What is the Extended Eulogy?

For me, growing up in a Mexican family meant that death was about curation.

See, in Mexico, we remember the dead regularly – to us, the line between living and dead is not so thick. In those moments, we are expected to interact directly with the person we are remembering.

Our communities created profiles of our loved ones … in their own words. On the Day of the Dead, We reread letters they wrote, quote them, relived our interactions and favorite meals… and because these people do not exist as a static, as they might in a formalize biography, they live on as a multi-faceted memory.

But I wondered, how did other people design these profiles? How often are we able to remember those that we love through their words?

I started a research project for my Learning Wednesday – I call it, The Extended Eulogy.

It started because I had a mentor figure from college who died in April after a long battle with cancer. We knew him as the Master of Saybrook College, my program at Yale. We remembered him through the events he hosted and the comforting words he offered when we needed them.

But to the rest of the world, Master Hudak as a super hacker. For the months that he was in the hospital, receiving treatment until the end of his life, he was as the subject of discussion within the top 10 hits on major hacker chat boards around the world.

I started thinking about the profiles that each of Master Hudak’s communities would build around his memory – how would they curate his profile?

To date, I have interviewed several curators for Extended Eulogies. The first was a friend who was a major curatorial voice behind the NYTimes Best Seller “The Opposite of Loneliness,” which is a collection of essays written by my former classmate Marina Keegan. Marina passed away tragically in a car crash in 2012. This book lives on as her legacy.

The second is an artist who was asked to grant three wishes by a friend of hers as he died of complications from AIDS in 90s. His Extended Eulogy was an exhibition of his photographs that she curated. As you walked through the collection, you walked through a timeline of his creative mind.

Both of these curators told me that when they reviewed the work by their friends… they could hear their voices in it.

I narrowed the scope of my research to three framing questions. Each time I asked them:

How did you remember this person?

How did the world know this person?

What questions did this person spend their life trying to answer?

Just a week or two after Master Hudak’s death, I learned that my grandfather had been diagnosed with cancer.

The Extended Eulogies research project started to morph… into a living profile.

I am on a mission to collect all of the memories for his profile that I can… but most importantly, I need to capture his memories in his own words.

What you need to know about my grandfather is I grew up allowed to believe in legends and heroes, because my grandfather was one of these heroes.

Orphaned twice by 19, he received a partial scholarship to play football for the University of Nebraska and put himself through college while supporting his young family by working nightshifts on the Lincoln, Nebraska Railroad. He was the designer and implementer for the first computer system in Kellogg’s supply chain.

My grandfather created everything he became.

I took a Monday off work to spend the day interviewing him with the StoryCorps app. For four hours, we talked about the future of work, family, and life’s questions big questions… adding dimensions to the man who lived in my memory as a series of family legends and humorous stories.

The difference now between this profile and a biography is that my grandfather has a hand in it.

He is not a writer or an artist, but I want to tell his story and remember him through his voice. His words.

This living profile and the Extended Eulogy is about breathing life into our memories. It is about giving the people we remember enough layers of complexity to remember and celebrate that they were human – that they struggled with questions, and saw themselves one way while the rest of the world may have seen them another way.

The richer the profile, the richer the memory that can live on with us, to interact with us on the Day of the Dead each year. I am grateful for this opportunity to build something full of life with my grandfather.

This is a talk I will give tomorrow at the TED Staff Retreat about my Wednesday Research work. This is a new experiment for me, and it exists largely as a conceptual art piece until I find the right ways to work with my research. 

Heartbreak in a single line.

From this week’s StoryCorps Interview with my grandfather:

Me: Have you ever felt helpless, Grampy?

Jay Schneider: Only in the last 10 minutes of your grandmother’s life. She was hemorrhaging and there was nothing any of us could do to stop it, we saw that it was the end. So I held her hand and said, I’m sorry, my love, I can’t help you.

[[I am trying to capture the beauty of his heart in something I need to write this week… and this line has been bouncing through my head and heart since Monday]]

A Time Capsule

For my next birthday, I am creating a time capsule. Not a traditional one that I will bury in the ground and dig up in 20 years… more like an internet tattoo to mark where I am right now.

I’ve had a few days to reflect on the StoryCorps interviews with my grandfather this week. He really loved the experience and my relatives have all reached out to me to ask for access to the recordings. They want to hear what he said about his childhood, which we all only knew a handful of stories about, and his first jobs, losing my grandmother, his parents… all of it.

What is cool is that his thoughts and the crossroads he encountered in his life will now be preserved and searchable for our generations of Schneiders well into the future.

I want to add to my internet tattoo so I can remember the friendships that have meant so much to me and have been part of shaping my years here in this chapter of my life. I am asking a handful of my close friends to do a StoryCorps interview with me, where we will talk about how we met, memories we celebrate together, and what the friendship has meant to us. It’s a project about love and celebrating the exploration process of being young and confused, as well as finding our way in new spaces.

I want this to be a time capsule for both of us. I suspect I wont live in the same cities forever, and though some of my friendships defy this, time and space are difficult to overcome for some friendships. At least we can preserve these moments, savor these memories, of when we were young.

Sidenote: I really loved this collection of very real conversations that took place in this project. I hope some of my conversations with my friends will be this honest.

Designing Memories: The Data Collection Stage

Holy Shit, this is hard.

Normally, my research offers me a clinical lens to consider some of the problems that trouble me most deeply. From this angle, the art of the interview is meant to capture memories of someone close to me. It’s about accepting the passage of time and how we age and the weight that our bodies carry… I am asking the questions that I’ve always been afraid to ask.

I’ve had to pace myself on the questions and background write ups for the Extended Eulogies work because every time I let myself delve into the content, to feel the questions and anticipate the answers, to gauge how the interview will likely flow, and where I want to go with it… I cry. Because unlike my usual work with survey design… this is about designing memories around my grandfather.

The categories broke into Memory, Love, Family, Life’s Questions, Work and Creative Outlets. Each one with a its own set of questions and moments I want to uncover and preserve.

I am using the StoryCorps app that is part of the 2015 TED Prize. It makes it easy to build short survey blocks and record the conversation directly into an easy to upload format.

A handful of the interviews and questions I've organized for Monday
A handful of the interviews and questions I’ve organized for Monday

As I modified my notes into a short set of questions for each theme. We’ll get to 7-10 open ended questions in 40 minutes. This is a very new research format for me, since I am usually trying to capture missing information, not the pulse of someone’s thoughts and the ways that they organize and feel through their memories. I think this requires much more open-ended-ness and a willingness to be fully present to encourage the conversation to flow in the directions it can go.

In total, there will be 7 themes that we discuss. I am beginning with more concrete memories: Work & Family… and then moving into the abstract. What does Self Care mean to you? What are some of “Life’s Questions” worth asking?

We will work together for all of Monday August 31, 2015 to produce these interviews. Wish us luck! We’re both excited.

I found this RadioLab episode about memory… what we remember and what we forget. They are joined by the late Oliver Sacks, and it felt like it was an appropriate addition to this conversation.