the very inclusion of the words, their use value and necessity, the fact that we bother to say the words over and over—The end. The end. The end—the fact that we need to say them over and over for the sake of sense-making suggests that this is not the end of the story, that there are no objective endings, that all stories in fact go on forever if viewed on a grander scale. As if they are just one single chapter of an unending master narrative. For instance, take Sally, my grandmother, in the postmodern, multi-generational, shifting-narrative novel that is the whole human race, Sally’s story is far from over, it continues in me, in all her ancestors and all her decedents, in all those who knew her and those who didn’t. And now, in all of you…
So, If stories don’t end, cannot end, if the finite arc is arbitrary and framed for narrative effect or convenience only, what then of death itself?
The doomsday clock is a symbolic clock face representing the countdown to the end of the world. It has been maintained by atomic scientists at the University of Chicago since 1947 when the threat of total nuclear annihilation loomed large. The clock was conceived by the scientists of the Manhattan Project who ironically invented both nuclear weapons, as well as the clock that counts down to their detonation. In 1947, the clock was set at 7 minutes to midnight. Slowly as the cold war eased, the clock slipped back, resting at 14 minutes to midnight in 1995. Since then it has ticked slowly forward, and now in 2015, the clock has advanced to just 3 minutes to midnight. 11:57. That is where we stand today. 11:57. For the following stated reasons: “Unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity, and world leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe. These failures of political leadership endanger every person on Earth.”
Doomsday scientists theorize about how exactly the world might end. Roughly, they break possible endings into two types: ‘End of the world’ and ‘End of the world as we know it’ or TEOTWAWKI. The End of the World is the undeniable end of world, i.e. our planet. There are many ways the planet might be destroyed, asteroid, solar collision, lunar collision, orbit adjustment, polar shift, yet my favorite of these scenarios is “universe explosion”. Imagine: we’re all sitting here on earth arguing about climate change and then somewhere just outside the boundaries of our perception “snap” the universe explodes, taking us unceremoniously with it. No one ever expects universe explosion.
TEOTWAWKI scenarios, on the other hand, involve endings in which the rock known as Earth goes on, but life as we know it on the surface ends. Ice Age, global warming, collapse of government, massive die off, disease, extinction, etc - think Mad Max, Waterworld The Road, Walking Dead. In 2010 scientists at Oxford calculated the likelihood of human extinction in the next 100 years at around 15%. In their study, the most likely contender was a TEOTWAKI scenario (and my personal favorite): known as Grey Goo. Basically, self-replicating nanobots, robots, weaponized nanobots, or bio technology gone awry consume the carbon-based life on earth. For example, an offshore oil rig explodes; there is a massive oil spill; the oil company releases a specialized molecular nanotechnology designed to consumer oil particulate. It mutates, develops a taste for carbon-based life forms, and as projected by hypothetical computer models, consumes all carbon based life on earth in a short (and devastating) 72 hours. TEOTWAWKI.
At the heart of this binary—end of the world vs. end of the world as we know— is a telling semantic difference. What constitutes the end of the world, depends on how we define “the world,” introducing a modifier (which both embodies and leave room for our unknowing): “as we know it”. The end of the world, and the end of the world (as we know it). Back to death then. Is the human body, like the earth, a vessel, or is it the thing itself? Is Death the end of life? or the end of life (as we know it)?
I knew a boy once who I loved as deeply and passionately as we fought. We spent a blissful, surreal, drunken, hallucinatory and sad few years together until one day I came home and he was gone. The end. He had left. taken his things and disappeared without a word. The house was empty. His number was changed or disconnected. The sort of thing that happens in country songs, but seems far too dramatic for real life. Total annihilation. Massive extinction. Universe explosion.
There is a way that in the face of such trauma, we run our fingers back across the string of time to understand such an inexplicable event, to flip the pages of the narrative back searching for the red sky or one-eyed crow that portended the End of days. Once, years earlier, on a road trip he and I took up the coast of California, our car was engulfed in a biblical downpour. We grew tired of driving. So, we pulled over for the night at a motel that promised to be kitschy, and hence sexual. Such is the set up of many movies that do not end well). The Madonna Inn. It’s a famous spot, and like the rough California coast on which its perched, it has the semblance of being magical and romantic. Yet, it is not a geography that bends lightly to mannerist plans and wills. Ancient, mystical, brutal, and prehistoric. It is a land of earth quakes, violent waves, and primordial vegetation. Though the pacific coast suggests a passionate surging of water and rock, I suspect more often than not people crash their lives against that shore.
All of the rooms were decorated with bedroom theatre in mind. Walls carved out rocks, in-suite waterfalls, Georgian furnishings, colored light bulbs, velvet wallpaper and shag. Think David Lynch meets Louis the 14th meets Pee Wee’s playhouse. Beautiful, but with a deep undercurrent of death, like a journey up the amazon into the heart of darkness. We were given the Austrian suite, which I can only describe as Mozart’s bedroom on the last night before the Nazi invasion. Accordingly, We had a small argument, but the opulent Arian furnishings demanded something more, something epic, victorian, primal and Jurassic. The very surreal nature of the interior design, forces onto my memory, a vivid and ugly scene which can neither by forgotten, nor reconciled. We made up and went on as if nothing so filmic had happened; the trip continued and our life together moved forward. However, despite our delusional attempts at normalcy, we were in fact already dead, shuffling around for years, like ghosts that don’t know they’ve died.
In the future, there will be a ground zero for the zombie apocalypse - when the disease mutates and the first human is infected. Days later, the entire human race, 7 billion people, will be zombies. TEOTWAWKI. But after that day, there will still be the years of the undead shuffle, as the zombies drag heels through the american shopping malls until at last the universe thankfully explodes, putting an end to the glassy-eyed, brain eating, madness.
An old laborer, bent double with age and toil, was gathering sticks in a forest. At last he grew so tired and hopeless that he threw down the bundle of sticks, and cried out: “I cannot bear this life any longer. Ah, I wish Death would only come and take me!"As he spoke, Death, a grisly skeleton, appeared and said to him: "What do you want, Mortal? I heard you call me."“Please, sir,” replied the woodcutter, “would you kindly help me to lift this faggot of sticks back onto my shoulder?”
This story reminds me that there are a number of ways a painting can end. One, perhaps the least flattering, is that its time runs out. Universe explosion. Time is single most valuable resource on earth, and for us, the most finite. We may theorize that time is infinite, looped, warped and bent, yet the observable and experiential reality is of a single straight line, on which we are always moving forward, speeding up, until the sudden stop. To be a professional painter is to live by the deadlines of exhibitions, art fairs, group shows, talks, book projects, and shows. When time is over, such that the shippers arrive to pack up the work and take it away - the painting declares itself “finished” regardless of my own intentions. Such is the nature of the reaper. Accidental, sudden, unpredictable and unnegotiable death.
More often than not though, the end is more calculated, a careful weighing of cost and benefit. In any painting there is always long To Do list of what it would take to finish it. The list begins with tasks that constitute filling in, covering the blank canvas with color and shape. I need to put a flower here, or a white wall over there. And then the list shifts into more fixing of things. This flower is too pink. The wall is too brushy. One would think it straightforward, but such lists have a way of becoming never ending, as color and balance are relative, and to fix one area is to throw another into crisis. Think Middle Eastern politics on the micro scale of small canvas. At the beginning, those changes are easy. What do I have to lose? But as I move forward, those changes become more emotional and difficult. In order to repaint the flower, I risk making it worse, or destroying it all together. In any complex system, balance is tenuous.
It is the parable of the pre-war brownstone. I live in old building, built it 1865. Miraculously, defying the inevitable logic of decay, It has achieved kind of balance that comes in old age where on any given day, nothing is breaking, though the entire building might collapse at any time. Once, I had the idea of updating a bathroom fixture, a small and simple faucet. I removed the old fixture, which with it took the pipe. I opened up the wall to fix the pipe, which broke the tile, I removed the tile, which revealed the mold, I removed the walls which revealed rotten studs, rats, cockroaches and crumbling decay. Less than 6 hours after commencing a simple fixture upgrade, I was standing in the apocalyptic rubble of a fully-gutted bathroom. The moral: don’t fix anything, unless you are prepared to fix everything.
So it is with a painting. There is no ‘save as’, no returning to some previous version. Any change I make is forever, and overworking will quickly destroy the whole thing and necessitate starting over. The desire for so-called perfection, which itself is a myth, will only drive the entire system to ruin. So it is then, that eventually there comes a moment when what I might gain by any single change is not worth what it would cost if fully destroyed. Many things are left undone in death. So, I leave any painting, like my apartment, not at a level of finish or perfection, but at a point of tenuous balance. Nothing is leaking. Nothing is one fire. Just slowly back away, so as not to scatter the house of cards I have built.
The end of painting is not its death. Time still moves forward. Change is inevitable. Though we may see its face as fixed, oil paint takes some year to dry, and all the while is changing, it linen breathing in and out like a lung swelling in contractions of heat and moisture. Changes will happen. Damages will occur. Colors fade, surfaces scratch, yellow, crack, large dents appear, warping, wafting. The oldest known painting on earth is 37000 years old, the oldest painting on paper is around 3000 year old. And the oldest painting on canvas about 600 years old. A painting of mine just might last 1000 years (though doubtful), but it will not last forever. Its death comes in destruction. When its body dies. Rotted, burned, tossed out, stolen, ripped to shreds. That is the end of the world, but what then of the end of the world as we know it?
Felix Gonzalez-Torres was a conceptual artist. He was dying of aids. He had a lover who also died of aids. Ross. He thought a lot about death, longevity, time and the finitude of the body. The body is a flawed system, prone to weakness, failure, illness, collapse and death. The body, the physical object is doomed to destruction, but what about the concept, the idea, the mind? Exploring this divide, he conceived of artworks that did not have a fixed form, but rather were replenished with every showing. Artworks of malleable manifestation. He would show piles of candy, new candy would be bought with each show; he would show stacks of posters, new posters would be printed with each show; and he would show light strings, whose bulbs would be replaced when they burned out. The artwork itself was its concept, sold and transferred as a right to reproduce its form according to a set of malleable and open-ended instructions. Ostensibly, this is the singularity. The essence of the piece is contained in a transferable set of instructions. There is no weak or fallible body, and the work attains immortality.
Take one of his light sting pieces specifically. It is a literal string of light bulbs, like a string of christmas lights, but with large bulbs, hung from a wall, a ceiling or piled on the floor. As bulbs die out, they are replaced. As the string is damaged, it is repaired or replaced. Seemingly, this transference could go on indefinitely. Only now, a generation later we begin to see the limits of the singularity and nature of conceptual death. Specifically, the incandescent bulb is nearing extinction. It is illegal in Europe, and is almost gone from American shelves. So today, when a bulbs go out, what now? Can they be replaced by CFLs? LEDS? LEDs that look like incandescents? Surely the aesthetics of the original bulbs were part of the piece? But one could equally argue that the nowness and contemporary nature of its technology were equally part of the piece, such that holding onto an antiquated bulb might cause the piece to change, to look vintage or nostalgic. And what about in 50 years when its not the bulbs that are in question by the cords, when electricity itself moves through the air by some miraculous transference? Where does the piece lie? Is its essence a sting of bulbs? A string of light? A sequence of lights? A sculpture of light by whatever technology is present at that moment?
What I’m getting at is the difference between physical death and conceptual death. We know when a body dies, but what of an idea? When does an idea die? When does a concept die? The act of moving one technology to the next was dubbed as remediation by media theorist Lev Manovich. Record to tape to cd to mp3. But can a concept (song, idea, artwork, story) be translated and mediated indefinitely? Is each rendition an equivalent copy to the original? Or, like a xerox is information lost or noise added along the way? If we keep up with technology and never lapse, outrunning obsolescence, can art, an idea, a concept or even a person, live forever? This is the dream underlying the singularity, but is there a threshold? A moment at which the world has changed so much that the even the original idea can no longer be translated or understood? The end of the world, AS WE KNOW IT.
Samuel Beckett said “Just under the surface I shall be, all together at first, then separate and drift, through all the earth and perhaps in the end through a cliff into the sea, something of me, a ton of worms in an acre, that is a wonderful thought, a ton of worms, I believe it.”
My paternal grandmother, Betsy, is already dead. After her husband passed away, she withdrew from the world, slowly, little by little, as a sugar cube dissolves into iced tea. She lost the ability to speak, or stopped trying. She could no longer walk without help, or even raise her arms to slip on her dressing gown, an ornate quilted robe, embroidered with orchids, suggesting some bygone time of effortless grace. A nurse would feed her, dress her, take her to the bathroom and to bed. The only remaining activity of her days, was to sit quietly, on a tufted high wingback chair, gazing out the window, unmoving, ostensibly watching the boats of Quissett harbor or the dark ocean beyond.
One Christmas, there was a heavy storm. Almost 3 feet of snow erased cape cod. My father and i had been set to arrive on Christmas eve, but we were delayed, on our way, though pushing slowly forward against a dense embankment of New England snow. It was early christmas morning, as we were driving furiously toward her, that my grandmother awoke in the middle of the night, alone, in the small hours between her usual sleeping and waking times. She walked down the stairs alone, as she had not done in perhaps 10 years. She made her way to the basement, where she had perhaps never been. She rummaged through bin of clothes, how, I don’t know. She found a fur coat, her fanciest one, a jewel encrusted walking cane that had been her mothers, a jewelry box, and her finest necklace. She constructed an outfit from these items, not bothering to remove her long and crimson nightgown, which under the weight of fur and art deco gold read as an elegant silk evening dress. She composed herself fastidiously, always, and no different on this occasion. She climbed the stairs, to the front door, braced herself against cold, opened it and walked out in the pink light of dawn. I imagine her crossing the yard, padding both gingerly and with great effort through the snow drifts. I image her moving toward the harbor, looking out out into the infinite and receding horizon of the Atlantic ocean, and then, after some time, at last and forever, I imagine her lying down. We arrived around 7am that morning, christmas morning, just as warm and yellow sunlight spilled across the violet translucence of untouched snow. And we found her there, immaculate, as if she had just fallen asleep in the backseat of a cab on the way home from an opera.
Right now, we are in New york. When this is all over, you will walk out those doors onto the streets of the Village. For me, and I suspect for many people of my generation, this is shore of new york onto which we crashed. Many of the storied nights of my misspent youth were spent on these streets and in these dives. Here is one:
I am stoned. The most stoned I have ever been and ever will be. Normally, I do not smoke weed, and for good reason, but on this night, due to a variety of cliches (something about a boy) I wasn’t just mildly buzzed, but devastatingly tripping. Total wall melting hallucination. Universe Explosion. Albanian weed. (Or at least weed from an Albanian guy.) Willie Nelson comes on the stereo. All of me. Why not take all of me. “Quick”, I say “We have to get out the apartment. The walls are caving in or else its filling up with black water in here. Quick!” Now we are outside on the streets of New York City, under the infinity of sky, blackness, light, noise and possibility. This is the feeling, that feeling stepping out into Manhattan on a crisp winter night. Tonight, in a few short minutes, that will be you, standing at the base of the infinitude, surrounded by the silly symphony of light and sound. Infinite possibility. Pragmatism. Manifest Destiny. Illimitable progress. I can hear the taxis, beep beep beeping. And though we are 5 blocks away, I can still hear Willie Nelson, in the variable tones of their horns. Think about it: Across the entirety of the city at any and every moment, you can pick out every tone audible to the human ear in the notes present in the doppler effect of a car horn. Beeeep. The descending scale of a screeching taxi as it speeds past you. If you stretch your mind to encompass every block of Manhattan, at any moment you can hammer the individual car horns in the air, like the mallets that sound a piano, deftly playing any melody in their tones and duration. I send my mind across five boroughs to find each note of the song and place it on its given beat on the timeline. All of me. Why not take all of me.
When does a song end? Does it end when the record stops and the needle drags across the circumference of its label? But isn’t it always playing? When I hit stop, isn’t there always someone somewhere just hitting play? And what of the echo in my mind? Long after the last note has sounded, the melody carries on for minutes or hours, like a wave crossing the harbor toward the shore. Does it end when the last person on earth who ever heard the song passes away? When the last digital and physical copies are lost, unplayable, forgotten and destroyed? But isn’t its melody still there in the air itself, like the car horn or the wind blowing across an empty bottle? Does the song ever end, or does it just hover unseen in the air, where it always was, always will be, where it will return, just waiting to be plucked out, note by note, one more time before the universe explodes.