The Good Death: An Exploration of Dying in America

Ann Neumann’s great journalistic look at the current state of end of life, from the legal right to stop eating and drinking, to the prolongation of life through machines well beyond what is viable and human. I learned a lot as she explores the states that have legalized death with dignity, and the states that have not. POLST (Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment) forms get taped to refrigerators so that emergency workers know where to look and are used in 26 states.

Neumann got interested in the topic after seeing her father die in pain, having to go against his wishes to die at home and transfer him to a hospice facility that had stronger drugs to treat his agony. She then goes on a whirl-wind chase around the world (Japan, Africa) to deal with her grief and to avoid the divorce papers and lack of job that awaits her at home. She becomes a volunteer for hospice patients and details her visits to a handful of them. Neumann also goes into the debate from disabled people who fear that they will be pressured to end their lives and want to fight the movement to allow assisted suicide as much as possible.

Jahi McMath, the Oakland teenager who is braindead yet kept “alive” at home, is covered (and another reminder that Christopher Dolan is a greedy lawyer, looking to bring a lawsuit against the hospital for declaring her dead). Also, Terry Schiavo, a poster child for the fight for and against assisted death; I had forgotten that she was on a feeding tube and vegetative for FIFTEEN YEARS.

I Know I Am, But What Are You?

I love Samantha Bee’s humor, ferocity, and wit, and some of those were on display in this 2010 collection of memories and stories about childhood and adulthood. She describes her early exposure to raunch, transferred on to her Barbies and other dolls. Also, escaping the horny hands of thirty-somethings as a 13-year-old with braces pretending to be 18 but looking more like 9, constantly lured by the promise of free pizza. And camping excursions with her dad and stepmom that involved months of detailed lists, leaving at 4 in the morning for no good reason, and 8pm curfews at the campsite. The variety of jobs she’s held is astounding, from frame shop clerk to penis dysfunction receptionist to video store logger of homemade porn to clothes retail. A light frothy beach read for those not able to concentrate on more substantial intake.

Why I Am Not A Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto

Fierce and merciless, much like Andrea Dworkin’s writing which Crispin rightfully defends. She is vehemently anti-“Universal feminism”, the type that has become hip, emblazoned on t-shirts and simply another accoutrement of culture. Buy this object to show the world that you’re a cool feminist, but don’t really think too hard about what feminism is, and what you’re fighting for.

I admit, I was a bit nervous cracking the spine on this. What would lurk inside to chastise me from my radical feminism? Instead, utter delight, as Crispin goes full throttle from page one to sweep aside the pseudo-feminists (hell-bent on what Crispin calls their “psychotic marketing campaign” to blandify feminism) and to paint the ideal world we should all be striving for. In the intro: “If by declaring myself a feminist I must reassure you that I am not angry, that I pose no threat, then feminism is definitely not for me. I am angry. And I do pose a threat.”

Naturally I went crazy and dog-eared nearly every page:

  • “Asking for a system that was build for the express purpose of oppression to ‘um, please stop oppressing me?’ is nonsense work. The only task worth doing is fully dismantling and replacing that system.”
  • “Now that we have removed all meaning from the word feminism, our ranks have swelled. We automagically (presto chango) have created an egalitarian society, right? Things have improved all the way around, not just for women but for all people, right?”
  • “The workplace and capitalistic society has become increasingly hostile. Not only to women, but to men, too.”
  • We know better, yet we’re too comfortable to make changes that make a difference. “We know—god, WE KNOW, shut up already—that that cute top was sewn by children, in a factory with such lax safety standards that at almost any moment the whole thing could go, taking hundreds of lives with it. But fuck it, we want that top.”
  • “There is a way a woman can deflect the worst effects of patriarchal control, and that is through money. Make enough of it and you can escape the patriarchy’s most obvious trappings…That’s what many of us have decided to do: buy our way out of the patriarchy.”
  • “This idea that women will ‘change the culture’ of any given industry is an easy lie to buy into. Even if women go in with good intentions, good intentions are nothing against the system. The system is older than you. It has absorbed more venom than you can ever hope to emit. You will not even slow it down.”
  • Cautionary tale: “No one talks about toxic femininity, but certainly if we look at certain feminine modes in contemporary culture, it exists. But we would prefer to think of toxic masculinity as innate, and any problems with women’s behavior as being socially created. It’s convenient.”
  • By short changing men, we’re actually short changing ourselves. “Through this act of projection, we are not only refusing to see the full humanity of men, we are refusing to see the full humanity of ourselves. We are not fully human if we only accept our good bits….look, it’s funny, and it probably even feels like a public service, deflating the male ego… And yet it seems to me if we really were better than them, we wouldn’t simply pick up all of their bad habits. We could find some value in ourselves without demeaning the value of men.”
  • Ultimately, it’s our culture of greed that fuels the horror of modern life. “We cannot create a safe world by dealing with misogyny on an individual basis. It is our entire culture, the way it runs on money, rewards inhumanity, encourages disconnection and isolation, causes great inequality and suffering, that’s the enemy. That is the only enemy worth fighting.”

 

The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness

Jill Filipovic does the world a service with this book, an excellent compendium of all the issues that confront a feminist life, with particular care to be inclusive and mention intersectionality wherever relevant. She interviews women across class, race, and geography (U.S. only) to show that the pursuit of happiness is simply out of reach for many women who are just trying to survive. Perhaps not as useful for people already deep in the cause, but this offers a great 360 view touching on everything from giving up one’s name upon marriage (personal pet peeve!), sex, marriage, parenting, women’s friendships, food, and work.

Her chapter titles are a nod to other books by women, like chapter 4’s “Life Among the Savages: Finding Pleasure in Parenting,” based on Shirley Jackson’s wonderful work; ch 6’s Bossypants (from Tina Fey), ch 1’s Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (Gloria Steinem); ch 3’s Playing in the Dark (Toni Morrison), etc. I love this secret book list and have taken a few titles as suggestions of things to read.

The book is wonderfully easy to read, and I’m glad Jill inserts herself into the story. I knew I was going to like reading it when I encountered this on page 2:

The story doesn’t end with me leaning in harder and opening my own firm, or leaning all the way out and moving to Bali to do yoga, or meeting someone handsome who works with his hands and moving to a farmhouse where I find purpose making artisanal jams. It doesn’t end at all, and definitely not with a self-help book or some sort of manifesto about how to find personal happiness. The book in your hands is, thankfully, not about another young lawyer who quit her job and found herself.

She layers in commentary from a huge variety of articles and books, the notes section a thick resource for future digging. Of the books, she quotes one of my favorites—Gone Girl—wherein the Cool Girl “jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2”. One of the articles she mentions is Alexandra Petri’s piece on getting her own humor column at the WaPo, which has this bit of chilling commentary:

Back then, I was super excited to be in a roomful of guys. The one thing I wish I could go back and tell younger me is that if you’re in a room of all guys, it doesn’t mean there’s something special about you. It means there’s something wrong with the room.

Something I’ve been wondering about a lot lately is the transformation of friendships when people get married/have kids. Jill sums this up nicely, saying that marriage is a sort of Rubicon for many women, “a point at which they increase their focus on their home, on their partner, and often on having children and building out their families… ‘Couple friends’ replace old girlfriends… ‘mom friends’ take over [after they have kids]… But, when you don’t get married at twenty-five and when you do spend more than a decade cultivating a life in which rich female relationships are at the foundation, it can be especially jarring to have those building blocks disintegrate. It can be jarring to realize you’ve shifted your own foundation, and it now rests largely on a man.”

On the parenting tip, this quote from Kim Brook’s New York magazine piece crystallizes the conflict between mothering and artisting, which she poses to a mother-friend:

I pressed her again on the question I’d been turning over in my mind:  Why is it that writing (or really any creative pursuit) seems to be in such conflict with parenting?

She answered calmly, hardly raising her voice. “Because the point of art is to unsettle, to question, to disturb what is comfortable and safe. And that shouldn’t be anyone’s goal as a parent.”

… Hippocrates tells us “Art is a revolt.” People make art, in other words, for exactly the opposite reason they make families.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Figured I’d take a break from real life controversies by dipping into a literary one and re-read Huck Finn. Parts are delightful, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the depiction of Jim, the slave that joins Huck on his swirl down the Mississippi, left me queasy. The squabble that’s been around since the book came out is around the question of Racist or Not and it drops so many “n word”s that the idea of whitewashing the book by search/replace with another word is laughable. I can only equate the feeling to when I read books about terrible things said about women, only usually those are couched with a glimmer of hope or irony, a strong woman character plotting revenge in the corner or muttering pithy replies under her breath. In this, Jim has no counterpoint to the stereotypical image of an enslaved black man. There are no gibes he gets in about the white men going to pieces all around him.

In my mind, the best parts are at the beginning, on the river, Huck and Jim. Even the parts with the “king” and “duke” joining the caravan are good at first, then become tedious. But the book clunks to a halt when Tom Sawyer arrives in the deep south to bungle the attempt to free Jim. Tom prefers to gussy up the plan by making it more dramatic, when they could have simply popped out a board to free him. This disrespect of the life of a man convinces me that the book is largely flawed, despite whatever intentions Twain had for poking fun at racism.

The Silent Passage

Gail Sheehy’s book about menopause is a classic guide in desperate need of updating—I think there’s been a lot more research about the impact of HRT, but she sells it as the easiest way to drop a Get Out of Jail card to avoid the peskiest of effects.

George Sand wrote a letter to her editor in 1853 that mentions her state:

“I am as well as I can be, given the crisis of my age. So far everything has taken place without grave consequence, but with sweats that I find overwhelming, and which are laughable because they are imaginary. I experience the phenomenon of believing that I am sweating 15 or 20 times a day and night… I have both the heat and the fatigue. I wipe my face with a white handkerchief and it is laughable because I am not sweating at all. However, that makes me very tired.”

Natural remedies for perimenopausal symptoms:

  • Dong quai
  • Black cohosh
  • Vitamin E and licorice
  • Siberian ginseng
  • Tofu & soy milk

Also, birth control pills can help mitigate some of the symptoms during peri-pause. “The body still manufactures its own estrogen, erratically, now and then, causing an excess of the hormone. The way around it is to give a dose of estrogen high enough to suppress the body from making its own, such as that contained in oral contraceptive pills.”

Apparently weight plays a big difference in how you experience the pause, with plump ladies having fewer effects usually. Other ways your diet can help you through this:

  • Decrease fat intake
  • Increase calcium intake
  • Increase tofu
  • Eat yams (source of natural plant estrogen, lots of beta carotene that’s an antioxidant)

Let’s not forget that heart disease is the number one killer of ladies over 50 though. To that end:

  • Don’t smoke
  • Cut down on animal fat/trans-fat. Diet for midlife women: low in fat/dairy products, high in phytoestrogens (soy milk!), high in veggies/fruit, esp those with Vitamin E & folic acid, high in fiber, small portions (frequent small meals)
  • Exercise – rapid walking!
  • Reduce stress

What about bones?!

  • Calcium supplmements
  • Brisk walking
  • Tai Chi!

Angela’s Ashes

Frank McCourt’s memoir won the Pulitzer in 1997 for autobiography but I completely missed it at the time, although I remember seeing it in every bookstore. Definitely worth reading, well-written, descriptive, evoking the desperate poverty brought on by a dad who drank away his paycheck and a Catholic mom who kept popping out babies who couldn’t be fed. Born in America, the family migrates back to Ireland to live with Angela’s family when the dad couldn’t keep a job in Brooklyn and after the death of their only daughter. A few more kids die, a few more arrive. Frank goes to school, takes on various jobs, sails away for America at the end. The last chapter is great, a single word “‘Tis”  in response to the end of the previous chapter’s rhetorical question “this is a great country, isn’t it?”

The scenes of poverty are heartbreaking, fleas, lice, excrement, starvation, and yet the childhood somehow seems happy. McCourt taught school for decades and finally got to work on this book post-retirement.

Things We Lost in the Fire: Stories

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Mariana Enriquez is an Argentinian Shirley Jackson. Her stories have a dash of creepy, ghost stories that are grounded in normal life. The decapitated street kid, the plot to bury sausages in the hotel beds to create an untraceable stink foiled by the appearance of ghosts from the police state, the girl without a left arm who disappears into a haunted house, women who burn themselves to disfigure their looks away from what men want. A fantastic collection, translated by Megan McDowell.

All the Lives I Want: Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen to Be Famous Strangers

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Alana Massey’s book was a dumbed down version of Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck. I had high hopes at the beginning, really enjoying the essay comparing Winona Ryder’s substance with Gwyneth Paltrow’s lack thereof. Even the Britney Spears essay isn’t terrible, giving us glimpses into how hard she must work to attain that level of perfect body. Other pieces cover Sylvia Plath, Fiona Apple, Lil’ Kim, Courtney Love, Scarlett Johansson, the Olsen twins, and Princess Diana. Fairly vapid and forgettable stuff, especially when compared with the intelligent insights of Doyle’s much better work.

Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir

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William Zinsser’s collection of authors speaking about their process of writing memoir comes from a series of their talks at the NYPL and is quite digestible. I’m left with a long list of memoirs to check out in further detail and a dose of bravery to inject myself with to get the words flowing from my own pen. This collection includes inspiration from Toni Morrison, Annie Dillard, Jill Ker Conway, Eileen Simpson, Frank McCourt, and Henry Louis Gates Jr.

A reminder of that great quote from Annie Dillard, which is in this.

You have to take pains in a memoir not to hang on the reader’s arm, like a drunk, and say, “And then I did this and it was so interesting.”

 

 

The Ice Palace

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I put a note in the back of a library book I enjoyed asking future readers to send me book recommendations if they enjoyed that book as much as I did. So far, this is the only book that I’ve been able to get through of the handful that have been recommended via that method.

It’s a creepy book, two eleven-year-old girls on the brink of a friendship only to have one of them die in the ice palace of exposure to cold the day after they have their first confab. Siss is a local girl, the leader of kids at school, and Unn has just moved to town after losing her mother, now living with her aunt. Siss feels that there’s something different about Unn, and the two warily circle each other for weeks before finally Unn writes a note saying that she wants to see her. Siss walks over to Unn’s house at night, bravely facing her fear of the dark, clomping in the cold. The two girls shut themselves up in Unn’s room and struggle to find common ground. They ogle themselves in a mirror, and take off all their clothes before hurriedly getting redressed. Unn hints at a secret, but Siss goes home before she finds out.

The next day, Unn feels too shy about seeing Siss at school, so she plays hooky and goes to the ice palace, formed at the river by the waterfall. She slips inside through a small crack, wanders deeper and deeper, finally taking off her coat to squeeze into an even smaller space, and then can’t get back to it. She lays down, sleeps.

That night, Siss joins the search party and the men eventually go to the ice palace. Their lights dance from within the palace, but Unn is not found. Siss gets a fever and feels she’s been asked by Unn to keep a promise not to forget her.

In the spring, Siss asks the kids to go back to the ice palace because it’s about to give way due to melting. They frolic, but do not find Unn. Later, the ice palace cracks and gives way, sweeping all evidence into the river. Fin. By the Norwegian Tarjei Vesaas, translated by Elizabeth Rokkan.

The Razor’s Edge

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Not surprisingly, I did not “feel myself getting smarter, my brain expanding while I read this,” unlike the idiotic character in I’ll Tell You In Person, which is where I got the breadcrumb to check out W. Somerset Maugham’s classic novel. I’m actually quite tired of reading books by gay men that make women into the shallowest of characters, ugly, grasping, with no redeeming qualities, while the men are heroic, handsome gods. This book strained every nerve of that kind.

If I identified with anyone in the book, it was Larry, the quiet and curious character who the entire thing is about, following his strange travels around the world “to loaf” by which he meant to study and read up and discover the meaning of life. He’s adamant about rejecting the normal path of office work and ends up losing a girlfriend/fiancee as a result. Isabel doesn’t take too kindly to the monkish aesthetic that Larry cultivates in his tiny Parisian apartment and can’t imagine herself without access to society, gems, furs, etc.

After a separation of two years wherein Larry heads to Europe from Chicago to find himself, they meet up, and Isabel asks what he’s been up to. “I’ve been reading a good deal. Eight or ten hours a day. I attended lectures at the Sorbonne. I think I’ve read everything that’s important in French literature and I can read Latin, at least Latin prose, almost as easily as I can read French.”

Isabel then cuts off the engagement, not wanting to face life without scads of money. (Larry has a small living that he can get by on without having to work, but that’s not enough for her.) In response to her rejection, he says “I wish I could make you see how much fuller the life I offer you is than anything you have a conception of. I wish I could make you see how exciting the life of the spirit is and how rich in experience. It’s illimitable. It’s such a happy life.”

Much later, after he meets up with the author after burying Sophie (naked, throat cut, opium addicted prostitute from Chicago to Paris and almost married to Larry until Isabel tempted her into drinking again). Larry mentions his plan of giving away all his money and starting in America with nothing, taking a manual labor job because that’s how he’s able to think. “My mind is free when I’m washing a car or tinkering with a carburetor…”

 

The Village

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I’ve never wholeheartedly liked anything that Marghanita Laski wrote, including this novel, which is the only thing I’ve been able to finish of hers. Post-war destruction/erosion of the class system played out via the romance of an upper class yet poor as a church mouse woman and a hardy, hard-working, up-and-coming son of her old charwoman. They start seeing each other when they find themselves both stood up for movie dates on Friday night, Margaret with her girlfriend Jill and Roy with his ex-girlfriend. They carry on a clandestine relationship and once Roy finds them a place to live, break the news to Margaret’s parents who refuse to give consent to wed. Eventually, and by forcing the young couple to emigrate to Australia forgodsake, they agree.

West with the Night

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Fantastic memoir by Beryl Markham about her childhood on a farm in East Africa (Kenya), becoming a horse trainer and then a freelance pilot across Africa. She was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west (thus “West with the night” as the title), ending up with her plane nose-first in the mud on Cape Breton after it runs out of fuel. Incredibly well-written and entertaining, with equal parts adventure and understated philosophy.

“From the time I arrived in British East Africa at the indifferent age of four and went through the barefoot stage of early youth hunting pig with the Nandi, later training race-horses for a living, and still later scouting Tanganyika and the waterless bush country between the Tana and the Athi Rivers, by aeroplane, for elephant, I remained so happily provincial I was unable to discuss boredom of being alive with any intelligence until I had gone to London and live there a year. Boredom, like hookworm, is endemic.”

In the wilds of Africa, the Brits set a lush tea table, prompting this recollection: “I have sometimes thought since of the Elkinton’s tea-table—round, capacious, and white, standing with sturdy legs against he green vines of the garden, a thousand miles of Africa receding from its edge. It was a mark of sanity, I suppose, less than of luxury. It was evidence of the double debt England still owes to ancient China for her two gifts that made expansion possible — tea and gunpowder.”

Upon coming across a man knee-deep in fixing his automobile on a dusty road, “In Africa people learn to serve each other. They live on credit balances of little favours that they give and may, one day, ask to have returned. In any country almost empty of men, ‘love thy neighbor’ is less a pious injunction than a rule for survival. If you meet one in trouble, you stop—another time he may stop for you.”

After rescuing a hunting party trapped on a plateau by flooded rivers, she mulls her next step: “I wonder if I should have a change—a year in Europe this time—something new, something better, perhaps. A life was to move or it stagnates. Even this life, I think… I look at my yesterdays for months past, and find them as good a lot of yesterdays as anybody might want. I sit there in the firelight and see them all…. I have had responsibilities and work, dangers and pleasure, good friends and a world without walls to live in. These things I still have, I remind myself – and shall have until I leave them.” Later, she picks up this theme again, “All this, and discontent too! Otherwise, why am I sitting here dreaming of England Why am I gazing at this campfire like a lost soul seeking a hope when all that I love is at my wingtips? Because I am curious. Because I am incorrigibly, now, a wanderer.”

Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain

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I know, I know, I know. I should exercise more. And this book points out the many ways it benefits not only your body but also your brain. I enjoyed this book, surprised that it was not just another “shoulda been an article but I beefed it up into a book” type book. I think what saved him was the inclusion of so many stories, of patients, or of research papers and studies. He gets pretty technical, and you learn some stuff about the old noggin, like the fact that serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine are all neurotransmitters.

It starts out strong, with two examples of schools that boosted their test scores by implementing a new way to do gym, that of focusing on heart rate for participation, not just performance. Exercise gets the blood flowing, gets your brain fusing new pathways, gets you ready to learn. Chapters touch on stress, anxiety, depression, and specific changes that women go through monthly and then through menopause. Throughout it all, a drum beat to get 5 days of exercise of 30 minutes at a minimum. This is just the safe side. Best? 6 days a week, 45min to an hour, four days longer with moderate intensity and 2 days shorter with higher intensity.