Monday Hearts for Madalene

Page Hodel creates beautiful hearts as a tribute to enduring love
Handmade heart

I miss you more than ever around the holidays

It’s an honor for SevenPonds to share with our readers the story of the Monday Hearts for Madalene project, a true account of the power of enduring love. The project began in 2005, when Page Hodel first met Madalene Rodriguez and fell “instantly, dizzyingly in love with her.” Soon afterwards, Page began leaving handmade hearts on Madalene’s doorstep every Monday.

“To start her week with a visual reminder of our beautiful love.”

Just seven months later, Madalene was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died on June 20th, 2006. To remember her, Page continues to make a heart every Monday in celebration of her life.

To learn more about Page and the Monday Hearts for Madalene Project, please visit her website, Monday Hearts for Madalene.

See more Monday Hearts for Madalene here.

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Bringing 17th Century Still Life Vanitas Into the Modern World

Dirk Staschke takes us back through history with his symbolic art
Still life vanitas


You’re more likely to see still life vanitas hanging on the walls of historic art museums than in modern art galleries. This distinctive style of Dutch art, which reached peak popularity in the 16th and 17th Century, isn’t nearly as popular among modern painters and sculptors as it once was. But artist Dirk Staschke has decided to revisit this classic style of art in his latest collection, “Perfection of Happenstance,” currently showing at Winston Wachter gallery in Seattle.

You won’t see bold swaths of color or sharp patterns in Staschke’s work. Like the classic still life vanitas of the 17th Century, his work is both hyper realistic and surreal all at once. The dulled-down tones of brown and tan make every painting look as though it’s bathed in soft candlelight; it harkens back to a time before electricity existed in every home, and rooms were filled with stark natural light. Yet this extreme realism is balanced out by the unnatural placement of the objects in the frame. Like all still life paintings, Staschke carefully selects each object to represent larger symbolism.

A still life vanitas, featuring a painting of decaying flowers that look like they are melting


This is a crucial element of still life vanitas. The paintings most often feature a variety of objects sitting on a table. Fresh flowers, ripe fruit and glimmering jewelry rests on the table next to a human skull, or other objects strongly associated with death. The strange placement of these objects together on a single table gives the art an unnerving feel. It reminds us that even as we gaze at things of beauty that are full of life (such as a plump orange, or a delicate orchid), death still sits close by. It’s ever-present in the frame.

Dirk Staschke takes a literal approach to some of his still life vanitas. In his piece “Flux 9,” he paints a stunning scene of a rotting flower bouquet, with each petal slowly turning the same shade of muddy brown or mauve. The flowers look almost as if they’re melting down to the base of the frame. This is a nod to 17th Century still life vanitas symbolism; the flowers represent life, whereas their slow, melting decay represents death.

But Staschke goes beyond some of this more obvious symbolism with his other pieces in the collection. Rather than sticking with paint as a medium, he carves out intricately-adorned frames that are absolutely dripping in regal beauty. And, in classic vanitas fashion, he turns this beauty on its head with the stark scenes inside of the frame. In some of his pieces, you can literally reach in and touch the objects inside of the frames if you wanted to. It takes the realism of vanitas and amps it up significantly, making the symbolism even more difficult to ignore. It’s like vanitas that have come to life before our eyes.

A photo of the still life vanitas gallery show, featuring a wooden frame with real sculpted objects inside of it, like a full flower bouquet


He also applies this technique to his delicate ceramic pieces, once again using a painting technique that makes the scenes look as though they’re melting. In these works, it’s difficult to even see what some of the objects are, especially up close. On the micro level, they look like beautiful watercolor patterns, with a bit of a floral bent. But when you back up and view the ceramic pot from a distance, you can see the clear shape of an abstract skull in the scene.

In this sense, Staschke takes the concept of vanitas to the next level. He forgoes some of the style’s classic realism in favor of something that looks a little more dreamlike, but that nonetheless reminds us of the fragility of life. He offers us a new perspective on an old art style, proving that this symbolism will forever hold a place in our minds. Whether it’s 1617 or 2017, we can appreciate vanitas as a constant reminder that life and death are locked in an intricate dance, from now until the end of time.

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What Does Cryonics Cost?

An interview with Andy Zawacki, Cryonics Chief Operations Officer, Part Two

Today SevenPonds speaks with Andy Zawacki, Chief Operations Officer for the Cyronics Institute (CI) in Clinton Township, Michigan. The Cyronics Institute is the only non-profit organization in the United States. Andy has been involved with the facility since 1985 and now oversees and coordinates memberships, preparing documents and facilitating cryonics. On a daily basis, he maintains the building operations to assure the safety of the suspension tanks. Part of CI’s mission is to offer “a second chance at life.”

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Andy Zawacki explains what cryonics cost

Andy Zawacki

Suzette Sherman: I wanted to know what cryonics cost? Then I saw a chart on your website that compares your costs with other organizations. I was surprised to see there are six organizations internationally that provide cryopreservation.

Andy Zawacki: Well some are really small. There’s a lot of standby organizations. Cryonics Institute stores the most patients of any organization in the United States. And yes, people always want to know about cryonics cost.

Suzette: Yes, I see your organization lists the best price at $28,000 for the procedure. I also see the highest price charged by another organization is $200,000. Why is there such a big difference in cost?

Andy: We set CI up as a nonprofit perpetual endowment fund to help keep costs low. Also, lot of nonprofits charge high prices and then pay everyone very well – we don’t. We made a point of keeping our costs low. Many of us are volunteers. The cost for cryonics is still the same as it was back when we opened. Location impacts price, too. We are in Michigan.

Cryonics Institute conference room where people talk about what cryonics cost

Cryonics Institute conference room

Suzette: How do people pay for this if they do not have the full amount?

Andy: Well, the cost of a lifetime membership is $1,250. To pay for the procedure, some people prepay the full amount, thereby guaranteeing the price. If they don’t have the cash, they can use an IRA or bank investment. If they do not have the amount needed up front to pay for cryopreservation, the most common way to pay is through a life insurance policy. The person purchases a policy large enough so that the death benefit covers the cost. Then they set themselves as the beneficiary and maintain the premiums. The payments can be as low as $20 a month for young people who signup early in life. It depends on your age and health, but it’s affordable for most. We also have experts on our board who are willing to help with creative funding.

Scientist, Robert Ettinger of CI with info on what cryonics cost

Scientist, Robert Ettinger

Suzette: What question do people ask a lot?

Andy: They ask about religion. My simple answer is, if God doesn’t want it to happen, it won’t. You won’t come back alive. You know, it’s like a heart transplant. At one time in the past, people thought it was freaky, but now they think about it as life saving, good stuff. People use to think putting a dead person’s heart in someone else was Frankenstein-like. Just because coming back to life from cryopreservation is not possible today doesn’t mean it won’t be possible 10 years from now.

Suzette: What are the reasons people choose cryonics?

Andy: They don’t want to die or they want to live again. I had a father call about cryonics for his son. But then I found out his son was already dead, so it was too late. Some people have an interest for emotional reasons too. As technology advances, we find people are becoming aware and are more attracted to cryopreservation.

Suzette: What are your recommendations for someone shopping cryonics. 

Andy: Ask a lot of questions. Go see the facility and ask about price differences.

Suzette: I think most people who know about cryonics think it’s still science fiction. At SevenPonds we wrote a review of the book “Erasing Death,” in which a doctor in New York City wrote about how he is bringing some people back to life with cardiopulmonary resuscitation. So I am aware this is already possible on a limited level. But most people think cryonics is pie in the sky and will never be real. What’s your take?

Andy: There is a lot that points to this becoming real someday. Stem cell research is happening, so in theory we can grow any body part. And we know from CRISPR that scientists can edit DNA. Then there’s nanotechnology. Someday we could have little robots that repair our bodies. Also reverse engineering allows science to fix some body systems by copying what already exists in nature. All at these technologies are pointing us in the right direction.

Because of this we have a lot more people coming to us now.

Graphics in the Cryonics Institute hallway when learning what cryonics cost

Graphics in the Cryonics Institute hallway

Suzette: How would someone personalize or record, in some way, who they were as a person in their first life?

Andy: Through cryonics we save DNA, and DNA is really hearty. We also store your mind, your essence, through the synapses and nerves in your brain. If these are intact, then you’re intact. Members also have the option of providing a DVD of who they are with images and paperwork. We have storage space for whatever they want to provide to us.

Suzette: It’s interesting how comfortable you are with all of this.

Andy: [Chuckle] We have a saying in cryonics. The 2nd worse thing is to die and get frozen, but the worst is to not get frozen.

Suzette: Interesting. So besides checking out your website, how else can our SevenPonds readers learn more?

Andy: We have a quarterly newsletter that we email out, those interested can sign up at

Suzette: It was great touring your facility and speaking with you Andy!

Andy: You too!

Did you miss the first part of our interview with Andy Zawacki? If so, please catch up here.

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Book Review: “Cry, Heart, but Never Break” by Glenn Ringtved

A beautifully illustrated children's book approaches death in a magical way

"Cry, Heart, but Never Break" cover

“Cry, Heart, But Never Break” is the first children’s book I’ve ever read that approaches the topic of death in a truly magical way. This one-of-a kind book from Danish author Glenn Ringtved brings together a charming storyline and emotionally engaging drawings to offer a unique and magical view of death. Illustrated by Charlotte Pardi, it take us on a journey to a place we have never been, mentally, physically and spiritually, and teaches us how to view death’s arrival in an entirely new way. 

“Cry, Heart, But Never Break” takes place in a charming Danish village where four children know death will soon come to take away their sweet grandmother, whom they all dearly love. The book begins in the 11th hour as their grandmother lays in bed one night waiting for death’s arrival. 

When death arrives at their grandmother’s door, he is clothed all in black. But upon entering the house, death places “his scythe outside the door” so as to not scare the children. It’s the first indication that death in this story is not the stuff of our Halloween nightmares.

Death then sits at the kitchen table, and the children immediately come up with a plan. They will stall him for a while by taking turns offering him strong coffee till dawn. Death calmly nods for each new cup, but finally will drink no more. 

Illustration from Cry, Heart, But Never Break


Then in a strong but gentle voice death tells the children a story about how two brothers, grief and sorrow, meet two sisters, joy and delight. I will not reveal any more since this book is too special to spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that it helps us see how the emotions of sorrow and grief coexist with and are necessary for us to feel joy and delight.

Children in garden by house with a magical view of death


“Cry, Heart but Never Break” also paints a very different picture of death than the one we are familiar with. While he does arrive dressed in an ominous black robe, we learn that “Death’s heart is as red as the most beautiful sunset and beats with a great love of life.” As the story continues, we realize that how we look at death is all about how we connect different aspects of life. Nothing about the story is predictable. Instead, it unexpectedly fills your heart with magic and joy.

“Cry, Heart, but Never Break” is a book that I guarantee will grab your heartstrings. Written in a deeply personal way, it’s the kind of book that a child will remember and cherish throughout their life, even as an adult.  

I would put this book at the very top of my list of books to give a child to help them understand death. Once the wrapping comes off the gift, simply sit back with them, read, and watch the magic flow.

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Causes of the “Merry Christmas Coronary”

The culprits behind the phenomenon of heart attack increases during the holidays
EKG tracing of normal heart not "Merry Christmas Coronary"


The “Merry Christmas Coronary” or “Happy Hannukah heart attack” is a term that describes the increase in heart attacks around Christmas and New Years. A well known phenomenon, it’s  been the subject of research for more than a decade. A national study published in Circulation in 2004 examined 53 million U.S. death certificates from 1973 through 2001. The data revealed an increase of 5 percent in heart-related deaths during the holidays.

Because the holidays coincide with winter in the Northern Hemisphere, researchers have surmised that cold weather might be one reason for the increase in deaths. Wintertime gives rise to flus and colds, which might contribute to increased mortality in people with underlying heart disease. We also know that cold temperatures put strain on the heart, and too much physical exertion in frigid temperatures can result in a heart attack. What’s more, blood vessels constrict in cold weather, which raises blood pressure. Blood clots also form more quickly and easily when temperatures are low.

However, cold weather is not the whole story — studies show that heart attacks don’t just increase in the wintertime. They also specifically spike on Christmas and New Years Day, especially among people who have had no symptoms previously. According to the 2004 Circulation study, “The number of cardiac deaths is higher on December 25 than on any other day of the year, second highest on December 26, and third highest on January 1st.”

Graph shows spike in "Merry Christmas Coronary"


Meanwhile, over in Melbourne, Australia, where Christmas and New Years fall during warm weather, researchers at the University of Melbourne conducted a study of the “Merry Christmas Coronary” that eliminated the cold weather variable from the data. Examining 25 years of mortality data from New Zealand, where Christmas and New Years coincide with summer, researchers discovered that death rates around the holiday season still increased by 4 percent. Furthermore, the average age of people dying around the holidays is younger than the average for the rest of the year.

So if cold weather isn’t to blame, what’s behind heart attack spike? In the 2004 Circulation study, researchers suggested that one reason might be that people tend to delay getting medical help over the holidays because they don’t want to disrupt the festivities. People who are traveling over the holidays might also take longer to find competent medical care. Additionally, hospitals are sometimes short-staffed during the holidays or staffed by less experienced personnel. Further, people who are already sick might engage in what experts call “displacement of death.” In other words, they try to “hold on” until the holidays are over, hoping to spend one more holiday season with loved ones.

Family at holiday dinner before a "Merry Christmas Coronary"


Lastly, some of the most obvious culprits in the mystery of the “Merry Christmas Coronary” are emotional stress and overindulgence in rich foods and alcohol. According to Robert A. Kloner, M.D., Ph.D., a researcher at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, “People tend to gain weight during the holiday season and take in more salt, which can put additional stress on a weakened heart.” And while this may dampen our holiday celebrations a bit, it’s also good news because we have some degree control over these things. Each of us can decide to care of ourselves this holiday season by avoiding excess salt and alcohol, continuing to exercise, and finding other ways to manage stress. And these simple lifestyle choices may help ensure that this holiday season is followed by many more to come.

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China’s Clown Doctors Bring Joy to Children’s Hospitals

China's healthcare system embraces an unusual Swiss program
An elderly woman in a wheelchair poses with two people dressed up as clowns and clown doctors


Over the past 20 years, Switzerland’s clown doctors have made their way to six of China’s top hospitals. And no, this isn’t a bad joke about the Swiss healthcare system. These “doctors” are literally clowns. They wear bright red foam noses, paint their faces in bright colors and adorn comically huge pairs of shoes with one goal in mind: to bring joy to children across China.

Every day, professional clowns pay a visit to one of six hospitals in Hong Kong, performing for as many as 10,000 young patients every year. And though they are not medical doctors, they still play an important role. According to a recent study, they reduce stress for many hospital visitors, and create a more positive environment for children in particular.

The clown doctors’ tasks include performing magic tricks for patients and their families and speaking with children in the pediatric center or the child oncology department. In many cases, the children staying in the hospital are facing painful and sometimes terrifying medical procedures. Clown doctors hope to alleviate some of that stress and bring laughter into healthcare.

Trend Started in Switzerland

While this practice is an emerging healthcare trend in China, it actually has roots in Swiss culture and medicine. The Theodora Foundation, a Switzerland-based organization, was founded in 1993 to help children cope with hospital visits. The organization’s founders, Jan and André Poulie, were inspired by their mother, Theodora Poulie. She adored children and had a vibrant sense of humor that Jan and André Poulie wanted to memorialize. They started with just two clown doctors in a pediatric department at the University Hospital of Lausanne in Switzerland. Today, the practice has caught on in a wide range of countries, from Italy to Turkey.

A clown doctor smiles at a young child who is staying at a hospital


It’s not unusual for healthcare trends to pass from one country to another. In an ever-globalizing world, nations share more traditions with each other than ever before. Since all people, regardless of nationality, strive to live healthier, fuller lives, we often see successful healthcare practices of one culture spread quickly to another.

Over the past few decades, Switzerland has earned a reputation for having one of the best healthcare systems in the world. Their culture highly values happiness. And many Swiss doctors believe that a stress-free, happy life is the key to great health. With their cheery personalities and bubbly jokes, clown doctors fit perfectly into this worldview. They remind healthcare providers that their patients are still people who need to relax and laugh after a long day like everyone else.

China Embraces Healthcare Reform

And it makes sense that China would be one of the first countries to fully embrace clown doctors in their medical facilities. That’s because China’s new Healthy China 2020 program seeks to reform the entire country’s healthcare system using both conventional methods (such as improved education about nutrition in schools) and unconventional ones (such as clown doctors). The government’s goal is to modernize China’s healthcare system, especially in urban areas where stress levels are high.

An outside view of Queen Elizabeth hospital, which hires clown doctors to interact with patients


As China’s dense urban areas continue to grow, common stressors like traffic, air pollution, poor diet and lack of exercise may worsen the overall health of its citizens. To prevent this China’s healthcare professionals are embracing a holistic approach to medicine. They’re looking beyond medications, surgeries and other treatments that only lessen the symptoms of  illness. Instead, they’re focusing on preventive techniques that will help Chinese citizens live healthier, happier lives.

In this sense, clown doctors are just one very small piece of larger healthcare reform, in that they represent a global shift in our understanding of what it means to be in good health. Medical professionals in many countries, including China, France, Switzerland, Spain and the United States, are learning that happiness (and laughter) are connected to good physical health. Thus, in the future, we may see more programs like these adopted on a global scale, especially as our cultural understanding of healthcare shifts.

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