Straight, No Chaser (Revisited)

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This Sunday’s New York Times magazine features a lengthy, but worthwhile appraisal of John Cheever by Charles McGrath. The piece reassesses Cheever’s current status (McGrath correctly concedes that Cheever, who died in 1982, has had his star fade in the last decade or two), and perhaps in light of John Updike’s recent passing (he made it to 76; more McGrath here), it is difficult to believe the “Chekhov of the suburbs”, as he was sometimes called (in a way that only a regular contributor to The New Yorker, that literary bible of upper-middle class, over-educated and angst-ridden WASPs could be) did win the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for his collected short stories. Those stories, taken along with his novels (some highly regarded, others not so much) seemed to constitute a significant pillar in the modern American pantheon (modern meaning three to four decades ago).

When Cheever died, McGrath recalls: his literary reputation seemed as secure as literary reputations get. You would have bought shares in it if you speculated in such things. He was a widely acknowledged master of the short story, in a league with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Updike, who said that Cheever wrote “as if with the quill from the wing of an angel.” Now, not so much. The aforementioned collection of short stories, still largely regarded (for better or worse) as one of the seminal works of 20th Century American fiction, sells approximately 5,000 copies a year. Not shabby, McGrath acknowledges, but pretty depressing when you consider this asshole probably sold more books in the last ten minutes than the Cheever catalog will sell in the next ten years.

Nevertheless, (and this seems to be one of McGrath’s implications) it stands to reason that with the understandable hubbub stirred up by Updike’s death and the celluloid reincarnation of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road (haven’t seen it yet, but if it’s half as depressing as the novel, it will be very depressing indeed), the time may be ripe for a reassessment of Cheever, that bard of suburban despair. We’ll see. As we slouch toward a not-so-great Depression, I suspect that nostalgia for the black-and-white TV era in America might not entice too many young readers. Having to brown bag lunch it once in a while (do they even make brown bags anymore?) is about as retro as most middle-aged clock punchers want to get. I can’t say I blame them. Also, remember how quaint some of the characters seemed, when we read about them in the late ’70s and early ’80s? Think about how ancient, and boring, those loquacious and well-mannered (not to mention mostly lillywhite) characters will seem to X-box educated pupils today.

Let’s put it this way: to get a handle on Cheever, you need to have at least a passing appreciation of a time when people poured their spirits out of glass decanters (you need to know what a decanter is). An era when women drank, and smoked, all through their pregnancies just so they could keep pace with their husbands. McGrath speaks to Mary, Cheever’s 90 year old widow, and she reminisces about how certain folks rolled back in the day: “I just couldn’t keep him from drinking,” and went on: “But everyone drank a lot back then. People don’t always understand that now. Sometimes someone would even have to be put to bed before dinner, but that’s just the way it was.”

That remark, remarkable in its stoic, unsentimental honesty, reminded me of Cheever’s much-anthologized short story The Swimmer http://shortstoryclassics.50megs.com/cheeverswimmer.html

It also (inexorably) reminded me of something I wrote*–which I do not quote to flatter myself by comparison with Cheever (trust me) so much as to acknowledge that the generational divide I invoke is from the same era Cheever lived, wrote and drank in:

With Pavlovian precision, I make my way to the medicine cabinet and pour myself a bracing plug of bourbon. It’s more than I need or deserve, I think, but I don’t want the bottle to suspect I was unfaithful in another town, waiting for my return flight for instance, in a cramped and crappy airport bar at La Guardia. If this were a movie (I think, mostly in the past, but even today), I would grab my crystal decanter, filled with obviously expensive spirits, and administer that potion the old-fashioned way, needing no ice cubes, especially since I would never get around to drinking it, as it’s only a prop, a cliché. No one reaches for that tumbler these days (except in movies); the question is: did they ever? Even in the ‘50’s? Or has it always been part of the script?

I still have hangovers, thank God.

Everyone who has known an alcoholic knows that as soon as you stop feeling the pain, it’s because you are no longer feeling the pain; you are no longer feeling much of anything.

So, I welcome the horrors of the digital cock crowing in my ear at an uncalled for hour, am grateful for the flaming phlegm in my throat, the snakes chasing their tails through my sinuses, the smoke stuck behind my eyelids, the shards of glass in my gut, and the special ring of hell circling my head. Because if it weren’t for those handful of my least favorite things, I’d know I had some serious problems.

All of us can think of a friend whose father (or mother for that matter), we came to understand, was in an entirely different league when it came to the science of cirrhosis. The man who falls asleep fully clothed with a snifter balanced over his balls, then up and out the door before sunrise—like the rest of the inverted vampires who do their dirty work during the day in three piece suits. Maybe it was a martini at lunch, or several cigarettes an hour to take the edge of. Whatever it was, whatever it took, they always made it out, and they always came back, for the family and to the refrigerator, filled with the best friends anyone can afford.

Our friends’ fathers came of age in the bad old days that fight it out, for posterity, in the pages of books, uneasy memories and the wishful thinking of TV reruns: the ‘50’s. These are men who have never opened a bottle of wine and have no use for imported beer, men who actually have rye in their liquor cabinets—who still have liquor cabinets for that matter. These are men who were raised by men that never considered church or sick-days optional, and the only thing they disliked more than strangers was their neighbors. Men who didn’t believe in diseases and didn’t drink to escape so much as to remind themselves exactly what they never had a chance to become. Theirs was an alcoholism that did not involve happy hours and karaoke contests; theirs was a sit down with the radio and a whiskey sour, a refill with dinner and one before, during and after the ballgame. Or maybe they’d mow the lawn to liven things up, tinker under the hood of a car that had decades to go before it could become a classic. Or perhaps friends would come over to play cards. Sometimes a second bottle would get broken out. This was a slow burn of similar nights: stiff upper lips, the sun setting on boys playing baseball, mothers sitting on the couch watching TVs families did not yet own, of forced smiles battling bottled tears in the bottom of a coffee mug, of amphetamines and affairs, overhead fans and undernourished kids, of evening papers and a creeping conviction that there is no God, of poets unable to make art out of the mess they’d made of their lives. It was a hard time where people did not live happily ever after, if they ever lived at all. It was a time, in other words, not unlike our own.

 

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John Berg, RIP

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Being responsible for one unforgettable (and influential) album cover would seem more than enough to qualify for a life well-lived.
But John Berg dropped more than a handful of immortal images, perfectly laid out, doing the near-impossible: making already remarkable albums even better and more indelible.

Well-played, indeed.

Fantastic overview of his life and accomplishments courtesy of the New York Times.

Nice anecdote, underscoring his expertise and judgment, here:

 

Here’s a sampler of some of his finest work, with a representative tune from each.

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The Brown Sisters: Forty Portraits That Tell us Nothing, and Everything

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Life and Art combine to create something that is representative of the best both are capable of achieving.

I have little I can, or want to, add to the pictures themselves, part of a series undertaken by Nicholas Nixon.

This remarkable sequence of photographs contains essays, poems, short stories, even a novel. But it is more than those things; it’s better: it’s real, and the subject is at once obvious and elusive. Totally human.

And the accompanying story (by Susan Minot) is quite satisfactory, with this paragraph summing up so much:

These subjects are not after attention, a rare quality in this age when everyone is not only a photographer but often his own favorite subject. In this, Nixon has pulled off a paradox: The creation of photographs in which privacy is also the subject. The sisters’ privacy has remained of utmost concern to the artist, and it shows in the work. Year after year, up to the last stunning shot with its triumphant shadowy mood, their faces and stances say, Yes, we will give you our image, but nothing else.

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“Better call on evolution” or, Our Cultural Koyaanisqatsi (Revisited)

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Don’t you remember, back in the ’70s (or early ’80s), learning about people banning or burning books and thinking, even as a grade schooler, that this represented an ancient, embarrassing point in our ostensible development as a nation?

I do.

And as we come to learn, as we grow and bear witness, the more things change the more they stay the same.

Did you happen to catch this?

I did.

And I’m equal parts embarrassed and appalled. (Quick recap: some backward opportunist named Scott Beason, already a Tea Party loving, immigrant hating imbecile, is now throwing his hat into the ring. As in ring of fire. As in: let’s ban books! Click on the link above to read more, if you can stomach it.)

I find myself asking, only somewhat rhetorically: Again?

We have to go through this again?

We have to actually entertain the idea that anyone, in the United States, circa 2014, can get mileage out of this type of ignorant fear-mongering?

The answer, of course, is: of course.

And, as always, I do hate the player, but I mostly hate the game. This being America, each and every huckster can sell their snake oil; if people aren’t willing to buy it, they won’t survive. But as we see, again and again, there are always people willing to buy it. Lots of people. Especially people in certain states. Like Alabama.

If there was anything approximating a mature or informed discourse amongst these folks, or if our MSM was capable (or willing) to advance something resembling reality, there might be the possibility, however remote, of pointing out to these misguided, willfully ignorant cretins that the types of things they advocate (like banning books and supporting a single religion) are not only un-American –literally– but more than slightly resemble the exact practices –literally– of the Taliban we are allegedly fighting against overseas.

But there’s no hope. And that will never happen.

Of course Upton Sinclair understood this over a century ago, when he nailed our appetite for self-destruction, for all time: It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

5/25/2010:

ON THIS DAY:

On May 25, 1925, John T. Scopes was indicted in Tennessee for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution.

I always enjoy the chance to invoke the incomparable Bill Hicks.

And of course, I relish any opportunity to break out my favorite image ever:

But it’s not all that funny, really. I mean, we laugh because there is much to laugh at. You have to laugh at these simpletons who want to “bring our country back”, meaning the good old days when blacks and women knew their place, homosexuals dared not show their faces in public and the bible held firmer sway over a greater portion of the populace. Presumably these same tea baggers and bigots don’t want to also bring back cars without air conditioning and houses without running water, smallpox without vaccine and surgery without anesthetics and a few dozen other of our least favorite things from a time when the world was a whiter shade of pale.

And it’s not at all difficult to connect the dots between the type of magical thinking employed by the bible thumpers and the Ayn Rand-obsessed Libertarian lunatics (how perfect –and appalling– a commentary on the cultural Koyaanisqatsi we are currently struggling through that the son of the Libertarian’s savior is named after the most humorless and phlegmatic popular novelist of the 20th Century. Painfully popular. And imperceptive. (And influential. Right Alan? Atlas shrugged; Jesus wept.) Indeed, the only redeeming thing I can think about Ayn Rand is that she partially inspired one of Rush’s great early albums.

It’s times like this that I wish we actually had a Democrat in The White House.

Just kidding. Sort of.

I mean, if there wasn’t a better teaching moment than right now, when has there ever been? Between the ongoing Wall Street debacle (and the toothless “reform”) and the state our the-only-thing-better-than-less-regulation-is-no-regulation former administration left our country in, we are presented with the ultimate, ugly fruit of that mentality, the BP debacle. Or should I say, the still far-from-resolved BP debacle? Actual regulation on the disgustingly rapacious financial, housing and oil industries would have easily obviated all of the recent catastrophes. Catastrophes that we will spend generations paying for. Put another way: the only people who have gotten rich in any of these three arenas are the people who depend upon other peoples’ misfortune to make a profit. And, of course, there are large segments of our country fired up and ready to march defending these sociopath’s unfettered right to exploit and destroy.

See, the thing about teaching moments is that people need to be teachable; they need to be capable of being taught. And a distressing number of Americans right now have already determined that everything they need to know is contained within the (literal) words of the bible, or is best expressed by the (backwards and demonstrably untrue) proposition that there’s nothing the government can do that the free market can’t do better.

Yet, as depressing as it might be to consider how far we have to go, it’s helpful to think about the distance we’ve travelled. Take a look at the recent CNN poll, indicating that 8 of 10 Americans have no problems with gay people openly serving in the military. Could you have even fathomed this possibility back in November, 2004? (That, you may recall, was just after the G.O.P. successfully cock-rocked the vote, whipping up the Red and Blue state hysteria concerning all-things-homosexual. It seems safe to suggest that this disgusting –and disgustingly effective– strategy has finally reached its expiration date, and in our lifetimes we’ll look back in disbelief at how gullible, intolerant and imbecilic we were around the turn of the century. The way most of us today regard our legacy toward civil rights. Right Rand?

So there has been progress. And the good thing about evolution is that no matter how slow it might be, it is inevitable. Although, I wonder if the recent paradigm shift regarding gay rights has less to do with enlightened acculturation and more to do with the fact that in the last six years we’ve gradually discovered every priest and Republican politician is queer as Charles Haley. Just kidding. Sort of.

Therefore on a day that we remember the struggle to teach evolution even as we struggle to teach ourselves how to evolve, I’ll abjure originality and invoke a tune entitled…Evolution. Assessing this great song from the great Cat Power’s great album You Are Free (which I opined was the 4th best album of the past decade), I offered the following thoughts:

But in the end, “Evolution” is the ideal song to close out the set. More, it’s one of the best closing songs on any album, ever. More, it may just be the song of the decade: thematically it is elegiac but in its yearning, deeply human resolve, it is inevitably inspiring. Another duet with Eddie Vedder, I am unable to express the heights this tone poem attains. Just piano and two voices, one sounding like the other’s shadow, Vedder echoes, encourages and reinforces Marshall’s fragile invocation of witness and perseverance. The pair go through the lyrics one time, pause and recite them a second time, ending with a subdued but urgent call to arms, repeating the words “Better make your mind up quick”. They are talking to themselves and, one slowly realizes, addressing anyone else who might be listening.

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Malcolm, Malcolm – Semper Malcolm*

On Feb. 21, 1965, former Black Muslim leader Malcolm X was shot and killed by assassins identified as Black Muslims as he was about to address a rally in New York City; he was 39. (NYT story here.)

(The blog’s title comes from the great Archie Shepp album, Fire Music: check it out and see what it’s all about.)

Plenty has been written about Malcolm, but (as always) some of the most eloquent words were never actually spoken; they were sung. As such, I eagerly cede the floor to the incomparably cool and soulful Jackie McLean:

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Ars Moriendi, Part Three: Ordinary Angels*

Parts One and Two considered the “before” and “during” of end-of-life care (and once again, Bill Keller’s piece is recommended reading: check it here), and the final sections of my memoir deal with the “after”. One of the tensions I try to explore (in under 70,000 words!) is the often enigmatic, occasionally exhilarating connections we make (with others, with ourselves) before, during and yes, after death. As indicated, the so-called takeaway –at least in its author’s eyes– of my memoir is that anyone who encounters this material might be a bit better informed and therefore equipped to do what they can, with kindness and charity, to ease the transition with a minimum of needless suffering. If I were to narrow that down to one word/concept, it would be easy: Hospice. For lack of a better, or more long-winded explanation, Hospice workers combine the best aspects of the religious and medical communities: combining compassion and expertise to alleviate pain (physical and emotional) and provide the support and solidarity that tends to absent when patients are either abandoned or let down by the priests and doctors.

They are not miracle workers; indeed, their unique charm is helping people realize that there are no miracles: death is going to happen when, to paraphrase John Lennon, we are busy making (or hoping to make) other plans. They do for some of us what so many of us could not begin to do for ourselves: manage and oversee our last days with the wisdom and patience (and, always –and importantly– the proficiency) that defines the vocation they’ve chosen. And their efforts on our behalf, speaking of “us” as a community tied together by the one thing everyone has in common, are in many regards the ultimate huminitarian act. And, tragically if typically, this type of work (this type of acknowledgment of our frailty, something so consistently emphasized in religious texts) is easy to demonize, distort and willfully misunderstand. Mankind cannot bear very much reality, wrote T.S. Eliot. That is why, at times, we turn to churches, or texts, or other people. Hospice helps us come to some degree of peace with the one reality no sane person should ever easily embrace.

Once again quoting Keller:

Here in the United States, nothing bedevils our discussion of health care like the question of when and how to withhold it. The Liverpool Pathway or variations of it are now standard in most British hospitals and in several other countries — but not ours. When I asked one American end-of-life specialist what chance he saw that something of the kind could be replicated here, the answer was immediate: “Zero.” There is an obvious reason for that, and a less obvious reason.       

The obvious reason, of course, is that advocates of such programs have been demonized. They have been criticized by the Catholic Church in the name of “life,” and vilified by Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann in the pursuit of cheap political gain. “Anything that looks like an official protocol, or guideline — you’re going to get death-paneled,” said Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, the bioethicist and expert on end-of-life care who has been a target of the rabble-rousers. (He is also a contributing opinion writer for The Times.) Humane end-of-life practices have quietly found their way into cancer treatment, but other specialties lag behind.       

The British advocates of the Liverpool approach have endured similar attacks, mainly from “pro-life” lobbyists who portray it as a back-door form of euthanasia. (They also get it from euthanasia advocates who say it isn’t euthanasia-like enough.) Surveys of families that use this protocol report overwhelming satisfaction, but inevitably in a field that touches families at their most emotionally raw, and that requires trained coordination of several medical disciplines, nursing and family counseling, the end is not always as smooth as my father-in-law’s.

***

i.

My neighbor died, abruptly, while I was away at college. The girl across the street told me what happened: it was sudden, totally unexpected.

I didn’t even know she was sick, I said.

No one did, not even her, she said.

She simply collapsed; alive one second, dead by the time she hit the floor. No warning, no symptoms. It was like she—and her family—got blindsided by a car called cancer. It was inside her, everywhere, engulfing her from the inside out.

***

After just about everything had been done, every last resort explored and found insufficient, after five years my mother finally knew (this was before the pain, the real pain, commenced). Even while we were still lying to her, she ultimately could no longer lie to herself. Her body told her, and her grandchildren—who did not yet know how to lie—told her. The kids could sense it, and when she saw she was boring her granddaughter, that was a sign. When she realized she was scaring her granddaughter, the one she helped raise, the one whose diapers she had changed, the one for whom she could not buy enough toys or treats, the one she secretly (and not-so-secretly) loved as much as her own children, when she saw the fear in her granddaughter’s eyes, she knew.

 

***

Generally speaking, illness is cathartic. Even the worst stomach flu is tolerable because we know however awful it feels, it’s temporary. In fact, as the worst symptoms ensue you can take a curious comfort, knowing it can’t get worse. It follows patterns, borders, and you can almost predict the course it will take. Then, as you gradually begin to improve it becomes slightly intoxicating: the nasal drip that made it hard to swallow and difficult to sleep now congealed and coughed up, expired demons exorcised from your system. Your vitality stumbles back, like an eager baby learning to walk, and eventually, you’re yourself again.

With terminal cancer there is no improvement, and each time you confront the worst possible symptoms, there are always more on offer, a never-ending supply promising agonies you could not have previously imagined.

 

ii.

What does it say about me that I offer nothing but praise for the folks who helped facilitate the death of my dog?

Euthanize –vb: to kill painlessly, especially to relieve suffering from an incurable illness.

Euthanizing a dog (putting it to sleep, we say) is seldom a dilemma. It’s heartbreaking, certainly, but few people will tolerate seeing a helpless creature with no hope of recovery. However complicated it feels playing God when the decision has to be made, many of us believe it’s the least we can do for companions who loved us so well. There is a discernible solace to be found in the act of holding them as they close their eyes for the final time. I understood, from the first day I brought him home, that my dog was going to die. I understand that every being that draws breath will one day cease to do so. There is so much anguish we can do so little to improve it becomes a surreal blessing, exerting some measure of control, replacing pain with peace.

 

iii.

To hear some people tell it, angels are all around us. Lincoln spoke about the better angels of our nature, but these people believe actual angels are guiding our lives, their handiwork resulting in what we can only call miracles.

It is certainly an enchanting notion: our loved ones looking down from heaven, intervening on God’s orders, helping us do what we can’t do for ourselves.

We see evidence each day of the ways our fellow human beings make concepts like angels, heaven, and even hell seem like the only sensible remedy for the evils we inflict. Even if, guided by angels or their influence over our natures, we established a better way to exist, we would still have inexorable setbacks like illness and death—the sorts of circumstances that practically compel divine exegesis.

 

iv.

What does it say about me that I offer nothing but praise for the people who helped expedite the death of my mother? More, the people were paid to provide their services. More still, I think anyone should consider themselves fortunate to have a similar experience.

Listen: for a country that prides itself on doing so many things so well, America does not handle the process of dying with any particular aplomb. In fact, we are decidedly inadequate when it comes to confronting death, much less helping to expedite it.

At times we need help when we can’t count on ourselves. All too often our medical and religious institutions are ill-equipped to extend the very things they purport to provide.

 

v.

When we are faced with an impossible situations, we can’t afford to rely on angels we’re unable to see. No miracles are necessary since there are those amongst us who provide the support, comfort and grace many of us would pray for.

Hospice nurses are angels of death, which is to say, they perform the sorts of services God’s envoys usually get credit for.

When you or someone you love is confronting a death that will be neither quick nor painless, these ordinary angels are the best hope you have. When even the most compassionate doctors and priests are unable to offer more than kind words and empty promises, hospice nurses do more for us than we can do for ourselves. And that is as close to a real miracle as we can expect to encounter in this world.

*excerpted from a memoir entitled Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone.

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Ars Moriendi, Part Two: Hippocrates and Hypocrites*

Part One considered the “before” of end-of-life care (and once again, Bill Keller’s piece is recommended reading: check it here), and this excerpt (from Keller, then me) deals with the “during”, and the unanticipated, if revealing way many doctors handle things when they are the ones getting the grim diagnosis.

Terminal illness –and how best to process it– is not remotely an easy to discuss, describe or resolve dilemma. The primary issue, it seems to me, boils down to awareness (which, come to think of it, applies to virtually every situation): it might be easy to blame the doctors or the system, or even the families, but we are currently ill-equipped to have open, honest discussions about treatment options vs. realistic scenarios, and in America especially, our one-two punch of denial and deference to authority leads to many well-intended instances where pain and suffering is prolonged in the name of hope. Keller’s article indicates we can learn a lot from our brethren across the pond, where humane and mature solutions are not met with hysterical screams of ‘death panels’ and the like…

But the hospital that treated him offers a protocol called the Liverpool Care Pathway for the Dying Patient, which was conceived in the 90s at a Liverpool cancer facility as a more humane alternative to the frantic end-of-life assault of desperate measures. “The Hippocratic oath just drives clinicians toward constantly treating the patient, right until the moment they die,” said Sir Thomas Hughes-Hallett, who was until recently the chief executive of the center where the protocol was designed. English doctors, he said, tell a joke about this imperative: “Why in Ireland do they put screws in coffins? To keep the doctors out.”

The Liverpool Pathway brings many of the practices of hospice care into a hospital setting, where it can reach many more patients approaching death. “It’s not about hastening death,” Sir Thomas told me. “It’s about recognizing that someone is dying, and giving them choices. Do you want an oxygen mask over your face? Or would you like to kiss your wife?”

Anthony Gilbey’s doctors concluded that it was pointless to prolong a life that was very near the end, and that had been increasingly consumed by pain, immobility, incontinence, depression and creeping dementia. The patient and his family concurred.

And so the hospital unplugged his insulin and antibiotics, disconnected his intravenous nourishment and hydration, leaving only a drip to keep pain and nausea at bay. The earlier bustle of oxygen masks and thermometers and blood-pressure sleeves and pulse-taking ceased. Nurses wheeled him away from the wheezing, beeping machinery of intensive care to a quiet room to await his move to “the other side.”

 ***

Doctors talking about death are not unlike priests describing the horrors of hell: there is the air of presumptive jurisdiction, but also an aloof conviction, almost pitying, that affirms it’s not a place (death, hell) they’ll ever find themselves. We cannot despise them for this: without these affectations that eventually become ingrained, they could not conceivably perform their functions. Their comportment suggests that they have seen many of the things we pray to avoid, and have become intimate with horrors we can hardly imagine. In order to acclimate, they must first fortify themselves.

Physician, heal thyself?

It is understandable that so many of us assume doctors, who have more of everything—knowledge, money, connections—are able to take care of each other in ways their patients cannot conceive. If this were indeed the case it would be comforting in a way. At least we would have irrefutable evidence that solutions do exist and we might look forward to one day employing them ourselves.

But the reality, if less polemical, is nevertheless enlightening. According to a growing field of first-hand testimonials, doctors do in fact tend to die differently, but not as a result of special or preferential treatment. The ultimate, paradoxical disparity lies in an intentional demurral of treatment. Less last-ditch cycles of chemotherapy or illusions of a few extra months—itself a proposition that begs the complicated question: does more time with more adversity (physical if not mental) seem in any way appealing?

This phenomenon, which could simply and accurately be described as acceptance, illustrates several things. The most revealing might be the consequence that doctors see enough avoidable anguish they are disinclined to die in denial when their own diagnoses stare back at them in black and white. Aware of how little can be done, and able to measure the difference between best intentions and bottom lines, some prepare accordingly. In the process, perhaps they are able to provide a measure of peace—and not the opposite—for themselves and their families.

*excerpted from a memoir entitled Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone.

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Ars Moriendi, Part One: The Conversation*

Writing in the New York Times on October 7, Bill Keller’s touching essay “How To Die” confirms a regrettably consistent reality regarding end-of-life care (the before, during and after of how we die): opinions about it, indeed cognizance of it, is often limited to those who have had direct experience with a loved one’s struggle.

As many friends and readers of this blog know, I have direct experience with such a struggle: my mother’s ultimately losing battle with colon cancer, a disease that took her life just over ten years ago.

As many friends and readers of this blog know, I’ve spent the last couple of years working on a memoir entitled Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone. While this project is an attempt to commemorate –and celebrate– my mother’s life, it also concerns itself with the often uneasy interstices that comprise the before, during and after of how we die. More, it is a (hopefully, sufficiently subtle) call to arms, a (hopefully, sufficiently humble) petition to combine insight and compassion for collectively waging a more effective assault on this –and by extension any– disease. More still, it might function as a (hopefully, sufficiently altruistic) j’accuse documenting all the things my family and I struggled against: ignorance, apathy, lack of understanding, etc. The essence of the story –the essence of any good story, the imperative of art– is to share perception and accrue knowledge, admit what you did not know to help someone else recognize what they should learn, and communicate awareness through empathy.

I strongly recommend reading Keller’s piece, because it is short, not-so-sweet, yet appropriately matter-of-fact. Here is the crux of this tale’s “before”, the dilemma (how, when?) that patients and, just as often, their desperate families confront:

When they told my father-in-law the hospital had done all it could, that was not, in the strictest sense, true. There was nothing the doctors could do about the large, inoperable tumor colonizing his insides. But they could have maintained his failing kidneys by putting him on dialysis. They could have continued pumping insulin to control his diabetes. He wore a pacemaker that kept his heart beating regardless of what else was happening to him, so with aggressive treatment they could — and many hospitals would — have sustained a kind of life for a while.

In my family’s case, we never had the proverbial moment of truth, a benevolent intervention by the professionals who are paid to tell us how and how long. From a chapter entitled “Fairy Tales and Feeding Tubes” (recently posted in full on the site), this awkward confrontation with reality –a situation that arrived when alternatives ceased to exist– is depicted:

She could not have known her life would now be measured in weeks instead of months. None of us knew.

Here’s the thing about acceptance: we all had time to prepare and adapt. My mother, finally, after opening every door and stumbling down every last alley, had no other choice but to accept. Sometimes the choice makes itself when there is nothing left but a choice that will make itself. She finally accepted where we were and what was coming.

Even with the best of intentions we waited too long to bring in hospice. We did not understand that at a certain point even a single day is too long. In shockingly short order, her body had deteriorated to the point of its final betrayal: she could no longer digest food.

“Your body can no longer digest food,” my father said as we all stood around the bed, confronting the moment that, after all denials, medical interventions, and best wishes otherwise have failed, arrives at last. The only comfort is that at least it’s not a doctor telling her; at least she is in her own home.

There is an extended section of the memoir, covering several chapters, that honestly, if unflinchingly describes how we gained the knowledge we now have, and how hard-won it was to acquire. These brief chapters are a bit more didactic, albeit infused with (hopefully, sufficient) artistic import. In some regards, although the impetus throughout is on recounting and exploring the story of one woman’s life (focusing, inevitably, on how it ended), the so-called takeaway –at least in its author’s eyes– is that anyone who encounters this material might be a bit better informed and therefore equipped to do what they can, with kindness and charity, to ease the transition with a minimum of needless suffering.

***

Eventually, we asked: What should we expect?

Well, we can’t know for certain, they said. But at this stage you should probably begin to consider end-of-life options.

And can you point us in the right direction?

Certainly, they said. After all, we literally deal with this every day…

This is a conversation that never occurred, and it’s one entirely too many families won’t get the opportunity to have. Having not had the pleasure, I feel I’m in a safe position to suggest that, tempting though it may be, this predicament cannot necessarily be placed on doctors or even the system. Certainly, some surgeons and oncologists are better equipped than others (on human as well as professional levels) to conduct helpful—or at least honest—discussions regarding options, percentages, and prognoses.

How much time have I got? That is the big one, the most crucial, if feared question each patient eventually, inevitably asks. And if they can’t—or won’t—bring themselves to give voice to the concern that rips like a current through every part of their consciousness, it is up to the family to make the inquiry on their behalf. We didn’t want to know, but we needed to know. We had the right to know, we felt. Questions: Were we prepared to process it, whatever the verdict happened to be? Wouldn’t the doctors tell us, finally, when it was time to confront the final stage? Isn’t it our obligation to provide care and distraction, and let the professionals do what they are taught to do? And so on.

Naturally, there are no definitive answers to any of these questions. Or worse, the answer to each one is—or can be—yes and no. Depending on the patient’s age, or situation, or the doctor’s preference, or competence, or conscience, there is probably never an adequate formula for combining truth with commiseration. Speaking only from personal experience, the worst news you can receive is not the bad news you abhor, but a deferral disguised as an alternative.

When they were unable to successfully operate, in July 2002, we knew it was no longer a matter of if but when. How long have we got, we asked in direct—and especially indirect—ways. It was apparent, then, and even more obvious, now, that the issue was not how much they knew but how much they didn’t know. For all they knew, it could be a year or it could be six months; there could be a miracle, my mother might make medical history. And so, they declined and demurred and filled my parents’ heads with words like “quality of life” and, unbelievably, chemotherapy. My mother, not knowing the truth and my father, not yet wanting to confront it, began to embrace this potential course of action as one last bulwark against the unimaginable. As long as we are in motion, we are still in control: this is what I heard every time I looked at my father’s face. None of us, including the doctors, could know that in little less than a month the most important question would answer itself.

It would be too easy to insist that our doctors were negligent or, at least, woefully indifferent. The reality, I suspect, is even worse than that. Obviously doctors do not want to give false hope or obliterate any remaining optimism, but the rationale for their institutional code of silence may in fact have more to do with us than them. Our country’s capacity for denial is well documented; it is more likely our ever-increasing penchant for litigation that gives them pause. When the going gets tough (and the going is always tough in cancer wards) we pray doctors can perform tasks far beyond their human abilities. Even after the surgery (successful or not) has occurred, we expect these people to become priests, social workers and saints.

Still: you want answers. Aside from comfort and serenity, those are the hardest things to come by when you’re dealing with terminal cancer. No one knows anything and you get the sense that even if they did know—especially if they do know—they are not going to tell you.

*excerpted from a memoir entitled Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone.

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Don Cornelius, Cont’d…

I only have one more thing to add to yesterday’s tribute. WATCH THE VIDEOS CONTAINED IN THIS LINK.

Let’s run it down:

A young, beautiful Michael Jackson? Check.

A younger, leaner and meaner James Brown? Check.

Marvin and Aretha? Check.

Rick James? CHECK!

Barry White? Check (yourself before you wreck yourself).

My work is done here. Enjoy!

Love, peace, and soul.

 

 

 

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The Boogeyman, Goonery and Five for Fighting

 

The ongoing three-part series of the life and untimely death of NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard is an essential piece of reading for any hockey fan. And it’s a timely bit of sociological insight for a culture obsessed with sports, violence and a slowly-awakening awareness of concussions.

Not sure I have too much to add (for now) but I’ll revisit this topic once the third (and final) installment of the Boogaard piece goes live.

For now, here are some extended thoughts from 2011 regarding hockey, violence and cognitive dissonance.

After my post yesterday, “Back To The Future With Old Time Hockey?”, wherein I acknowledged –and celebrated– the recent trend of accountability and team-toughness in our most misunderstood sport, it was inevitable that at least one of my well-meaning friends would take exception. It was my good luck that it turned out to be one of my most intelligent and savvy amigos, who knows a lot about sports (soccer in particular) and life (in general); a dude whose opinion I always appreciate. And so, with gratitude, I will take his comments as an opportunity to say more about my feelings toward hockey (in general) and hockey fighting (in particular). I hope in the process I at least address some of his remarks to his satisfaction, and stimulate some thoughts from others, especially non-hockey fans.

2/12/2011, 8:50pm:

Seany-boy, I remember when I was in High School, someone said to me: “Why don’t you like hockey? It’s actually a lot like soccer.” My response was: “Oh, bullshit. In soccer I can dribble around someone with skill. If I beat them, I beat them. If I don’t, I don’t. We pit our skills against one another and see who comes out on top. Not so in hockey. In hockey, if I beat someone on skill they can just knock me on my ass. Or someone else can knock me on my ass. It’s redneck soccer – a crass, hollow husk of a sport.”

I hate to say it, but my opinion stands. All this emphasis on fighting is exactly what I expect from NASCAR fans, who, when faced with a couple consecutive accident-free races stare slackjawed and complain about the lack of carnage, instantly forced to confront how inherently boring their sport is.

Hahahaha!

2/13/2011, 10:21am

Sensh,

Needless to say, I violently (ha!) disagree.

However, I have heard similar sentiment expressed by friends (who love and understand other sports) over the years. I think it’s more than a little ironic, yet for purposes of this discussion, wonderfully appropriate, that you advocate soccer at the expense of hockey. Indeed, if there is one sport more unfairly maligned than soccer, I can’t think of it (I would say hockey, but as I readily concede, no one actually watches hockey!). Having found myself, on too many occasions to count, defending the great sport of soccer from simpletons who consider it “boring”, I can’t help but be amused by the fact that, of all things, you use the word “boring” to describe the one sport where there are no timeouts, no diving, and no malingering (hello baseball!)

Doesn’t it drive you nuts when bozo-Americans say “nothing *happens* in soccer?” The only answer, which could never satisfy the unimpressed fan (who probably prefers the wrong type of football) is that *everything* happens in soccer, it just happens in its own way, at its own pace, by its own logic, and in a fashion that should not –and cannot– be compared to other sports. Since we are simpatico on this, I won’t belabor the point; I suspect we probably have used similar arguments, however futilely, to try and enlighten non-soccer fans. That said, I also have to acknowledge some of the issues non-fans have with the game (even, if especially the game at its highest level: during world cup competition). The diving and drama has long-since gotten way out of hand; it denigrates the game to a considerable extent and drives me nuts. The (understandable, but infuriating) tendency of teams, if they happen to score first, to shut everything down and play ultra-conservative in the hopes of maintaining their lead. The embarrassing savagery of the fans (ever read Among the Thugs? by Bill Buford? Highly recommended).

And, I suspect, any serious fan of soccer with a modicum of sociological perspective innately understands that even the hooliganism is rooted in class and economic context; in other words, even that indefensible aspect of the game is more complicated, historically inculcated and, yes, explicable than a casual assessment would suggest. (Lest that sound like I am in any way defending or advocating soccer-related shenanigans, I am not; only recognizing that it has a lot more to do with things aside from a taste for “a bit of the old ultraviolence”…which, in another discussion, could conceivably bring us back to hockey and its origins which are not unlike lacrosse, a game initially played—in very brutal fashion—by the Native Americans. More on that later, as well as the socioeconomic elements of hockey’s origins and ongoing association with a very blue-blood—and blue collar—populace in the Great White North also called Canada.)

That said, when people claim soccer players are soft, I like to say the same things I tell people when they make fun of tennis: try running around for 90 minutes. Not even in the context of a game; just the simple fact of RUNNING AROUND for 90 min. Ah yes, but that just means they are in shape, the people inexorably say. Okay, try and maneuver a soccer ball, while running and having people stick their feet, arms, shoulders, and torsos at and around you. (Just like it’s always humbling, to this day, to think I’ve got some game when I play b-ball and shoot around with myself, draining all my shots; then get into some on-court action vs. actual people and I realize, instantly how short, weak and white I am).

The best part, to me, is that of all the sports, soccer and hockey are most similar. If you watch a hockey game you’ll see the similarities are astonishing: it’s just that everything is faster and (sorry) much more intense. The “field” is smaller so there is less space, therefore more contact, and in this regard, it’s like (American) football. ON SKATES. Interestingly, for a person like yourself, you might be pleased, or at least surprised to know that the skill-set (similar to most sports) has increased incalculably over the years. Not unlike other sports (football in particular), looking back at footage even 20 years ago makes it seem that, by comparison, it used to be in black and white and slo-mo; even the fourth line players these days are in top shape, cut out of marble and fast: they are, in a sense, like linebackers, ON SKATES.

I feel, in the end, much like I do when people ask me why I listen to jazz music: because it’s great. That’s the easiest (and most truthful) answer. I have no interest in trying to convince or convert anyone; but I will say, if you are the least bit intrigued, check out hockey during the playoffs: that is BY FAR the most intense and exciting sports action you’ll see. Or, let me pull that back: certainly March Madness is tough to top; and (sigh) even NBA playoffs eventually elevate the game (where, for the duration of the regular season, most players seem to phone it in). I would say, respectfully and as a huge fan of soccer: as excited as I get for the World Cup, I’m disappointed by at least half the games (for many of the reasons listed above); I’m never, ever, disappointed during ANY games during hockey playoffs, and I could care less which teams are playing– a sentiment that exposes me as a true fan, or a hopeless case (or really, when it comes to hockey, those are the same thing).

Notice we didn’t even get into the fighting aspect yet?

I realize I could/should say more, but I already offered some opinions on this controversial aspect of the game this past July on the unfortunate occasion of Bob Probert’s passing. Probie was arguably the consensus all-time heavyweight champion enforcer (or goon, if you must) and any discussion of his life—and impact—necessarily touches on several aspects of an element of the game that entices some and appalls other. I’ll repost, below. And I definitely welcome comments, opinions and the inevitable assumption by some/many that the only thing more inexplicable than watching hockey is taking time to discuss it.

This hurts.

R.I.P. Probie.

Quick tally: #24, over 3,000 penalty minutes. Member, along with Joe Kocur, of the legendary “Bruise Brothers” tandem back in the days when the Detroit Red Wings were more feared for what they could do after the whistle stopped play. Participant in a handful of the all-time classic fights in hockey history. Man who inspired t-shirts that read “Give Blood. Fight Probert.” Simply put, if one were to try and create the ideal enforcer (especially for an era that may not have been the toughest or most iconic era but was one of the most enjoyable), one could hardly imagine a more suitable cartoon character than Bob Probert.

As The Kinks once sang, Let’s All Drink To The Death Of A Clown.

And lest anyone think I’m using the word clown carelessly or disrespectfully, it is in fact chosen with the aim of being both accurate and approbatory. (A Probie-tory, if you like.)

Think about what a clown does: he is the minor but essential character who shows up at a circus with the objective of instigating misconduct. Above all, his purpose is to entertain with a mixture of mischief and cheer. A superficial assessment might conclude that a clown is simply doing, in make-up, what any drunk idiot might do. But of course whether it is juggling, dancing or doing tricks, not just anyone could be (or would want to be) a clown. It’s a job.

Think about what a hockey enforcer (what we used to call a goon just like we used to call escorts hookers or stockbrokers sociopaths) does: he is the minor but essential figure who shows up in an arena with the object of instigating misconduct (hopefully without receiving a game misconduct). Above all, his purpose is to settle scores and entertain a crowd while invigorating his teammates. A superficial assessment might conclude that an enforcer is simply doing, in a colorful costume, what any drunk idiot might do. But needless to say, trading bare-fisted blows (sober or especially drunk) in a bar is considerably different than standing on skates and going toe to toe with an opponent who is well-prepared (and in some cases, well-paid) to kick your ass in front of thousands of people. Many people without athletic ability are very capable goons; only an extremely select group of individuals are able (much less willing) to abide by “The Code”. It’s a job.

It’s difficult to talk intelligently with anyone about hockey because so few people watch (or care) about it. That goes double when trying to articulate the science of sanctioned pugilism. How can one possibly rationalize or defend the spectacle of adults engaging in behavior that would get them arrested out in the streets? (Indeed, fans are arrested nightly at hockey rinks all over the continent for imitating, albeit often drunkenly and with far less flair, the very behavior occurring in real time below them.) The answer is at once easy and complicated, like all truths tend to be. The easy part: there is no need to explain it. If you’re not a hockey player, you can’t hope to comprehend it; unless you are a fan, you have no hope of understanding or appreciating it. It’s really that simple. Seriously. Just ask a hockey player. (And, as perspicacious commentators have pointed out for decades, one notices how nobody gets up to grab popcorn once a fight breaks out. While that may speak volumes about the distressing devolution of our species and our insatiable appetite for violence, there is something a bit more sophisticated going on.)

So what is complicated about it? For starters, hockey fighting remains a diversion that people who genuinely deplore violence (like this writer) endorse and get excited about. What does that say about us? I’m not certain. But I do know that unlike the “real” world, it is exceedingly rare for two hockey combatants to enter the fray unwillingly. Yes but, doesn’t that make it a great deal worse, if they do it because they get paid? (Well, is boxing beatiful? Brutal? Your opinion here will go a decent way toward explaining your ability, or willingness, to negotiate the enigmatic charm of the expression “five minutes for fighting”.) That gets to the not-so-easily explained sensibility of athletes (in general) and hockey players (in particular). Hockey players have traditionally been paid a great deal less than other athletes in more popular sports. It is, therefore, a bit ironic to consider that these players are more immune to pain and prone to play a regular season game like the world is on the line. It is, for hockey fans, refreshing that the players have an integrity that has been ingrained from generations and is remarkably resilient against the corrupting forces of salary, fame and product endorsements. Put in less exalted terms, people tend to get (understandably) cynical when, say, a baseball player with a multi-million dollar annual contract goes on the D.L. with a strained hamstring. That type of commonplace indifference is especially noticeable –and appalling– when one realizes that hockey players routinely return to the ice moments after receiving stitches, or losing teeth, or suffering bruised (and in some cases, broken) bones. Google it if you don’t believe me.

None of this is to say that one might enjoy the sport more if one learned more about it, but a casual viewer (or hater) might be genuinely surprised to learn a few things about the history of hockey fighting. For starters, the opposing players seldom hate each other and in it is not uncommon for them to be friends off the ice (particularly if they are old teammates). Also, the aforementioned code does have a rather elaborate –and universally endorsed– system for the rules of engagement. Finally, and perhaps most significantly: not only are enforcers generally the most popular players (amongst the fans; amongst the teams), they tend to be some of the more thoughtful and soft-spoken ones. (For two obvious examples, consider the ever-humble Craig Berube –“The Chief”– who toiled many seasons in the NHL including for my hometown Capitals and now is an assistant coach for the Flyers; then there is George McPhee who happens to be one of the more respected and successful GMs in the game.)

Of course, not all of them are model citizens, and for a variety of reasons (some understandable, some inscrutable), some of them have had very challenging and troubled lives.

Enter Bob Probert. Though it is debatable whether or not he (or any particular player) was “the best” enforcer in the history of organized hockey, not many people would argue with any credibility that he is not at least in the Top 10. For my money, pound for pound and in terms of longevity, respect, quality of opponents and success, Probert is the preeminent knuckle artist of the modern era.

Let the cliched encomiums unfurl: he feared nobody. He fought everyone. Ultimate warrior. Ideal teammate. Crowd pleaser. Accomplished actor? Well, see below:

As Detroit (and Chicago) residents know, and as fans of the game remember, Probert battled the proverbial demons off the ice as well. His struggles with alcohol and substance abuse is amply documented. His occasional escapades drew the attention of law enforcement officials. He was, in short, a troubled man in certain ways, but he was always resilient, and never let his addictions keep him down (or out).

(The actual history of his difficulties is sufficiently reported that folks interested in more can easily find out with the click of a mouse. I also acknowledge that his livelihood may have done as much to exacerbate his issues as it did to ameliorate them. In other words, he quite possibly may have gone down certain roads whether or not he played hockey or threw a single punch. But I readily concede that there is an ugly side to sports, just like there is a sinister side to life, and all of us are constantly pushed and pulled by the momentum of necessity and choice, and the inexorable reality that we have to pay bills and obey laws. A more sustained –and serious– discussion of sports, hockey, hockey fighting and some of the casualties of this game (think John “Rambo” Kordic’s tragic story) should occur at another time.)

For now, in addition to wishing him a fond adieu and sincerely sending out support and goodwill to his family and friends, I’d like to celebrate some of the most memorable instances of him doing what he did better than just about anyone who ever laced up the skates.

1. Bob Probert vs. Craig Coxe (Round One):

2. Bob Probert vs. Craig Coxe (Round Two):

3. Bob Probert vs. Dave Semenko:

4. Bob Probert vs. Troy Crowder:

5. Bob Probert vs. Tie Domi (The Epic Saga):

**Bonus: It might make sense to go ahead and include, just for the heck of it, THE BEST HOCKEY FIGHT OF ALL TIME**

Bob Probert vs. Marty McSorley (Two of the best of their generation in a game called by the best hockey announcers of their generation, Gary Thorne and the immortal and inimitable Bill Clement):

If he had kept his act together a little better, he would have retired a Red Wing, possibly kissed the Cup, and pretty much owned the Motor City. Somebody could make a movie like that. Of course, somebody already did: his name was Bob Probert and the movie was his life. Not all movies have happy endings, alas. And like anyone who will be missed once they are gone, he gave us far more than we ever gave him.

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