In the living room the voice-clock sang
January 27, 2015 9:06 AM   Subscribe

Deathhacks: Tech tips for people who are going to die (someday) Jessamyn West (Mefi's own) describes the challenges that came with being executrix of her father's estate, and his house.
posted by zabuni (73 comments total) 143 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is really fascinating and informative, wonderfully written. I wonder what that transponder was.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:22 AM on January 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


I hope Jessamyn doesn't mind, but reading this led me to realize that her father, Tom, was a pretty astonishing dude. Some of it is mentioned in the second link, and the Boston Globe obit from that link is quite good. Here's his NYTimes obit, and, as they all inevitably mention, he was the protagonist of Tracy Kidder's The Soul of a New Machine.
posted by maxsparber at 9:26 AM on January 27, 2015 [15 favorites]


Been through this. Know it well. No way to really prepare except to talk about it while you are still able. And no one wants to do that because it's morbid and you want your parents to live forever.
posted by 3.2.3 at 9:31 AM on January 27, 2015


Great story, nice title.

I guess I shouldn't be shocked at this point, but the part of the article where Jessamyn mentions the scammers that pulled emails from a condolence website to phish her friends and relatives is really depressing.
posted by math at 9:35 AM on January 27, 2015 [6 favorites]


Wow, that's a great essay.

A few months into this slow-motion hackathon, we were celebrating my birthday. Friends put spitting smokey sparklers on cupcakes, trying to be festive. A disembodied voice from the ceiling started booming “FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!” which, as it happens, is a line from the Bradbury story. As we extinguished the sparklers and I scrambled to figure out how to stop the yelling, the phone started ringing. A man’s voice at the other end asked me for a password. This is how I learned that the house had an alarm system.

If my dad weren't suffering from age-related cognitive decline, I would totally expect this sort of thing from him. As it is, I'm already tracking a bunch of his passwords/usernames...
posted by suelac at 9:35 AM on January 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's a trifle morbid, but I thought the "suicide website" left behind by Martin Manley was a terrific idea. Manley lays out in detail the reasons why he's taking his own life, and gives readers a summation of who he was, in his own words. Obituaries and memorials by others can only give a view of a person's life from outside, but Manley's self-memorial let readers see him through his own eyes. It's unfortunate that Manley left this as a suicide note, but I wish everyone I knew had a document like this.
posted by Enemy of Joy at 9:36 AM on January 27, 2015 [11 favorites]


This was an excellent read. I know it isn't the cheeriest thing to think about or talk about, but I am currently in the process of trying to convince (cajole/plead/beg) my own parents to please put a will together ASAP. Especially since my father has a serious illness and the odds are high one day my mom will left on her own. I am pretty sure I will be asked to take Jessamyn's role in that event and will have to do all manner of figuring out stuff because no one else in my family will be up to doing so.
posted by Kitteh at 9:38 AM on January 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm really curious about that shop vac on a timer.
posted by rebent at 9:50 AM on January 27, 2015 [8 favorites]


What a great read. I agree wholeheartedly...Talk about this stuff now!

I recently went through something very similar last summer, as I was moving my mom into an Alzheimer's care facility, and liquidating her assets in order to eventually qualify her for Medicaid assistance. It may have been a postmortem effort, given the finality of it all.

The weirdest, saddest silly little thing that unexpectedly affected me was when I cancelled mom's home phone service. My family had had that number since the early 60's. It was "our" number. The one everyone knew us by. It was as much a part of our identity as our name. It felt a bit like putting-down the family dog.

~The cable company, when called, wouldn’t let me downgrade my dad’s service without receiving a faxed copy of the death certificate and a letter outlining my executrixship.

Wow, that's shitty. Mom had DirecTV (or Dish...I forget which) and I called their 800 number to cancel service. The guy on the other end started into a customer-retention pitch, but as soon as I told him she had Alzheimer's, that seemed to change things immediately. They sent me the box to return the tuner and that was that.

That's a great photo at the end of the story, btw. That's album cover stuff.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:50 AM on January 27, 2015 [8 favorites]


What an absolutely terrific piece, jessamyn. This kind of thing is such a service to people and I appreciate hearing about you tackled the unique challenges posed by people's interactions with technology and their digital legacy, as it were. You were left a challenging puzzle.

Ray Bradbury wrote about a future-world house that had a life after its occupants’ deaths. You might have read it.

Indeed! IIRC this is like the first- or second-most requested short story ID on AskMe.

Also I think this would make for kind of a great radio piece (as would much other stuff you write, but this has a particular kind of multi-audience appeal).
posted by Miko at 9:51 AM on January 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


Lord, this was fascinating. I'm the executrix for my father's estate. Reading this actually (for once) makes me really glad Dad was such a Luddite and so I'm mostly just dealing with the physical paperwork of shutting down someone's life, instead of having to deal with ghost tech as well.
posted by gudrun at 10:01 AM on January 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


That phishing email from the funeral home memorial site impersonating Jessamyn's sister is a new astonishing level of awful I didn't think humans were capable of. That's really one of the most terrible things I've ever heard of connected to the internet, to trick grieving relatives with a fake email from a prominent family member.
posted by mathowie at 10:01 AM on January 27, 2015 [17 favorites]


I really love Jessamyn's writing. Always have. This, "We finally called some friends of Webster’s, Killer and Moose, real names unknown," is just a piece of beauty to me.

Great article.

I wonder what that transponder was

If it was X-10, it's a little wireless transmitter that can be hooked up serially to a computer to send to signals to turn on or off anything that has a power cord and can be left in an "on" position. I had much of my house wired up with them about fifteen years ago, but as the modules started dying, I just left them and went back to switches.

Not nearly as cool, but, on the other hand, not nearly as aggravating when I want to turn on a light and have lost the remote control.

If it wasn't the X-10 components she was talking about earlier in the article, I have no idea.
posted by quin at 10:09 AM on January 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


I guess I'm sort of grateful that Mom has had to deal with so many family deaths: starting with Dad when I was little, then her father, Dad's parents, and finally her mother. Because from conversations with my sis who lives with her, I know that she's got her stuff NAILED DOWN. All the powers of everything, who owns what, who gets what; she's been thinking about it for 30+ years.* (She just turned 70 and is in excellent health.)

OTOH, my digital life is weird and messy, I don't have a health directive, I don't have anything useful in writing, I don't think. :\

* We knew that if anything happened to her, then our favorite aunt & uncle would be our guardians. Which might be a morbid thing to know when you're a little kid, but it was sort of comforting.
posted by epersonae at 10:09 AM on January 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


I don't know if the "MeFi voice" is a thing, but that essay just felt like a thing from here. Not "a thing that MeFi would like", but a thing from MeFi. The blend of technical knowledge, Vonnegut flavored humanism, introspection, and quality writing evokes the Blue IMO. But then, of course, I realized that that's probably because of how much Jessamyn has put into this place, and that that's her voice, and it's wonderful. Thanks Jessamyn.
posted by DGStieber at 10:11 AM on January 27, 2015 [55 favorites]


I worry about this a lot, since we will eventually be in the position of navigating it on both sides.
posted by Dip Flash at 10:13 AM on January 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


We knew that if anything happened to her, then our favorite aunt & uncle would be our guardians. Which might be a morbid thing to know when you're a little kid, but it was sort of comforting.

I also knew this as a kid and also found it comforting. If my parents had told me, "you don't need to worry about that" or "it won't happen," I would have continued to fret. Being told, "you'll go to live with Aunt Stef and Uncle Bruce if we die" was genuinely comforting.

I guess I'm sort of grateful that Mom has had to deal with so many family deaths: starting with Dad when I was little, then her father, Dad's parents, and finally her mother. Because from conversations with my sis who lives with her, I know that she's got her stuff NAILED DOWN.

My mom just finished up a stint as an executrix and trustee for a friend who died whose children weren't up to the task, and it has similarly motivated her to get her affairs in order.
posted by Area Man at 10:18 AM on January 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


That was really excellent. The writing was great! Thanks.
posted by OmieWise at 10:22 AM on January 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


That's a really great and informative piece. Also, my condolences to jessamyn on your loss.
posted by corb at 10:38 AM on January 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


executrix

Is it really necessary to genderize words like executor that are not gender specific?
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:44 AM on January 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


I'm really curious about that shop vac on a timer.

Me too, like what the fuck Dad? And it really made a huge crazy noise. There are x-10 switches in the basement that we still haven't figured out. You have to press some buttons randomly for a random amount of times for the basement lights to turn on. At some point I will look for that transponder (quin's description is right on).

There was so much I didn't/couldn't put in the article.

- How there was also no liquor in the house because my dad (whose drinking I have mentioned on here sometimes) moderated his drinking by only buying enough for a night at a time
- How we found some "quit drinking" pills on the table in his tv room and never knew if he was trying to stop or not and that haunts me
- How the dog ran out the screen door (my father died at home) which then left an opening for the cats. One of whom bolted and two of whom stayed inside and how finding that damned cat became our coping/processing strategy (he turned up)
- How the dog went to live with my dad's ex wife which probably wouldn't have been what my dad would have wanted but it seemed the nicest for the dog
- How Webster has a son who we seem to have inherited as "our generation's" fixit guy for the house
- How the generator needed to be serviced once a year and let us know by having its own shrieking meltdown one day
- The sheer amount of lying I did. He had a shared bank account that his ex-wife's name was still on (ugh) and so it was half hers by law. I spent a lot of time on the phone with them trying to get the details of the account to see if I (as my dad) could get her name off of it before she realized there was money that was technically hers. Answer:no. Still mad.
- Buying a headstone is more fun than you'd think. We went for this weird big slab of rock and just put his name/dates on it and skipped "Good man in a storm" which is what The Soul of a New Machine said should be there. The funeral home (despite the guestbook weirdness) were a great resource and truly decent people.

My sister and I are an incredible team (she doesn't mind phone calls, I enjoyed a lot of this nitpicky bullshit that I talked about) and that's been the single most important part of this. Here's a photo of the memorial service (that you helped me plan). Tracy Kidder is in the green plaid on the right. Webster is in the orange. Dick Todd, SOANM's editor is sitting on the couch. My dad's sister is in the v-neck striped shirt on the leftish. I am standing in front of Ed Decastro.

I realized that that's probably because of how much Jessamyn has put into this place, and that that's her voice, and it's wonderful.

I'm glad that came through. I really think of a MeFi audience when I wrote a lot of this stuff (esp the "Maybe you've read it" line on the Bradbury story which was a joke-nod to MeFi) and I think it made it come out very well.

Is it really necessary to genderize words like executor that are not gender specific?

I don't think so, but in the hyper-legal world of paperwork and wills and estates, you do what they say. I make fun of it in the article.
posted by jessamyn at 10:48 AM on January 27, 2015 [75 favorites]


I thought executrix was a pretty crazy term, then I got to executrixship.
posted by odinsdream at 10:48 AM on January 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


Executrix seems to date back to at least the 16th century. Maybe back then executor was thought to be gender specific.
posted by Area Man at 10:51 AM on January 27, 2015


Not only was this a great read, but it also inspired me to finally write up a "digital will" and stick it on my Dropbox just in case. Now I just have to give somebody my LastPass password in a sealed envelope...
posted by neckro23 at 10:56 AM on January 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


The cable company, when called, wouldn’t let me downgrade my dad’s service without receiving a faxed copy of the death certificate and a letter outlining my executrixship.

I've become convinced that almost every required use of the fax machine in the 21st century has become a way to discourage people from doing whatever they're trying to do. Ditto being put on hold and forced to listen to the sort of music that absolutely no one listens to voluntarily, and horrifically crappy-sounding. People laugh that AOL still has ISP customers, but it could be that those people just couldn't stand the company's process for canceling service.

Also, non-Latin speaker here, I'm pretty sure that the plural is "executrices" but "executrixies" pleases me more.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:01 AM on January 27, 2015 [14 favorites]


Your moral compass might vary, mine was totally okay playing zombie games with the cable company.

I laughed my ass off at this. We are, 18 months after the fact, still dealing with shutting down (or transferring) my granddad's stuff, and I can't tell you how many times we've had to role play to get something done. At first I was mortified, but as the process wore on, it just got funnier and funnier. We joke that someday, someone is going to be like, "Wow, you sound amazing for a 130 year old man."
posted by slipthought at 11:01 AM on January 27, 2015 [14 favorites]


This is really good, and a good reminder for me that there are some things I should have together just in case of
posted by nubs at 11:02 AM on January 27, 2015


executrixies

That one I made up.
posted by jessamyn at 11:04 AM on January 27, 2015 [7 favorites]


Executrixae?
posted by odinsdream at 11:08 AM on January 27, 2015


It really is executrices.

And the shop vac was clearly the work of some mischievous executrickster spirit.
posted by Naberius at 11:11 AM on January 27, 2015 [9 favorites]


He had a shared bank account that his ex-wife's name was still on (ugh) and so it was half hers by law. I spent a lot of time on the phone with them trying to get the details of the account to see if I (as my dad) could get her name off of it before she realized there was money that was technically hers. Answer:no. Still mad.

Oh god, this. We're dealing with this with my MIL. It's the most infuriating thing ever.
posted by corb at 11:13 AM on January 27, 2015


An annoying (to me) habit of some of the more credulous folks of my acquaintance is assuming that any "weird" thing that happens in the home of a deceased person is the result of that person's ghost "letting us know that he/she is there." I always want to say something like: "Oh really? and who was talking to you when the shutters slammed when Grandpa was still alive?"

Because of that, part of me kind of loves that Mr. West's systems are still up and running and acting in inscrutable fashions so that in some ways he is still there with his family.
posted by sparklemotion at 11:19 AM on January 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


I wonder if the shop vac got plugged into an outlet that was originally set up to have a lamp or something.

I also wonder if the word aviatrix might be one of the last -trix words with any positive connotation.
posted by exogenous at 11:29 AM on January 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


Good stuff there - thanks Jessamyn. Many of us are getting to that time in our lives.

PSA; One thing I found when my dad died was that I ended up needing way more copies of the death certificate than I expected.
posted by rmd1023 at 11:31 AM on January 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


We opened up the memorial service with "Thank you all for coming. I know Tom would have loved having you all here so he could have ignored you in person" and people laughed because that really was his thing. Shy-or-something. Limited human interactions and what interaction there was was often "Hey help me build this system," or eating, or going to the hardware store.

I wonder if the shop vac got plugged into an outlet that was originally set up to have a lamp or something.

That is my best guess. And it was a centralized system, not like just a one-off shop vac. So it's possible it was meant to just go on regularly and get all the dust out of the air? I wish I knew.
posted by jessamyn at 11:34 AM on January 27, 2015 [7 favorites]


Was the vac actually timed or did it just come on randomly? Because if it was merely random your dad probably had a remote switch that he carried around with him to turn the vac on and off as he used different machines. And now either because of misconfiguration of the system or maybe erroneous signals it came on unintentionally.
The remote switching thing is really common. There are also systems that install in the electrical panel that detect a current flow in particular circuits and turn on automagically when you are using tools on that circuit. Or maybe when the new inhabitant's, say freezer that is plugged into that circuit comes on in the middle of the night.
posted by Mitheral at 11:35 AM on January 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


Great piece. I'm kind of fascinated by the dichotomy of our digital lives - how it's simultaneously long-lasting and ephemeral. It's common wisdom that anything we put on the internet is there to stay, but there's also so much digital media (as with the memorial site mentioned in Jessamyn's piece) that's just gone forever. Maybe some scraper somewhere has a copy of it, but how long do those archives last? And does it matter when it can't be found by search engines? Our words on Facebook and Twitter and Metafilter might outlive us, but what happens to a blog when the author passes away and no one re-ups the domain and hosting? It's an odd thing to contemplate.
posted by Phire at 11:44 AM on January 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


I lost my husband almost a year ago, but I'm still dealing with crap, even if I had most of his passwords and I could guess the rest easily enough. The worst part I found was dealing with utilities accounts since most only had his name on it. The best? This really surprised me, but Social Security people are nice, kind, efficient, fast and polite.
posted by francesca too at 11:54 AM on January 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


Interesting piece. As a guy who is 85 plus, I simply stuck on my computer opening page: FINAL ORDERS and told my wife to go there when I go to meet my maker, or go on an endless sabbatical...everything she needs to know is there. And other more legal stuff is in another document, set aside for her, and, of course, a will. The interesting thing is that you keep finding things that need to be noted, taken care of, every so often, when you believe you have covered everything. A long life is sometimes called for in order to order that life for those who choose not to follow you when you have begun the endless journey.
posted by Postroad at 12:05 PM on January 27, 2015 [11 favorites]


What a great read, and I loved all the diagrams. There is a short story in George RR Martin's Rogues anthology that I thought of when I saw the diagram of the coffin alarm system. Creepy thought.

I'm curious where the all-basement vacuum pumps to. Is it possible it was for removing radon? Is there some bin somewhere that needs to be emptied?
posted by tempestuoso at 12:16 PM on January 27, 2015


"enough about the pathos and memories and humanity of this article. Let's solve that dang vacuum cleaner thing once and for all."
posted by boo_radley at 12:35 PM on January 27, 2015 [8 favorites]


And no one wants to do that because it's morbid and you want your parents to live forever.

I've been through similar talks with my parents a few times now, and it's kind of been fun every time - there's a lot of reminiscing and "remember how much we love you" stuff. But what drives me crazy is that I cannot get them to separate out things for the highly probable likelihood they go separately. They're utterly convinced they're either going to go together or they won't be able to live without each other very long, and that we kids will do right by the parent that lives for what they foresee as a short amount of time.

It's so sweet and so impractical at the same time, and the sweetness is really what makes me weep a little weep each time*.

*not at the thought of their deaths because geez of course they're never going to die, they're my parents and parents wouldn't do that to you
posted by barchan at 12:42 PM on January 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


exogenous: I also wonder if the word aviatrix might be one of the last -trix words with any positive connotation.
I personally think "dominatrix" has a positive connotation.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:55 PM on January 27, 2015 [9 favorites]


This was so timely. So, so timely. Thank you.
posted by canine epigram at 1:05 PM on January 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


[the] pathos and memories and humanity of this article ... vacuum cleaner thing once and for all

I felt like I was getting to know a piece of Jessamyn's father by the way she described the things he left behind. One such thing was the mystery of the vacuum cleaner that, presumably, he installed for a reason. Now, perhaps the vacuum anecdote is purely a rhetorical device, a question to remain unanswered, and perhaps not knowing the answer was part of the point.

But, then again, maybe there was a reason for him installing an all-basement vacuum cleaner, and it is an interesting thing, to me at least, to wonder about. Discovering the decisions our departed loved ones made, and the reasons they made them, is part of the process of coming to terms with loss. In a way, those decisions, and the thoughts behind them, are the closest we can come to having a conversation with them one last time.

In other words, I feel like the vacuum cleaner anecdote is sort of central to the memories, and pathos, and humanity of the article. Without our curiosity, what does "humanity" even mean, anyway?
posted by tempestuoso at 1:07 PM on January 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


I personally think "dominatrix" has a positive connotation.

On road trips, I tell my SO that she is the "navigatrix." That always goes over well.
posted by tempestuoso at 1:09 PM on January 27, 2015 [8 favorites]


Even though it is a silly and unnecessary gendering, i will admit my love for the word "executrix."

In law school, learning the word almost made up for my disappointment when a learned what a "holographic will" really was. seriously don't get your hopes up.
posted by sparklemotion at 1:20 PM on January 27, 2015 [8 favorites]


We moved my 87 year old mother into assisted living a few months ago. About four years before that my own mother died and we took over her house. Both were complete and utter nightmares in terms of cleaning up and in both cases, we didn't even have to deal with the legal stuff. Depression Kids KEEP EVERYTHING. You know what, BABY BOOMER OFFSPRING THROW EVERYTHING THEIR PARENTS HOARDED. We only wish there just wasn't so goddamn much of it to sort through. Some day I should tell of the room my mother had dedicated to yarn, funeral programs, and newspaper articles. [insert sigh here]

So I have a morbid fascination with these stories. I wish you good luck Jessamyn. It sounds like you have faced this task with both determination and a sense of humor.
posted by Ber at 1:31 PM on January 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


I'm really interested in this from a processing and planning perspective. For my own part my spouse and I have a shared password system and everything goes in there. That handles lots of the practical side of things about how to log into systems if the other person isn't available.

Legally, we have arrangements for power-of-attorney, healthcare power-of-attorney, living wills, joint accounts, and where not possible to have joint accounts, (e.g. 401k) the survivor is defined clearly.

Oh, and life insurance.

All of the above is something I recognize doesn't necessarily fit everyone, but you really should at least talk to each other and have a plan, and that plan should be reviewed by a lawyer. All of the above costs a minor amount, and you can probably find a friend-of-a-friend lawyer. It is a huge, huge weight off my shoulders to know that in the event of my death, of all the shit survivors have to deal with, getting access to stuff isn't an issue.
posted by odinsdream at 1:35 PM on January 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


That was really, really good (and the link to My Grandfather's Clock was just perfect).

Thanks for sharing.
posted by Mchelly at 1:50 PM on January 27, 2015


"enough about the pathos and memories and humanity of this article. Let's solve that dang vacuum cleaner thing once and for all."

I hope this was intended as a bit of light, wry commentary, and not as some kind of slam. Because I think this thread is perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the essay.
posted by Atom Eyes at 1:53 PM on January 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


Oh my god, Ber; have I got a room for you.

My mom is a Boomer who fetishizes the lifestyle of an 82-year-old Lutheran. She collects obituaries -- specifically, the part that says "She enjoyed doing crossword puzzles" or "He enjoyed mounting roadkill raccoons." We were cleaning out her room in order to do some electrical rewiring (she wasn't dead, just refused to clean it herself -- or let anyone else do it -- before she went on vacation) and I had to stop and take pictures because five minutes after my friend would text me "So, have you found the [metaphorical] drawer with irregular lengths of string?" I would end up texting her back a picture of actual irregular lengths of string.

The best part was the bag of glue. Not a bag of glue bottles; a Ziploc bag filled with about a tablespoon of, like, wallpaper paste.

Also multiple funeral programs.

Every day is Cleanup Day.
posted by Madamina at 1:54 PM on January 27, 2015 [6 favorites]


Oh, X10 ... where all male tinkerers finally meet their match. It has so many layers of cruft from its nearly 40 year history that there's forgotten features that some people rely upon that many users never even knew existed. Like the serial controller can run simple schedules for devices, but is run from a not-too-accurate clock that skews and eventually runs out of battery to start running on its own ineffable schedule. I know it's a very simple microcontroller, but it has all the wrath and predictability of an old testament deity.

I suspect that when we're swept up in the Singularity Rapture/crushed by the Donut Event Horizon, the house centipedes will form civilizations to worship the off-beige clicky boxes that bring the light and the dark and are marked with the mysterious runes "LEVITON" ...
posted by scruss at 2:13 PM on January 27, 2015 [13 favorites]


This really surprised me, but Social Security people are nice, kind, efficient, fast and polite.


Yeah, some kindnesses from bureaucracies make sense in retrospect. After my mom died it was three weeks before her ashes were given to us, sent through the mail because I live hundreds of miles away. It was a bit strange standing in line at the post office with the orange card in my hand, but no big deal. Then there was a long wait at the counter as the clerk went into the back. A longer and longer wait. I thought, oh, I bet there's a special lockup for certain packages. I bet she has to get a key. I bet she needs to talk to a supervisor. After about ten minutes she returned with the small, brown-paper wrapped package which she put on top of the counter and a box of tissues which she put under the counter. I smiled at that: a gracious but unnecessary precaution. I felt grimly fine but really wanted to get the fuck out of there. There were receipts to sign, and at the second one I had to drop the pen and clamp onto the counter for a bit. Huh. I clenched my teeth and brought my shoulders up to my ears and braced. After a second she handed me a tissue, which i balled up and squeezed into a fossil. She put the last receipt in front of me, this one on an electronic signature pad; I looked at it without moving my head and scratched my mark on the little blue blur. She fussed about a bit, giving me time to plan my walk out the door and clearly warning the line behind me that she was not yet ready for the next customer. She was the nicest thing I encountered that week and I won't forget her.
posted by ssr_of_V at 2:26 PM on January 27, 2015 [49 favorites]


Let's solve that dang vacuum cleaner thing once and for all.

I understand the impulse, and yet part of this whole process was deciding there were some things we didn't know and probably wouldn't. Systems attached to humans who don't exist anymore. All I need to know now is how to make them work for the living.

Was the vac actually timed or did it just come on randomly?

I don't actually have enough data to answer that question. It did not come on on a set schedule and it did not come on often but it did usually come on after we'd been in the basement doing something else (and trying to turn on/off X-10 lights and etc). I got the feeling that either 1) what you say is true and there was a switch he had personally (we did not find one) 2) there was a complex system that was like "5 minutes after basement lights go off, turn on the shop vac for ten minutes" 3) there was a switch in a totally different part of the house that ran the basement vac outlet for no good reason. Webster would also sometimes use the basement and it may have been that he was using it, it switched itself off for some reason, he left it alone (he was not a troubleshooter with that sort of stuff) and when the outlet came back on the still-on vacuum would also come on. We won't know.

I am certain it was configured "correctly" whatever that means, during his lifetime. I am also certain that we did not know how to run it properly afterwards. The pesky part is that his ex-wife may know some of this stuff, but we're not really in communication with her and I'd prefer not knowing some things than trying to interface with her about anything.

Also you probably already know this but ColdChef helped considerably, not with the "How do I fix this house" stuff but some of the other etiquette and problem solving that was at more of a human level.
posted by jessamyn at 3:23 PM on January 27, 2015 [9 favorites]


I had already sent the story on to my family when you linked it in the other thread. Good writing and it made me laugh.

Seconding how great the photo at the end is. From the bits I've heard you mention 'round here (I haven't read the Kidder book) I imagine your Dad would be happy to be remembered like that.
posted by benito.strauss at 3:32 PM on January 27, 2015


I think I was too old ("old"?) to even understand what HRO even was back in the day, so I completely ignored it, but I'm finding the writing at Carles.buzz pretty entertaining. Unfortunately his writing style is way 2 infectious.
posted by Enemy of Joy at 4:01 PM on January 27, 2015


My dad recently died, and he had a lot of this stuff very well figured out. There was a prominent folder on his computer labeled "in the event of my death or disability," there was a highly encrypted file containing all his account logins and passwords (to open the encrypted file you had to put in a number derived from solving a function written on "that page where we keep the family recipe for Fish House Punch; you know the one"), he had a good will and highly detailed advance directives, and his instructions say among other things that if we can't decide what to do with his ashes within 365 days they are to be flushed down the toilet. In short, he did a lot of things the best way possible.

And yet, this stuff is still very complicated. Just things like the fact that he had home and work offices full of things like the 1972 MIT faculty directory and printouts of maps and e-tickets from a trip he took in 2009. I don't think it's possible to live and not leave behind some fairly significant complications, unless you can really see mortality coming at you down the road and you decide to make a concerted effort to make things a lot easier for those you leave behind.
posted by slkinsey at 4:20 PM on January 27, 2015 [14 favorites]


a. Fantastic article Jessamyn, your dad sounds like a guy I would have like to have met.

2. The best female gender-based word you all are looking for is Aviatrix. Why no, I don't have a huge history crush on Amelia Earhart.

III. Both of my parents are still alive, and the idea of one of them outliving the other frightens me to my very core. Jesus, they're pushing 70 and they still play grabass in the kitchen.
posted by Sphinx at 5:15 PM on January 27, 2015 [6 favorites]


I barely knew my father-in-law when he was alive but I feel like I got to know him a bit by going through the dozens of boxes of his papers my husband brought home from the tire shop for me to organize. The $10/month payments from poor people he'd sold new tires to on store credit, the citation for fishing with explosives, etc. together painted an interesting picture of his personality.
posted by Jacqueline at 5:24 PM on January 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


I cannot read the word "executrix" without thinking of the super first line of The Crying of Lot 49:
One summer afternoon Mrs Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.
posted by dfan at 5:28 PM on January 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


Oof. My family had to go through a lot of this just in the past three years. No robo-vacuums, though, thank Christ.

When my brother died, he left a will -- a will nicely typed out and signed, without witnesses, and therefore not legal in California. He left his retirement account to his ex-girlfriend who dumped him some fifteen years ago -- I don't know if my older brother cut her a check anyway (my druthers -- no way in hell).

When we cleaned out my dad's house in preparation for its sale, I got there a couple of days late. My older sister and her husband pride themselves on being able to discard clutter swiftly and without mercy. When I got there, they had gone through most of the books -- some to the local library, some straight to the dumpster.

"Well," I asked, "what did you do for the signed first editions I got Dad?" Nothing terribly valuable, but more sentimental-like. Signed biographies from Michael Caine and Peter O'Toole. A Tom Wolfe book.

The look they exchanged made my heart sink. They didn't even think to check. Ah well. It's only stuff, right?
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 7:35 PM on January 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


I absolutely loved the article. :)

This makes me glad that we moved before my husband died. He did, however, make a great list of boxes and their contents that did prove useful when I went into our storage space to start selling off things of his I don't need. We renewed his domain about a month before he died, and I'll keep renewing it as long as I'm around. Our hosting plan's relatively cheap, so I'm going to keep his website up.

I use his computer now. I've started a blog where I'll randomly post things I find on his hard drive that never made it to his website. I posted the closest thing to a suicide note that he left, which was written two months before he died.

And yes, it does suck to get emails meant for him, but fortunately, there haven't been too many.
posted by luckynerd at 10:23 PM on January 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


I vaguely remember my mother asking me to role play dad on the phone after he died. I'm not sure how it worked, I was 25, dad was 60 and I just spoke like me, but no questions were asked.

And as a tech myself with a hoarder electronic engineer father, oh my god, the tech of dead people. They think everything is simple and self explanatory, but it really never is.
posted by deadwax at 3:27 AM on January 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


The one off, hydronic heating masterpiece that could be run from as gas boiler or open fire in the loungeroom that had a fill point reached by taking a tile off the roof on the edge of the second floor balcony to the right of the chimney and pumps (with three pumps) hot water through garden hoses in the slab. That. What do I say about that? Thanks dad.

Somehow you never get annoyed, not even at the live power hanging out of the wall under the stairs. You just miss them. Great article Jessamyn
posted by deadwax at 3:35 AM on January 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


What a great article - and I didn't realise the Soul Of A New Machine connection until I read the thread. Mind blown. I had worked at a vaguely analogous UK company to Data General and I recognised so much (including so much of Jessamyn's father) that it was uncanny.

So much else to say , but I think most of it is covered up-thread. I also can't say how much I love the article, which is exemplary. It will have a long life, and I cherish the strange sense of connection it gives me to a man whose presence I felt at a distance, yet with such resonance.

Distant signals. By the time they're here, the source has gone.

One irony is the tension between the scammers who circle at such times, and the intransigences of the service industry in dealing with the family. You'd have thought that, by now, there'd be a single code of conduct, a single point of call, where you'd prove the event and your bona fides and let them get on with it, but we're very bad at death. Humanist celebrants - who lead weddings and funerals - say that it doesn't matter how badly a funeral goes, nobody ever complains, but the smallest lacunae at a wedding leads to trouble. At death, we must muddle through by ourselves: anything else is bad form.

Friends and I periodically discuss setting up a service for sorting the technology fall-out after a family death - if it's a challenge for the savvy and organised, it'll be impossible for many more. We founder on the basic problem that this is necessarily a labour-intensive and hugely indeterminate process, so the numbers are hard, and that the legal aspects have many mantraps. There are ways... but perhaps we are not the people.

I face the twin challenges, as most of us do, of dealing with ageing relatives whose technological lives will need bringing to a close with love and attention just as much as their physical presence, and of arranging our own affairs so that it will go easy on those we love in turn. I'll probably make as much of an inconvenient muck-up of both as I do in general. No, we are not those people.
posted by Devonian at 3:59 AM on January 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


I keep marvelling that, stowed in that house and the massive basement, you will find tons of objects neatly stored and labelled with a labelmaker. Batteries in a small sterilite drawer system. Light bulbs for 100 different socket types. Connector cables of various sorts. Unused desktop speakers. Wrapping paper and present gift bags. 1000 different tool-type objects and miscellanea. It made it easy to find actual things, but you also find things you didn't know were there, almost every trip down to the basement.

So, to counterbalance that sense of order, there's the X-10. How to turn the lights on or off down there? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Going down there at night, in the dark, trying to turn the lights on, I've kicked into life some loud thing or another many times. I've since learned to brace myself for a sudden random burst of noise.

Early on, a few years ago, we'd found that the X-10 control panel was a program on this one PC, which was hooked up to a few transponders, I think?, attached to the underside of the desk so they'd be out of the way. So one night, a friend and I made it our project to figure out how to drive this thing. We were able to discern which physical light switches (glued onto the wall fergerhdsake) corresponded to which switches on the control panel. ("OK, go into the office and I'll toggle D1 through D4 and you yell when something happens.") Finally, we got it to respond positively to commands we gave it, and tested timers. There were still some mysteries, but for a little while, we had a tenuous grasp on this greased football. Very soon after, though, the PC died. BUT THE X-10 KEEPS DOING STUFF ON ITS OWN TO THIS DAY.
Believe it... OR NOT!

(There's also one particular physically-wired light switch which doesn't respond when Jessamyn presses the button. Only when I press the button.)
posted by not_on_display at 9:56 PM on January 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


Maybe it's a magic switch?
posted by benito.strauss at 10:47 PM on January 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


Such a thoughtful piece, and useful too. Thanks for writing it, Jessamyn, and to zabuni for posting it here.
posted by harriet vane at 5:43 AM on January 29, 2015


one night, a friend and I made it our project

I have the funnest Labor Day parties.

one particular physically-wired light switch

Pretty sure those are not physically wired. The X-10 had a whole series of switch-looking things which really just talk to a transponder and not to actual wires behind it. And they have batteries in them, which can die and make things only marginally function. Though looking at that page, I have a few more ideas for other ways to see if I can fix those.
posted by jessamyn at 7:53 AM on January 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


> There's also one particular physically-wired light switch which doesn't respond when Jessamyn presses the button. Only when I press the button

We had a TV set in the mid-1970s with buttons that you rested your finger on to make work. My mom couldn't change the channel on it -- everyone else could, but not her -- because, we think, her hands were too cold.

I wonder if there's something like that going on there.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:31 AM on February 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Miko: "Ray Bradbury wrote about a future-world house that had a life after its occupants’ deaths. You might have read it.

Indeed! IIRC this is like the first- or second-most requested short story ID on AskMe.
"

I don't think so? The house one is "There Will Come Soft Rains." The one that usually gets asked about is the one about a sunny day on Venus - "All Summer In A Day."
posted by Chrysostom at 5:36 PM on February 11, 2015 [3 favorites]


That's why I said "first or second," because yes, "All Summer in a Day" gets asked about really a lot (I think because it is often in reading anthologies used in grade school and was also made into a film), but I think "Soft Rains" does too - like here and here. But it also just gets recommended a lot, so I'm probably conflating recommendation threads with "what's this story" threads. Either way it comes up often.
posted by Miko at 7:09 PM on February 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


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