Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Requiem Part Four: Jackie

When I started this, it felt too soon to write about Grandpa and Jackie. I made it through Grandpa's, even though I still haven't quite managed to wrap my head around the fact that he's dead, but I had a hard time even starting this one and then opening my computer to finish. I guess it's fine- she just died only a few days ago- but each day has felt like a week. This month of death and dying has felt alternately like a decade and like it just sped by- each day wasn't nearly enough, since it might be the last. Neither grandparent could use their email anymore, the best way to communicate with them, and it was never quite certain if calling them on the phone was a good idea- would you wake them? Would it be a good day? Would they have their hearing aides in? Would it be more trouble for them than a good thing to be talking on the phone? I know this is my story, not hers, but it's also interesting that my sister thought Jackie would live forever, and I thought Grandpa would- there was nothing wrong with him that would ever kill him. She had this same feeling about Jackie, and we're both going through it. I think I haven't let Jackie's death hit me hard yet. It will.

In retrospect, we should have known that Jackie would have a heart attack. One of the favorite stories my immediate family likes to tell about Jackie is how she would order hot chocolate (or a sundae), hold the hot chocolate. Read: serve me a cup (or bowl) of whipped cream. Jackie was born in England, so really she would have preferred clotted cream or heavy cream, but in Los Angeles, whipped cream would have to do. At one of the first meals my mom and Jackie had alone (Jackie was dad's mom), Jackie told mom it was perfectly okay to skip lunch and go straight to dessert if that was what they wanted. Why waste the calories? Jackie also believed that there were no calories if you ate off of someone else's plate. Or split a dish. I never saw Jackie cook, or eat much, let alone eat anything particularly healthy. On the other hand, she never weighed much more than 120 while I knew her, so something was working. She specialized in sushi, loved pre-cut fruit (I can't remember what she ate before they sold pre-cut fruit in the market) and never bought green bananas.

Without giving away themacinator's top secret identity (you have no idea who I am, right?), my grandmother wrote romance novels- best selling romance novels. I grew up alternately exceptionally proud and slightly embarrassed, as I am a world class prude. One of them is dedicated to me- they are all dedicated to Bert, and then each child and grandchild has one dedicated to them- and I accidentally pulled that particular one out first the other day. The inscription reads "Dear [themacinator]- When today is a long time away, read this and think of me. I love you, Jackie. (Grandma, too). September 5, 1983" Let's just say I am very proud now. [See note on the grandma thing here.]

I never really talked much to Jackie about writing the books, I don't think, or at least I can't remember. It's funny that I can't remember or didn't talk to her about it, though, since from when I was very little, I wanted to be a writer- who knows whether that's nature or nurture. I've said it throughout that there is a lot of each grandparent in me, and, although Grandma was very creative and loved to write, Jackie was the writer. She wrote meticulously researched historical fiction- a genre I adored when I was younger. I loved (and still love) everything about books and when I realized that being a professional writer was only for the Major League Baseball players of writing, like the top 0.0005%, I thought about working in publishing. When I realized that I didn't want to push paper, I dropped that like a hot potato, and as we have heard, I have just completed an #onlineschool degree in library science where I can still be as close as possible to books, authors, ISBN numbers, bisac codes, etc., without having to actually labor under false pretenses that I'm a writer. Now I wish I had asked her everything. There is so much I wish I knew- how she got her editor, what changes she accepted, if she wanted to write about sex, where her ideas came from, if she liked working under deadline or hated it, if people stopped her in the street at the height of her fame.

I mentioned Jackie was born in England- interestingly, she is my only grandparent not born in the US. She came as a young girl, and didn't have an accent. She did however, have characteristics that we blamed on/attributed to being British. We tease Dad about how "not bad" is the highest of compliments- it's not really fair to blame this on him when his mother says a meal is "decent," she's referring to Mori Sushi which is basically the best meal around. I think I've already made it clear that mastery of the English language was not a problem for Jackie. She was just British. As the twitter account @SoVeryBritish says, it's a Very British Problem to "declare yourself quite chuffed to indicate the most pleased you've ever been." She also loved tea and had rotten teeth. I don't know if it was the sweets or the British in her, but I believe I've inherited both of these (sweet tooth and bad teeth)- and yes, I'm drinking a diet soda right now. Jackie often handed out tins of these hard but chewy candies in exotic fruit flavors like I-don't-know-what-berry. My sister and I almost brought back a giant tin of them for her from New York, but the price of a tin was the price of a ticket down to see her in Los Angeles, so the purchase was vetoed.

Jackie purportedly hated to shop. She was also an excellent shopper, as in purchaser of things. We got many gifts, and when we would go to visit, there was always a shopping trip. In the beginning, these trips often included a trip to an outlandish children's store that specialized in outlandish children's clothes, many involving sequins or rhinestones. I loved these clothes. I believe the shopping hatred was more of the hassle that was involved- Jackie didn't suffer fools. In this I also take after her. She had a personal shopper at Saks. Sometimes she would call ahead to tell them she was coming and what she wanted to try on, which would cut down dramatically on the amount of hassle. She wanted us to think about what we wanted so we could go there- shopping wasn't about browsing the whole store, but about trying something (sometimes something she liked) and making sure it fit, then buying it. I don't like shopping at all, so this suited me just fine. There was a time that it didn't suit me at all- I didn't like a single thing at Saks, and for awhile I didn't want any things. Slowly, I began to accept the concept that I was going to get a thing, like it or not, and also, Jackie began to adjust what I was going to get. We'd go to a shoe store instead of the fanciest store in town that carried skater shoes or running shoes and I'd get a pair or two. We'd go to a little boutique that carried all kinds of things I would never even touch, but she would tell me she had seen a scarf she thought I'd like and it would be just inoffensive that she was right, I would like it.

Jackie had exquisite and expensive taste, though not gaudy. She wore hand painted shoes, always had a new Lexus, even after she didn't drive, and hired Disney's interior decorator for her condo. She bought the condo when Bert was first getting sick- she wanted him to be able to enjoy it and she wanted to move before it was a hassle to do so. So out of the house in Bel Air and into the condo in West LA. The condo was huge. Like, three times the size of my house for two and then one elderly people and one tiny dog. She spent most of her last ten years walking back and forth approximately 6000 times a day in that condo- like mall walking in your own home. She spent the first few years with Pepi (Pepi 2, the dog the and Bert shared) and then the next few with Kobe. After Pepi died, I came to LA to help try and find her a dog. After failing miserably, she found a dog through a doggy matchmaker- something VERY LA. That little dog lived the high life and was also perfectly matched for her (and is also a perfect dog). One day, I hope to live all by myself with a dog and go out once a week. (Note: I only leave the house a few times too many a week, or I'd meet this goal now- something else I get from Jackie.) When we would come to visit, after she stopped fighting over the time we spent with Grandpa and Grandma, so sometime in our late teens/early adulthood, we'd spend the mornings with Jackie and then get gracefully kicked out of the house and head to Grandpa's. A woman had to have her private time, after all.

Jackie was exceptionally generous with her money. It's been hard for me to accept this money, as all of my grandparents and parents were exceptionally wise adults and taught their offspring the value of a dollar and the value of fending for themselves. (I don't know that I've written here about how many times my dad told me I was out of the house when I was 18. He only sort of meant it?) Jackie always wanted to pay for my health insurance. She was my "phantom roommate" whenever I needed it, and the last couple of years, even when I didn't. She funded the Jackie [insert last name] Scholarship fund for two years of undergrad. She REALLY wanted to pay for #onlineschool, and I took to sneaking in payments before she knew they were due so that I could feel somewhat independent. This is privilege, and it is brought to me by Jackie (and others, of course- but especially Jackie).

She loved to travel and took the entire family and chunks of family on lots of trips. She was on the Nile with Bert when I was born. We went to Israel (one of my least favorite places ever, but hey, I've been, thanks to Jackie!) and several times to a dude ranch called Alisal. I've mentioned that they went to the Olympics with Dad and my sister, and there was a trip to China with her kids and I'd venture to guess she and Bert went to almost every continent. I remember trips to Epcot and Disney World- so many trips!

It's only fair to also include that Jackie could be moody and grumpy and bossy. I mean, I don't want to paint this last picture as the only blemish free one- since it isn't. I believe the words "queen mother" were used to describe her more than once. Generally, though, with the grandkids, she was, if not warm, kind. And if we didn't get a lot of hugs, she did say "I love you" before she hung up the phone, or "kiss, kiss." There was no doubt in my mind, ever, that she loved me.

Strangely, Jackie's death mirrored Grandpa's in many ways, which is why these last few months has been especially hard for my immediate family, and especially odd since they're not a pair- I feel like many elderly pairs go quickly one after another. Not only were these not a pair, they didn't even like each other for so many years! About a month after Grandpa fell, Jackie fell. She didn't even go to the doctor at first but someone insisted she go, and she ended up with staples in her head, but not much more. No one was quite sure why she fell (at least, at this point, with all of this, I can't remember). She never really got all the way better after this, just like Grandpa. She had been healthy, for an 86 year old, just like Grandpa. Both of them got shots in their eyes for macular degeneration, and she suffered from anxiety-related vertigo, but really, that was it. She got the flu after that, and then a massive heart attack. She was in the hospital, then moved to rehab and never left rehab. I saw her exactly a week before she died, on her 87th birthday. She REALLY wanted birthday cake, and the lady got birthday cake- a massive one from her dog walker. She had her hair done and told everyone she was turning 67. From what I hear, it was her last best day, and it wasn't all that good. I'm glad she went quickly- she wouldn't have wanted to be undignified even that long.

So that's it for the grandparents. I mean, that's really it. There aren't anymore. There will be a postscript soon.


Saturday, December 27, 2014

David Finkel: Thank You For Your Service

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After finishing an almost unreadable book, I picked up one of the most unputdownable books I've read in a long time. It was also possibly the saddest book I've ever read, and at times I almost had to put it down, because this is a really bad time for that. "Thank You For Your Service" is so good that I couldn't put it down, even when it was crushing me. David Finkel is a master story teller, telling a horrible story.

The conceit here is that he's embedded with soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan who have now come home. In his previous book, he embedded in Iraq- I haven't read that one. The soldiers, some of them now former soldiers, are in various states of disrepair. None of them can be said to be thriving. Adam Schumann, the anti-hero of the book, can most definitely be said to be fighting for air and/or his life. PTSD and TBI (traumatic brain injury) and anxiety and depression and other forms of mental illness are plaguing all of them, somewhere in the middle of Kansas. They're fighting the stigma of mental illness that they've internalized- the healthiest one of them seems to be one of Schumann's fellow soldiers (one whose life he saves and who figures prominently in his PTSD), who has all kinds of physical problems. The broken men wish for physical injuries and are sure, probably not incorrectly, that they're being judged unkindly by their peers. One of the most painful moments in the book comes when one of the men sees a piece mocking soldiers getting help for their problems in his superior's cubicle- at the mental health treatment center.

The book also deals with the others affected by the war- the widow of one of Adam's battalion members (I probably have the level wrong), Adam's wife, a four star general who actually gives a damn about mental health- particularly suicides- of his troops, the girlfriends, etc. It's a bitter, ugly story. Thank You for Your Service is journalism and doesn't pretend to offer solutions or resolution or a Hollywood ending, but readers might end wishing for one. No one comes out looking good, but if you don't read this book and end up angry at the men in charge and feeling tragically sorry for the men and women at the short end of the stick, I'm not sure what book you read. This is a must read, if you can stomach it.

Jeff Chang: Who We Be

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I really wanted to like this book, and waited a long time till my turn came to get it at the library. Jeff Chang is a local guy and his previous book, "Can't Stop, Won't Stop," was very well acclaimed. But this book kind of mystifies me. And even though it's only 345 pages, it's an oversized book, so it's really really long. It's also not easy to carry anywhere, or curl up with, because it's so big. It's almost coffee table size, but it's not meant as a coffee table book- it's almost all text. It's interesting, though, because it's also about art- it's like the publishers started out thinking this would be an art book, a book of criticism with lots of pictures so you'd know what Chang was talking about, and made it oversized with glossy pages, unique, bold font, etc., and then forgot to put in all of the art. And then, for some reason, stuck a hundred pages on at the end that had nothing at all to do with art, but rather, political events that had to do with race and multiculturalism, Chang's over-arching theme (sort of). The other part I never understood is that the Oakland Public Library has this book tagged "Young Adult." There is nothing "Young Adult" about this book. I mean, I barely understood most of it, and there's name dropping all over the place, half of which I didn't understand, of theorists, that maybe college students in the arts would understand. If I were a young adult, I'd be bored stiff by this book. I think young adults should absolutely be introduced to the themes in this book, and there's no reason they shouldn't be reading books written by adults, but I kept wondering if I was missing something: Is "Who We Be" actually for a different demographic? Is the physical format designed as a hook for teens? Is the OPL as confused as I am about this book?

I *think the theme of the book was about how the arts (mostly the visual arts) fed into, were influenced by, influenced and fought against the various trends of multiculturalism over the 20th and early 21st centuries. It's not always clear if Chang is taking a position on this, or if his voice, which is very conversational, is meant to reflect the artists that he's speaking about. He picks individual artists (for example, he starts with the local, and recently passed Morrie Turner) to discuss how art changed over time. It's never quite clear if he thinks these artists were representative of the changes- as in, good examples of what was going on- or if he believes these artists were the catalysts for the changes that were going on. It also isn't clear, because of the last hundred pages that take place from 2010 on, if this is a book about the history of art as it relates to multiculturalism, or if he's telling the story of multiculturalism through art. The last hundred pages, about Trayvon Martin, Occupy, the Dream Act, have almost nothing to do with art. They discuss the colorization of America. Are no artists representative of this? The section leads with a discussion of Shepherd Fairey's Obama poster, but that's about it.

I slogged through this one, but I don't get it. Tricia Rose points to some of these same issues in her review for the NYT. Hyphen says that Chang's last book had that same slow-going style that I found with this one. Pages took days (and I finished this book last week, so the review did, too). But mostly, the reviews have a positive tone, and Kirkus's influential review is mostly a summary with positive notes. I wouldn't recommend this, though, and feel stupid for not understanding.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Requiem Part Three: Grandpa

It feels much too soon to write this, because Grandpa died the morning after Thanksgiving, and Jackie fell that same day (or the day before or after) and I don't feel like he's gone, most days. But I've started now, and it feels like I have to finish the series, because if I don't, it wouldn't be fair, and also, because I might never, if I don't now.

The first thing to say about my grandpa is that he was very very smart, and very very intellectually curious. Again, this is not necessarily the most important thing about him according to him, or according to anyone else, but one of the take-homes for me. He graduated from the University of Chicago when he was either in his late teens or just 20- he started when normal kids are still in high school. He got or almost got an advanced degree in some fancy science-y stuff. I always thought he just sold paint, or mixed paint. But when I talked to him about it a couple of months ago, it turns out he was actually like, involved in the science-y stuff, the chemistry, behind fancy paint that coats things like airplanes. His company got bought out and bought out and bought out and is now part of some giant industrial paint manufacturer- he showed me a few months ago, and of course I've forgotten (and I will not insert an Alzheimer's joke here- see Requiem Part 2). A few years ago, one of my relatives found a scientific paper that he co-authored- I couldn't even understand the abstract. While I was growing up, he participated in a group called Plato (embarrassingly, I was sure this was Play-dough for way too long) at UCLA- a group of adults (maybe older adults?) who would pick topics for themselves each month and research and write papers and teach each other about them. For fun. I have a vague memory of going into the stacks at UCLA with him. I also remember our last trip to the Santa Monica Library when he checked out some books and told me he didn't pay his fines till they got to $20.

The story goes that when my mom and her brother and sister were growing up, if they had a question at the dinner table, Grandpa would tell them to go look it up. Whether this succeeded in teaching intellectual curiosity or not (or if it was just annoying) is a question for them. What I can say is that one of my favorite books growing up was "Why are there more questions than answers, Grandad?" which was translated into our family language to "It's in the book, Grandpa," as in, go look it up, kid. (Thanks, Dad, for figuring this out- proto-librarian spent WAY TOO LONG looking!) I am pretty sure that the dusty old encyclopedia set Grandpa's kids used is sitting in my outhouse right now, waiting to be brought inside. The intellectual curiosity of his is sitting in my head right now, among other heads, I'm sure.

Of all the grandparents, who were all smart, Grandpa is the one I most associate with being intellectual. They all read (though now I'm having trouble remembering what Grandma and Bert liked to read), but Grandpa read the most. He and my dad used to swap big boxes of books, back in the days before they both switched to Kindles. Yes, my grandfather started reading on a Kindle in his 80s. He also loved email. He was very into our educations- again, they all were- but one of the ways I like to explain Grandpa's personality is through a story about education. When we'd get A's, he'd ask us why we didn't get A pluses. He meant well, he was proud of our A's, but he wanted us to REALLY do well. I almost went to University of Chicago- partly because I really wanted to be like my grandpa in that way. I graduated college in four years because I knew it was really important to him- he had promised me he would come to my graduation if I did. This seems so silly now- I graduated college in 2003, when he was 85, of COURSE he and his partner, M, flew across the country to Connecticut to come to my graduation! What was I thinking? I should have taken 6 years! I swore I would never go to graduate school, but he never let go of the hope. When I was in high school, and even in early college, I had discussed rabbinical school, or just divinity school. He would bring it up frequently. When I would discuss being burnt out of animal welfare, he would bring up grad school. When I finally succumbed and went back to grad school, every single time I thought about dropping out of #onlineschool, I stayed in because of Grandpa. Before he died, when it still looked like he might live forever, I secretly thought that I could get him up to San Jose for the graduation this coming June. I mean, the man had designs on his great-grandson's Bar Mitzvah, still 4 years away. When it became clear that wasn't going to happen, I made secret plans to come down to LA and watch the ridiculous "virtual" graduation they're holding online for us with him. Now that that's not going to happen, I don't even care anymore about this degree. It's too soon: my mom told me that somewhere Grandpa is smiling that I've finally finished. Just the thought of that, the truth of that, makes my entire body hurt.

Grandpa was not one to show his emotions, but in a million little ways, he made the grandchildren feel special, all the way till his death. It has hit me really hard, I think, because I feel like I got to know him as an adult. All over again, I'm reminded how lucky I am. When we were kids, after we'd crawl in bed with Grandma and Grandpa, after he'd absentmindedly stroke our heads or backs, he'd get up and squeeze orange juice for us. Light pulp for me, always. I never liked oranges, but I always liked that orange juice. He'd make sure to buy oranges before we came. He loved to play cribbage with us, or Rummy-Cube. Grandma and Grandpa had a pool, even though Grandma never learned how to swim. Grandpa would throw us in the air, when we were little and just hang out with us later. He always washed the dishes. (Did other men of that era do that or was it special?) He had a special chair in the den, and I loved to sit in there with him, and we'd do crossword puzzles, or watch the news. Or read. Always read. You did not get to talk on the phone with Grandpa, however. When you called while Grandma was still alive, he would say oh, hello, here's your grandmother. After that, you were lucky to get a full 60 seconds. Even when he could still hear. Maybe I can blame my dislike of the phone on him. He took to email like a screenager- the man loved his computer, and the second to last time I saw him (maybe the last, I can't remember), I set the mouse to contrast more with the screen so that he could play solitaire more easily. He loved to play solitaire with real cards pre-computer, and switched right over to the computer after that. (Grandma told us to bang our heads against a wall if we were bored, Grandpa told us to go twiddle our thumbs. Maybe that says something about the two of them. Maybe it just says something about what Yiddish phrases they knew and could translate into English). Even when he emailed, though, the emails were almost as long as his phone calls- 2 sentences was a good one. All capitals, so he could see, always. The one time that I wrote back in all capitals, though, he asked me why I did that. No accommodation for Grandpa.

He loved Grandma fiercely, even when the two of them fought like they didn't care who knew that they hated each other in that moment. I don't even remember what they fought about, anymore. Everything, maybe. Every time I saw them fight, you could just tell it was because they loved each other. She could be annoying and crazy and a martyr, and he could be annoying and probably smothering and emotionally vacant. Grandpa always wanted "whatever's left on the plate" and that thing about showing his love by telling you you could have done better has a particular abrasive quality, if you can't step back from it. Also, sometimes you don't WANT to look it up, you just want the answer. I could see how this could get annoying over the course of 60 years of marriage and a very long illness.

After grandma died, grandpa started dating a woman that he and grandma had known for 40 something years. The two couples had been friends, and M's husband had died 10+ years before. The two eventually moved in together and spent the next almost 15 years together. When they first got together, Grandpa got 10 years younger, right before our eyes. It was amazing. They couldn't get married, because she'd lose her pension, and they couldn't just live together because she'd lose the rent control on their apartment three blocks from the water in Santa Monica, or maybe the other way around, so they became domestic partners. They started traveling together, and they wore rings like a married couple- it was only proper. One time, in college, they took me and my then-boyfriend on a trip to see the fall leaves in Vermont or some such place that has seasons. The two of them were like Grandma and Grandpa before all of the fighting. M and Grandma had taken art classes together- I couldn't even tell the difference in the art on the wall. They told the same stories, went to the same places. He cared so much about her- on some of my last visits, all he worried about was M, and what must be happening to her. She has declined greatly since he has gotten sick- she, too, was in amazing shape for 92 and now 93. M has always been gracious and loving to me in a difficult position- being not-the-grandmother. I owe her 10 extra years with my grandpa, I think.

When Grandpa turned 95, he took his whole extended family, which now includes six great grandchildren, on our version of a family reunion, though I've never heard us call it that. He was still walking and talking and, basically, acting like a man of 80. He lost sight in one of his eyes years ago, and hearing aids weren't doing much for him anymore, but until about two months ago, his brain was as sharp as mine, and his memory probably sharper (no bad Alzheimer's joke here). His knee had been bad for decades so his walking was deteriorating, but I don't think he had a cane until his late 80s, and the walker only came in the last couple of years. As dad pointed out the other day, he was in good enough shape to go over the bill line by line. My cousin had bravely interviewed him about his past, and we all watched it together, though Grandpa couldn't hear it. The part I remember most is the part about him saying he was most proud of his family, proud of his wife and kids and how he had provided for them. There was no emotion in his voice. He just did it and just said it.

But when I'd go down, especially the last year or two, he always said "thank you," with so much emotion, it was like that serious, emotionless man was someone else entirely. I knew he loved me, I knew that unconditional love was there at all times, whether I was with him or not.

There's not much remarkable about Grandpa's death except that it happened. Somehow I thought he would live forever. I mean, at 95, he was still in great health, and not just for a 95 year old. I've seen 60 year olds look worse than he did. He fell one day and after that, he couldn't swallow. They never figured out why he couldn't swallow- at first the doctors didn't even believe him. He spent the last couple of months eating through a tube in his stomach. I saw him the week before he died, and he was so cheerful that day- I was lucky. He was sitting up in a chair waiting for me when I got there, lucid and happy, and bossy about when we'd eat dinner (without him)- just like usual. Eventually he died from pneumonia, or some other complication from aspirating fluid, as he couldn't swallow correctly. He was sick for only a couple months, mercifully. It felt like decades, and I was only going every 3-5 weeks. You learn something about yourself when your people are suffering. You learn about the strength of your love and your ability to man up. I can apparently man up for the hours I'm there, and then it takes something like 3 days for me to recover per hour spent. (More on my parents' amazing ability to man up later.) (Nothing on the use of sexist language, ever.)

Requiem Part Two: Bert

The grandparent who passed next was Bert. This seems a strange way to describe him, and it's not really pertinent to anything at all except what other way to order these in a set of posts brought on by the wham-bam style of deaths of the last two? The grandparent I was the least close to was Bert, my dad's dad. we're gonna get really personal here, so your warning has been given to back off now if you like themacinator in dry, witty doses! Bert was a man of a certain generation and a certain generation, and, I think, a certain personality. I was the first grandkid, and I think that, knowing my dad like I do now, he wasn't going to start learning how to get in touch with his feelings or how to use words just because I came along!

That said, he was a great grandfather in his own way. It's not his fault he didn't particularly like small children- I don't particularly like small children, either! We called Jackie and Bert "Jackie" and "Bert" because I was born when they were still young- in their 50s- which now seems impossibly young to be having grandchildren, even though I know some people have them in their 30s. The way I remember it, Jackie felt too young to be a grandmother, so first names it was. But part of me says it was Bert, too. Maybe this is because near the end, when he had Alzheimer's and became incredibly sweet, he said a couple of times, "why don't you call me Grandpa?" He also asked for more hugs.

Jackie and Bert lived in a low slung ranch house down a steep brick driveway just over the line into Bel Air from Grandma and Grandpa. This was another thing that the two sets had in common- they were both wealthy, though to differing degrees. They were also wealthy in a way that never actually gave me the sense of just how much money they had. I didn't know what Bel Air meant until the Fresh Prince came along- the house was the same size, I think, as Grandma and Grandpa's house in Westwood, and there was no discussion of what cost what. It just was. Bert wore sweaters that I always thought were quite ugly, but it turns out that they were some fancy designer. Things just were of a certain quality. Maybe this is really what privilege is: not even knowing how fancy everything is? On the other hand, there was no sense of snobbery, of my friends not being good enough, of me not being good enough. They just lived nicely. (This is my version of history, don't forget- others may have totally different interpretations.) We ate in the kitchen. The bon bons that we ate were Bert's favorite- the little frozen ice cream ones with a thin layer of chocolate- not rich people's bon bons, but the ones you can get at 7-11. His favorite restaurant was In 'n Out. He owned gas stations when my dad was growing up and did a lot of maintenance at the apartments that they owned.

One of the things I liked best about Jackie and Bert's house was Bert's office. I'm not sure we were really allowed in there much, but I just have such a strong memory of that place- or maybe I just have a memory of my house and feel like it was actually Bert's office. There were papers EVERYWHERE. I definitely think my slobbery (not snobbery) comes from him. The man sure knew how to make a mess! Jackie and Bert also had webTV- early internet that you used through the TV. I remember doing this in his office, though it seems to me that Jackie was much more technological than him. Memory is fallible.

There's also a story of making brownies or fudge and then one of us- me or my sister- I don't know now, I hope it was me- saying "I no sharing." He loved that. Maybe this sweet tooth is not just from Grandma- Bert also loved Snickers straight out of the freezer. When they developed those Snickers ice cream bars, you could find those in the freezer, too. Another famous Bert story is that, on road trips with his 3 kids in the car, all it took to get them to behave was for Jackie to turn to him and say "Bert, HIT those kids!" I don't believe that Bert ever hit anyone (please, no one disabuse me of that notion!) but the phrase stuck with all of the generations.

Bert loved animals. He gave me all of the James Herriot books- whenever he'd see one, he'd buy it and send it to me. He would tell stories of the dogs he had had. When I was growing up, there were no dogs at the house- too much trouble, or Jackie didn't like them (which is funny, because later, Jackie loved her dogs.) He especially loved huskies. When he was starting to get sick, and even before, when they'd come and visit Oakland, we'd go for walks at Point Isabel, the giant dog park near us. We'd take Kozi and he would just walk and smile at all of the dogs. I think that I got my love from him, even though I didn't know it at the time, since I didn't grow up with animals. He wasn't a particularly soft guy, and I didn't really get to see him around the animals, but it was in him. I think of him a lot when I start to wonder about how I fell into this. I have lots of memories of him sitting in the bedroom watching the horse races.

Jackie and Bert went to the Olympics every four years- then my dad started going, then my sister as well. I got to share baseball with Bert. My dad and I went on a bus tour once of baseball stadiums, and another time Bert came with us. (Is that right? Were there two?) There is a picture of us on the field at the old Phillies stadium that I'll post if I can find it. He loved sports. Of all my grandparents, he was the only one. Bert and I went together to the only World Series game that I've been to- A's v. Reds. We sat in the back row in the second to last section in right field, before there were tarps or Mount Davis. I show people that section all the time. Dad just this season told me the story- apparently he had two tickets to each game, and he and Bert went to one and Bert told him he was going to another. So off we went, no dad. I must have been 9. Unless it was the Dodger's world series, which makes more sense, in which case I was 7. I don't remember the game, just going with my grandfather and sitting in that scary back row.

Bert got easier to be around- less gruff and distant- as I got older, and I think that this is true of his time with my sister and my younger cousin as well. He loved to joke about young blondes- as he got older, the dream lady got younger. It was always funny, but as I think about it, it doesn't seem funny. As far as I know, he was a wonderful, loyal husband. I don't remember how long he had Alzheimer's for- 5 years? 10 years? He had a minor stroke- so minor that they couldn't find it on the scans, but he started mixing up numbers and not feeling himself. His golf game suffered. The many loved his golf. I wonder, now, if he was any good at it? I wonder how a man with shaky hands (the essential tremors run in the family) could be good at golf! Jackie and Bert got a dog, Pepi, a miniature schanuzer. She was lovely. They were terrified that she would get out and get hit by a car, and, sadly, she did. Their yard wasn't fenced due, I'm guessing, to that steep brick driveway. So Jackie got another rescue miniature schanuzer and named it Pepi. Bert must have had Alzheimer's by then. I don't think that he knew this was a new Pepi. By the end of Pepi 2's life, I don't think Jackie remembered, either, though her memory was fine. Everyone is the center of their own novel. Regardless, Bert loved that dog/those dogs.

At some point, Jackie realized it was time to sell their house and move somewhere less isolated. This must have been near the beginning of Bert's illness. They moved to a fancy condo on Wilshire- even I could tell this one was fancy. Bert wasn't there too long before he was moved to a full time care facility (also fancy), and I don't think he was there too long before he died. Alzheimer's is terrible. All of us on that side are terrified of it. Bert's sister had it, and he was terrified of it. The jokes we make about it aren't really funny. They're hiding the terror. He starved to death- the body forgets how to swallow.

After he died, I realized that many of the photographs in his house were ones he had taken. Why hadn't we talked about this earlier? Jackie gave me some of his cameras. He had lovely (and heavy) macro and micro lenses and fixed focal length lenses- my favorite. I wish we had talked about his travels to Africa and Guatemala where he took incredible pictures. The way he saw things- he must really have seen them, like seen like a photographer. Framed them with his mind and his eyes. He used to do a sort of preprocessing of the negatives- I found ones where he had sort of written instructions on them to have the shop alter things- I'm not sure how it worked. I never knew this about him.

After Bert died, Jackie kept his ashes in an urn. She talked about him and the urn, him- the new, ashes form of him- at least once a visit. I think she probably talked to him. We aren't really spiritual people. But every time I went, I did look at the urn. Yesterday I wondered where we'll put Bert, and how we'll make sure Jackie and Bert stay together. She'd want to be near that urn.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Requiem Part One: Grandma

Grandma died first, so I'll start there.

I think maybe I was closest to my grandma growing up, although I feel utterly disloyal saying that. It's also possible that in many ways, I'm most like my grandma, though I feel pretty strongly that I resemble all of my grandparents (for better and for worse!). Maybe I was closest to my grandmother because she had the strongest personality- or at least, the one that she put out there the most strongly. All four of my grandparents were very strong.

I feel especially bad saying that I feel closest to Grandma because she was so insistent on telling us all she loved us equally. None of us was her favorite, she protested. There was a cork board in the breakfast room where they ate with photos all the kids and grandkids would send them. She'd carefully have equal pictures of everyone. Cousin J would rearrange them each time she came (which was more often than most of them because she lived close) so that she and her sister were on top and then we'd come by and rearrange them. This was a longstanding family joke, and Grandma always played fair.

Grandma got sick when I was four, so I never knew her healthy. She had a tumor at the base of her skull. She was in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Or maybe that's where she had the first surgery- I don't remember- but I remember that Fort Smith, Arkansas figured in this story prominently, as did the dumb doctor on the hill (the hill was Berkeley). Grandma's stories were often repeated. The tumor may have been cancerous or it may not have- she always said it was, and Grandpa always said it wasn't, so we'll never know. But it was in a bad place, and in Berkeley (this is why I'm telling my version, not any kind of official, authorized version, because it may still have been in Fort Smith, Arkansas) they did experimental radiation which got rid of the tumor, as well as lots of other important things, such as her pituitary gland. One way or another, this controlled a lot of bodily functions. The one I was most aware of was saliva. She used a "nose machine" for the rest of her life, which washed out her nose- I don't know, instead of snot? I don't know if I ever knew how this worked or if I just forget.

This tumor did not kill grandma, and she would not let it. Grandma had already had breast cancer in her 40s and had a mastectomy. I remember when she told me I was old enough to understand and showed me her prosthesis that she wore in her very large bra. She was exceptionally proud of being a fighter. The tumor did, however, cause her life to be pretty miserable, though as a kid, I knew she was sick, but didn't know she was miserable. Grandma and Grandpa lied with us for awhile during the summer she was getting radiation (I think?) at Berkeley, and I don't remember much about it- I think I was four- except that we played my favorite game for hours. One of us would say a sentence and then the other would tell the next sentence into epic stories. Grandma believed that we could do anything with our imaginations, and because of her, I believed I was the most creative person, and that I could, too. Oh, the stories we could tell! (That's something she would say- that's why I wrote it.) If the story of her life was that she was going to fight that tumor, then she was going to fight it.

Every morning when we woke up in LA, we'd run into the bedroom and climb in bed between Grandma and Grandpa. They slept in two twin beds pushed together because they were longer than normal beds, for grandpa. Eventually I think they got a real bed. (Did I make that up? It seems like I made it up, but it also seems so real in my mind.) They would stroke our backs and hair. Grandma did this sweet thing with her nails lightly on our hands. Grandpa would get up and make orange juice. Grandma had an art room in the back of the house in LA. We did all kinds of arts (crafts) there- collages, pastels, both oil and chalk, paints, etc. We had a "kids' room" at their house, where all the grandkids stayed when they visited. She had painted our names into a crossword on the sliding closet door. There were books and toys saved from her children. She wrote us stories and tons of letters while we were away at camp- one for every day. Her cursive bordered on unintelligible. Clippings of who knows what from all kinds of newspapers with more of that scribbling came in the mail. She must have been a regular at the stamp machine. We got a cultural education- she took us to the La Brea tar pits and Olivera Street and the Grand Canyon and gambling and all kinds of museums. Grandpa came on all of these trips, as well, of course, but Grandma lived for it. She used to tell us to go bang our heads against a wall if we complained of being bored. (I believe she said this was a Yiddish phrase- that's what I've internalized.) Couldn't we figure out something to do?

Grandma was proud of being a liberal. She had worked (volunteered?) with blind children and felt strongly about civil rights. I don't know if this was how she was raised, or because she was Jewish in Missouri (pronounced Missour-uh) growing up, or just who she was, but it was important to her. She taught me to be passionate and to write letters to politicians about what I believed in. She had a framed letter from someone (I want to say Clinton) in the back bathroom. There is a story to go along with that, but I can't remember it- I've been trying for weeks.

She loved jazz and chocolate. Grandma knew the word to every song ever- it was one of her special talents, along with being able to write in cursive backwards, like mirror image. She had a soft spot for m&m's and would keep a dish in the living room, maybe exactly so that she could complain that we always went there before seeing her. She always said "And all, uh, that, uh, jazz." The only thing I know about Frank Sinatra is that he liked to be called Mr Frank Sinatra. Grandma told us the same things a lot. That thing stuck. I don't think I ever saw her drink.

Grandma's freezer was notorious. She had an extra freezer. She would do things like cook noodle kugel and put it in there and bring it out for us because we loved it. And then ignore the freezer burn or not taste it. Her sense of smell went away after the radiation, so maybe that excuses the inability to notice bad food from the freezer? She was good at comfort food- frozen shrimp and garlic and butter. And very good at excess lengths of stay in the freezer. There was the time she served expired cans of soda from the porch. Until that moment I didn't know it was possible for soda to expire. It is both possible for soda to expire and for food to go bad in the freezer.

Grandma was also good at guilt trips. We didn't come down often enough or call often enough or write enough. As she got sicker, she and Grandpa fought all the time, and it could be very hard to be there. She was "Missouri (pronounced "Missour-uh"- did I mention her stories got repeated?) stubborn" and he wanted to take care of her and she didn't want to be taken care of, maybe because that would be admitting that she needed taking care of, and it sucked all around. I'm sure it was worse for them, but it could be really bad, as a kid, to watch that. You get used to hanging if you hang long enough, she'd say. Grandma got increasingly bitter and eccentric as she got older. Some might say crazy. Time has softened that, though, and I only remember eccentric. It's easier to remember that she didn't want to lie in bed and stare at the crack in the ceiling (something else she said all the time). She was going to fight.

The good moments came when we would get out. Grandma would charm everyone. She would think of an exhibit to go see, and she would have her wheelchair parked at the front. She would charm handsome young men and Grandpa and I would go see the exhibit, him worrying the whole time. We'd come back and she'd regale us with stories of her new friends. She always threatened to tell people who said she looked "good" or "cute" with a whack of her cane. She favored a certain type of canvas hat. She was vein about her very sweet and soft skin. But she knew that she looked like an old lady. She loved to tell people how my family once told me and her that we were doing "inappropriate behavior" when we danced with her cane in public. I loved my grandma.

Grandma died in the fall of 1999, after several bouts of meningitis. I was a freshman in college. I came home for my second oldest cousin's wedding. Grandma was very frail at that point. She got Grandpa up to dance- she always loved to dance, and Grandpa was like me- a stick in the mud with no rhythm. But he got up and danced with her, or stood there while she shuffled next to him, happy as I had seen her in years. She died two weeks later. We all knew she had waited for C to get married- her first grandchild to do so. She was cremated and buried (against her instructions, but that's another story) with her mother.

A Requiem in Four Parts

My last two grandparents died this month- one the morning after Thanksgiving, one last night (the morning before Christmas). They weren't a matched set- one was my mother's father, the other my father's mother- but they were the last two. He was 96, she turned 87 last Thursday, the last time I saw her. I am incredibly lucky to have had grandparents into my 30s- Jackie passed when I was 34. I'm not sure there's a way to describe what the last month has been like. So I decided I'd try one of those personal posts where I talk about my feelings and myself. Skip this if you don't like that type of stuff (I don't blame you!).

Introduction:

This is the story not of my grandparents as people, but my grandparents as people in relationship to me. We're all heroes of our own novels or movies or something, the truism goes, in our family (did my dad tell me that or was it one of my grandparents?). If I tried to tell my grandparents' stories, I'd botch it. My cousin C is the historian on my mom's side of the family and no one really has ever documented anything that I know of on my dad's side. So I can only tell my version. It wouldn't be fair of me to blog my grandparent's lives, anyway- 80-90 years in a blog post? The parts I do get wrong, I'm sure my family will correct me/help me out- We all get it wrong, don't we?

I've always known that I was incredibly lucky to have four grandparents. I had four all the way until my freshman year in college when my grandmother past. Four grandparents who loved each other (well, they loved each other, like inside their couplings) and their offspring (my parents) and their grandchildren. Grandparent love, in my case, proved to be so powerful- so unconditional- so amazing. I know people don't all have this type of relationship- but I did. My parents grew up a mile apart from each other, in Los Angeles. My grandparents stayed in the same homes that my parents grew up in for most of my life, so we would make frequent trips to LA- an hour by plane or, less frequently, 6 hours in the car. As soon as we (my sister and I, first me solo, then sometimes the two of us- I'm older so started older- and of course sometimes K by herself) were old enough to fly alone, we were on flights down by ourselves. Sometimes we'd fly to Burbank, later only to LAX. I loved flying those pre-Southwest airplanes with the smiley-faces on the front, down to see my smiling grandparents. Two sets- so different from each other- both in a weekend, both doting.

My grandparents hated each other. I'm not exactly sure what it was, and again, I'm pretty sure someone will step in to clear it up or to correct me, but they did not like each other one bit. It may have been something between Grandma and Bert, or it might have been some kind of jealousy, but it was almost like having divorced parents. I was Grandma and Grandpa's (my mom's parents) fifth grandchild- her two oldest siblings each had two kids before me, and my sister would be their last grandchild. And I was Jackie and Bert's (my dad's parents) first grandchild. My sister would be their second and my younger cousin, their third and not quite their last- I got an adopted older cousin later. This wasn't a big problem very often- LA is a big city. They only had to be in the same room at our Bat Mitzvah's. Except something in there happened early on and it became very important that we spent exactly the same amount of time at each household when we were in LA. EXACTLY. At first the grandparents would come in and say "hi" to each other when we were transferring from one to the other. Then they'd just honk. By the end, I vaguely remember taxiing from one to the other, but this may be made up. I also remember that my sister and I were tasked with organizing the transitions as my parents gave up on being in the middle of it. Things got better, and by the end, Jackie and Grandpa were sincerely concerned about the other.

My grandparents were totally different- as individuals and as couples. We did different things when we were at their houses, which were also totally different in style and mood. What's funny is that they valued the same things in so many ways. They were all secular Jews of an era, so maybe this isn't surprising? Both couples loved to travel and liked art (different art!). Both Grandpa and Bert were amateur photographers. Grandma and Jackie were both extremely creative. Grandma took art classes and made all kinds of visual art for fun and loved to write little stories and poems. Jackie was a best selling author. They raised their children in different ways, but at the end of the day, all six of them have become successful adults. They all have bachelor's degrees and many have advanced degrees. Their children are all successful. And both couples adored their grandchildren.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Glenn Greenwald: No Place to Hide

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I didn't pick up this book on purpose. I care about surveillance and domestic spying, but I don't CARE about it. I know, terrible. Sadly, I've been a little bit cavalier about it, tending to see those who worry about the government spying us as a little bit of tinfoil hats. I wasn't so cavalier as to think that if I didn't have anything to worry about, that it was fine if the government spied on me (and it's not, and it's REALLY not, you'll find out if you read No Place to Hide), but I just... didn't really care. This book was prominently displayed at the library, though, and not all of my hold books had come in, so I picked it up. (I just looked back, and it turns out I've read another book by Greenwald.)

Greenwald's book is broken into roughly 3 sections: His time with Snowden and Laura Poitras (incidentally- just read a great profile of Poitras in the New Yorker), what Snowden leaked, and what the fallout means for journalism. Each section is quite intriguing and disturbing. In the first segment, we learn about Snowden in a new way- this is very much tied to what we learn about journalism in the third segment (also note that the book is not broken down exactly like this). Greenwald describes Snowden's history with the CIA and other intelligence contractors: he was a young man, recruited by the business, with a talent for data. When he realized something was wrong, he set out to do something about it. He collected and organized an immense archive- the documents he gave to Greenwald- and reached out to Greenwald and Poitras. Snowden made conscious and conscientious decisions each step of the way. He chose Hong Kong as the location for the meeting for a reason. He chose to give his name for a reason. He gave up his life and girlfriend and lots of money (dude made a great salary), because he believed the world should know about the surveillance. This is not the story we heard after the revelations- but Greenwald tells it, and I believe him.

Next, Greenwald walks us through the tip of the surveillance document iceberg. It's scary stuff, and again, it's just the beginning. One of the main goals of the NSA and related programs is to "collect it all." The agency literally wants to collect all of the data that we, Americans, generate: phone, internet, etc. If we make it, they want to have a way to collect it. This blog, the direct messages I'm having on twitter about wine tasting, my emails about Hannukah presents- all of it. There are photos of the actual documents- memos and powerpoint slides and they're disgusting. In many of them, the teams brag about how awesome it is to spy on American citizens. The papers also implicate the major corporate partners- companies we use every day, companies we depend on, now, as parts of our daily lives. Imagine opting out of a few of these and continuing your work and personal lives: gmail, facebook, hotmail (part of Microsoft), Yahoo!, Apple, skype, paltalk, YouTube, AOL... Greenwald explains that "even" if the NSA is just collecting metadata, sometimes metadata is more telling than content (something I didn't think about before). Metadata can tell you the context, whereas content cannot. Metadata can tell you the length of the phone call, the phone number, the location, the frequency of the phone call, etc. And there's no judicial oversight: The FISA court is a pre-given rubber stamp. I can't tell you all the details- there are a lot, and it's a quick read and it's worth reading.

So why do we care? The ultimate effect of surveillance is "to severely constrain individual choice. Even in the most intimate of settings, within the family, for example, surveillance turns insignificant actions into a source of self-judgement and anxiety, just by virtue of being observed." If we all have to become people who have "nothing to hide," then we all worry about our behavior, in our most private online lives. This is the most common argument I hear- so what? I don't have anything to hide- not my deal. This is what Greenwald calls "the implicit bargain that is offered to citizens: Pose no challenge and you have nothing to worry about. Mind your own business, and support or at least tolerate what we do, and you'll be fine." The problem is, convincing yourself that you won't be personally targeted is not that safe. Hendrik Hertzberg claimed in the New Yorker (I remember being a little shocked at this) when all this came out that we didn't really need to worry about surveillance being a super big threat to civil liberties. But here's the catch: "the true measure of a society's freedom is how it treats its dissidents and other marginalized groups, not how it treats good loyalists... Nor should the price of immunity be refraining from controversial or provocative dissent. We shouldn't want a society where the message is conveyed that you will be left alone only if you mimic the accommodating behavior and conventional wisdom of an establishment columnist. Beyond that, the sense of immunity felt by a particular group currently in power is bound to be illusory." (See: Democrat hatred of the NSA when Bush was in charge and the love affair with it under Obama. Feinstein!!) As with many books, though, I have a complaint here: I'm not sure what the next step is- I'm not sure what to DO about this. If gmail is part of my life, and my laptop is part of my life, what do I *DO about this now? How can I fix it? Who do I complain to when Obama, et al are going to lie/deny/continue no matter what I say?

Then we get to perhaps the most disturbing part (if that's possible!)- the treatment of Greenwald after the publication of the the papers. Greenwald and his partner, David Miranda, were basically treated like shit, which is terrible and awful, but it's also part of a bigger picture. Greenwald was thrown out by the journalism community. He was labeled a "blogger" and an "activist" by other journalists, and by important news outlets who are generally perceived as more liberal. The United States allows journalists to be the "fourth estate"- to bring to light things about the government that otherwise might remain hidden. As Greenwald writes, "the job of the press is to disprove the falsehoods that power invariably disseminates to protect itself. Without that that type of journalism, abuse is inevitable." Only, journalists and news outlets like the New York Times, the Washington Post and the New Yorker acted like Greenwald was a traitor, an opinionated so-and-so and beyond the pale. By doing this, they allowed the government to do so, as well. A private (non-journalist) citizen can be prosecuted for the leaks, while a journalist is generally protected by the constitution from revealing his sources. Instead of coming together and railing around this, Greenwald was tossed out. Again, this is not about Greenwald, it is about the failure of American journalism to do its job. This is a scary and telling effect of the surveillance itself. People are scared- people whose job it is to push back against the government are scared. This is reason for us to be scared.

This is a fast, important read. I'm not sure what to do next. My email may be legally being read, as I correspond daily with a Canadian classmate of mine. That bothers me. I have nothing to hide, and it still bothers me. I write frequently and critically about the government- so I could be a subject of... what? Am I paranoid? Realistic? Why would the government be caring about me? At this point maybe the better question is why WOULDN'T they want to know about me? They want to collect everything. Why aren't we doing something about this?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Why I've stayed in for the recent protests

(besides just being lazy or the weather.)

I've been thinking a lot about the #blacklivesmatter protests and #oaklandprotests and #berkeleyprotests and why it just hasn't FELT right to be out there. I used to feel inspired to put my feet wherever my heart was by marching or protesting, etc. But something has changed, at least in this instance.

The big marches each night seem younger and angrier than I am or feel. They also seem whiter than seems appropriate. While I am white, and constantly work on an anti-racist place, I'm not sure that these #oaklandprotests have gotten there, or that any kind of protest in the dark in Oakland can, at least not right now, with FTP and Occupy still so much on all parties' minds. (Last weekend, a FTP march was convened after a peaceful, black-led march that explicitly asked for this not to happen. Of course the "diversity of tactics" march made the news.) Black lives matter- I want to support that message, desperately. But somehow marches that end up night after night with stand offs with the police, vandalism and arrests feel like they're coming from a place of privilege: how many black people can afford to knowingly put themselves at the mercy of a broken police department and the criminal justice system?

Then there have been AMAZING protests and acts of civil disobedience organized by black groups. Most of them I didn't hear about till after the events- they were organized and executed just perfectly. One, #blackbrunch, involved going into restaurants in upscale neighborhoods on the weekend and reading off names of black people killed by cops. In another, the West Oakland BART station was shut down totally peacefully- amazing civil disobedience. I applaud these efforts and feel no need to co-opt or make them mine.

And then there have been sweet grey-hairs near my house most evenings- 10 to 20 of them- holding #blacklivesmatter and #Icantbreathe signs at a busy intersection. There is something sweet about these old white people caring. It is also strange to see them out there and feel that something is wrong. I can't put my finger on WHAT is wrong, but it's just not quite right. It's like holding a sign isn't enough. But what I'm doing- nothing- isn't any better, it's worse.

I haven't figured out how to be a good ally in this case yet. Work in progress.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Sheri Fink: Five Days at Memorial

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In 2009, Sheri fink published an amazing article with ProPublica that I believe I read in the New York Times magazine. If you haven't read it, it's worth the read. Either that, or pick up "Five Days at Memorial," the book length story. Hefty, it is a fast read, and a thought-provoker.

You've heard the premise, or at least some of it. In August, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the results are now well known. Memorial is a hospital (now operating under a different name) that had been in New Orleans for almost 100 years. A well-established community hospital, residents had been taking shelter there for as long as the building had been around. And, in a familiar story, the hospital was completely unprepared for the storm. Even though a disaster preparedness workshop had taken place a week before, no changes had been made. For example, backup generators were underground- sure to be flooded in a hurricane of any size. How triage decisions would be made had not been made ahead of time. Incident commanders and personnel structure had not been established. A contract company, LifeCare, leased the 7th floor and cared for patients who needed 24/hour care. They had not been included in any disaster preparedness conversations. Although these things are all terrible, it's important to point out that they were not unique to Memorial, or to hospitals: almost EVERYTHING failed during Katrina, from the local level to the federal level. Five Days at Memorial is the story of this particular hospital, however.

Basically, when Katrina hit there were lots of people at the hospital. There were doctors and nurses, some friends and family of these doctors and nurses who were sheltering there with them, hospital patients of varying levels of illness, some friends and family who stayed with their loved ones, LifeCare staff, doctors and nurses, and the LifeCare patients and some friends and family of these patients. The hospital ceased normal function pretty quickly, and the lack of protocol was apparently pretty quickly. The power went out and the generator kicked in, then the generator and backup generators went out. If you stop for a second and think about your life, and even more, the daily operations at a hospital, pretty much everything relies on electricity. And in a time of crisis, you need to be able to communicate with outside- even in (way back!) in 2005, Memorial and LifeCare were trying to communicate via cellphones and email and were quickly thwarted. Even the basic needs of the healthy people in the hospital couldn't be met adequately: it is fucking hot in NoLa in August, and the air conditioning and even air circulation couldn't work without the power, so the hospital was hot and steamy and full of disease-ridden flood water, and the air had nowhere to go. People started smashing through thick windows, but it didn't help circulation. The lights stopped working, obviously. So the huge building was dark. It's hard to practice medicine in the dark. The elevators stopped working, so doctors and nurses had to walk up and down flights of stairs (don't forget that LifeCare was on the 7th floor, and operated independently) to get to patients. And the stairwells were now pitch black, and hot as hell since the power was out. They were also sometimes full of human waste, since the toilets weren't working anymore and people slipped into them to get privacy and go to the bathroom.

Basically, it was a disaster, and many people were trapped in the hospital. Communications with the company that ran Memorial were a mess, and they weren't working that quickly to get people out. They hadn't really planned for this- and it was too late to book helicopter-ambulances. The water quickly rose too fast to get people out by anything but boat or helicopter. Rescue efforts were ad hoc- some people who knew some people got many people out. Sometimes people on the helipad- itself dangerously old, small and unstable- made decisions to send helicopters away. People were queued up, on stretchers in dark hot hallways, waiting to be evacuated, for hours. Eventually, after 5 days, with almost no communication or organization, everyone living got out.

The thing is, not all of the people in the hospital died naturally. This background information is only a taste of how awful things there were, and how chaotic, but they're not meant as an excuse. Fink does an amazing job of telling the story, from all sides of the picture- I'm just attempting to sum it up in not-too-many-words (Fink has written quite a long book). One of the things that happened during the 5 days at memorial is that some of the doctors decided on a triage system- they decided who would be evacuated first. Initially, the system had the sickest patients leaving first. Ultimately, they ended with a system from 1 to 3: 1s for the healthiest patients who could move themselves and the 3s were both very ill and had DNR orders. As Fink rights, "Concepts of triage and medical rationing are a barometer of how those in power in a society value human life." Very little research has been done on triage in the United States- even though there are nine standard triage systems- Fink speculates "perhaps because of the potential for political embarrassment or due to a lack of financial incentives." There are risks and justifications with any system, but in this case "[Dr.] Pou and her colleagues had little if any training in triage systems and were not guided by any particular protocol. Pou viewed the sorting system they developed as heart-wrenching. To her, changing the evacuation order from sickest first to sickest last resulted from a sense among the doctors that they would not be able to save everyone."

Finkel tells the amazing story of what happened next in Memorial- how Dr Pou and others (the book focuses mainly on Pou because the subsequent investigation focused only on Pou and two nurses, which I never quite understood), ended up euthanizing several patients- the majority of whom were on the 7th floor- the LifeCare floor. Many of these patients were indeed very very ill, and almost all of them had DNRs. The majority of them- except for an obese paraplegic man who otherwise was awake and coherent, were in and out of consciousness. They needed critical supplies and medicine and electric-powered machines to keep them alive. They were lowest on the doctor-decided triage list for evacuation. And evacuation was coming very very slowly. The thing was, evacuation HAPPENED the day that Dr Pou and two nurses euthanized the final patients (a couple were euthanized earlier). The mercy killings happened without consent of the patients themselves or without the consent of family members- some of whom had been present in the hospital hours before.

Subsequently, the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit investigated the deaths at Memorial and other hospitals. They ended up looking primarily at Memorial. They amassed a huge case against Pou and the two nurses who euthanized the patients with her. Ultimately, however, the case needed to be tried locally, in New Orleans, which has a terrible homicide clearance rate. Coupled with the politics of inter agency cooperation, the local DA wasn't in the mood to make this as big of a deal as the feds, who spent a year focusing on the case. Meanwhile, the medical community had rallied behind the doctors and nurses. Professional associations came out in support of Dr Pou. A well-respected ear-nose-throat doctor, she laid low for awhile then continued to perform intense surgeries. The nurses had a harder time, but found support as well. No one in New Orleans really wanted to open Katrina-related wounds again. It ultimately came down to whether the coroner ruled the deaths homicides or not. So he got something like 5 outside experts to look at the evidence: They all said they felt the deaths were homicides. When the coroner testified in front of the grand jury, however, he said that he couldn't say for sure that the deaths were homicides. The grand jury failed to indict. The case was closed.

The story is a *lot more complicated than this. Fink does an amazing job of telling it, and getting readers to think about all sides of the story. She doesn't moralize about the "right" answer, because ultimately, there isn't really one. Even if the sickest patients had been evacuated the first day, what the doctors didn't know is that they would have been unceremoniously dumped on the interstate, or at the airport, or even in the Superdome. Hospitals were turning away patients. They may have gone to somewhere with even less medical attention. On the other hand, other hospitals in the area had worse conditions and no deaths, let alone euthanasias. At the end of the book, Fink talks about the state of disaster preparedness in other situations, and what could be done. It isn't pretty. Ultimately, the best case scenarios come down to well-laid and executed plans, good communication and keeping doctors and practitioners out of the decision making. Well worth the read.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Steve Almond: Against Football

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Some of these "manifesto" books are really annoying- like, 5 pages in, you're like, "we GET it already!" But Steve Almond (who, it turns out, is Barbara Almond's son) has written a "reluctant manifesto" for a football fan. Football is in the news: concussions, sexual assault, etc. Almond deals with all of these things without (watch it) beating readers over the head with it.

Football a huge sport in the United States: according to Almond, the NFL will get "$5 billion from TV rights alone," which is 3 times more than MLB (who knew?). He argues that this makes us not just fans but consumers: "Our money and attention are what subsidize the game." So even if we are sitting on our couches watching the game, we're not innocent: this TV money is almost half of the league's revenue. We're bystanders, but we're also the consumers that the League is trying to please. Football is a TV game: if consumers want to see violent hits and slow motion replays of the hits, that's what football is going to be. Why change?

Almond is good on a lot of fronts, including masculinity: "We worship players for bravery and excoriate them for vulnerability because we wish to see masculine ideals on display. But I think here also of Cicero, who speculated that the loathing for timid gladiators wasn't a function of their diminished entertainment value but the fact that they forced spectators to confront the profound heartlessness of the game." He's good on money: apparently the salary of a quarterback could pay 474 elementary school teachers, 440 paramedics or 661 police officers in Minnesota. That's a new twist on the stadium conversation, huh? He's good on class: who are these people who end up playing football, and what do we do with them when we're "done" with them (read: when they're no longer good on the field)? He points out that this is just another way that football is similar to war: think of young poor soldiers getting shipped out to fight and then tossed away when they return (or don't) from war. He's even good on my favorite thing: sports and religion!

Basically, I really like this book. It's a fast read, and you don't even have to know football to enjoy it. It doesn't hurt that Almond beats himself up repeatedly for being a Raiders fan. I mean, a RAIDERS fan! Try it.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Dorothy Roberts: Fatal Invention


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If you've been to liberal arts school, you've read Dorothy Roberts' Killing the Black Body. The story of reproductive rights is often told as the story of abortion rights as they relate to white women, and Roberts changed the picture in 1997, for those who would listen. Fatal Invention is a complicated book with a complex argument, and I'm not going to do it justice, but I'll try.

 Essentially, we know that race is socially constructed. There is no such thing as a "black" person or a "brown" person or a "white person"- there are only people and distinctions fall where society tells us they fall. The definitions of "blackness" and "whiteness" have changed over time, and for various political reasons- the famous 1 drop rule is an obvious example. Who is white has changed in America (and obviously, in other places)- Jews and Irish immigrants were not always white, though now they're considered religious or ethnic minorities, not distinct races. One would think that advances in genetic science would help put this discussion to bed for all time: people are people, genetically indistinguishable- it wouldn't even make sense to attempt to distinguish people by race when talking about genetics since we've already established why race is socially constructed. Further, it wouldn't make sense to try to prove racial difference on a genetic/scientific level. However, Roberts shows that the opposite is happening: as our understanding of science improves, the level of effort going into thought about race on a scientific level is increasing, not decreasing, and is further entrenching the thoughts of racial difference as truth, rather than construction.

At first glance, it's easy for us leftists to think, oh, I would never do that! Those must be conservatives trying to pull that kind of shenanigans. But one of the most awesome things about Roberts is that she's not about to let anyone off the hook. Just like Killing the Black Body took the reproductive rights movement to task, Fatal Invention reminds us that liberals are in on this, whether we like it or not. This is not (again, this is a complicated book with a lot of paradoxical arguments) an easy subject. For example, some of the racial divisions in scientific studies come from well-meaning places. Historically, the vast majority of scientific studies used white men as the clinical subjects. In the 1980s, critics asked for a shift to be more inclusive. This sounds good, right? We don't want all science-y stuff to only take into account the perceived majority. Beginning in 1986, racial categories were institutionalized for reporting purposes- in order to receive federal funding, trials had to include minorities as subjects and had to analyze findings by race. In theory, this could have been awesome. It could have been a way to analyze systemic issues facing minorities, women or children. Instead, the generalized response has been to look at biological/intrinsic reasons that different racial groups respond in the studies. "The legislation's emphasis on potential racial differences fosters the racism that its creators want to abrogate by establishing government sponsored research on the basis of belief that there are significant biological differences among the races," says Otis Brawley of the American Cancer Society. Biological definitions of race are thus reinforced in studies by these practices designed to eliminate racial disparity- this can only be done by looking at social inequality. Whoops. In fact, racial categories are now so entrenched in scientific research that they're used as a reason (read: excuse) for the research itself. Only, a 2006 study found that the race-based independent variable is specious: "The research team found that 72 percent of the studies failed to explain their methods for assigning race to research subjects. Despite this glaring flaw, 67 percent of the same studies drew conclusions associating genetics, health outcomes, and race."

It isn't just science that is helping to re-entrench the ideal of biological races. Science is a particularly tricky one, because, well, it's science, but also because liberals pride themselves on turning to science where more conservative factions might turn to history or feelings or religion. When science leads us astray, we're in big trouble (not that science hasn't made mistakes in the past...) But big business also has a lot invested in this new (old) racial science. Roberts tells the story of BiDil, a prescription drug for African Americans with heart disease. BiDil was developed as a drug for everyone, but didn't meet the FDA muster, so the developers went back and saw that the drug seemed to do well with African Americans due to those mandated racial reporting numbers listed above. They repitched the same drug and got it to the market as a drug specifically for black people. There is, of course, no such thing as a drug that works specifically for black people. Heart disease is heart disease. What's driving this is a move towards "personalized medicine": the idea that once we know our genes (think the breast cancer gene), we can know what medical decisions we might want to make, even before we have a particular health problem. The makers of BiDil pushed hard with all kinds of black physicians and medical groups and worked hard to make this the first success of personalized (racial) medicine. It didn't work, for a variety of reasons- it wasn't available in the generic so medicare wouldn't cover it, it required more pills per day than the standard treatment, etc. The main reason, Roberts finds, that it didn't get a lot of support was that the very people who were supposed to jump all over a pill just for them were totally suspicious (and, it turns out, rightly so.) Black people remember what "black medicine" meant and still means: subpar care with subpar facilities, shady and illegal studies like the Tuskegee trials and other nepharious examples. Why would they want a special black pill? "I'm fine with whatever the white people are taking" is a recurring theme among people offered BiDil. And it turns out, their gut was right: BiDil was being sold at a higher dose for African Americans than the FDA recommended for anyone else, because of those racial reporting requirements and because of the rush to put it on the market. The amounts being sold weren't necessarily the safest for "white" people or "Asian" people, but were the safest for "black" people.

 The recent interest in getting personalized genetic information also has racial implications. I have only heard of 23andMe, but apparently there are dozens of these things, including ones specifically being marketed toward black people. With these "spit kits," you pay some money, spit in a tube, and learn about your genes. You also learn about your race, or, in the more sneaky versions, your ancestral location: which of the four or five main areas did your ancestors come from- Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Native North America or Europe? Essentially, what race are you? It's important to remember here that race is socially constructed. What we call a "race" is GENERALLY aligned with these areas but does not have any stability over these lines- what people in the US might call one race differs from what one in Mexico or China might call another race, further proving the social construct of race. It's also important to remember that the boundaries of racial demarcations are constantly shifting over time. The idea of a spit kit telling you you're from Europe is a euphemism for saying that you are white- that somewhere, at sometime, there was a pure European- or a pure "white" person. For you to be 10% European means that someone was 100% European. It also means that someone else is 100% anything-else: people can be differentiated biologically by race.

Some kits are being marketed specifically toward black people, who often have no solid way of tracing their ancestry further back than slave ships. Using markers, the kits might tell someone their ancestors are from a tribe in Sierra Leone. This has been greeted with great fanfare among some in the African American community. But Roberts reminds us that this ancestral marking is only ONE ancestor among, at that level of background, at least 32 ancestors- it is not evidence that the individual is uniquely from said tribe in Sierra Leone anymore than the fact that my grandmother was born in St Louis is evidence that I am originally from St Louis. Further, she reminds us that tribal demarcations and borders of countries as we know them now are ahistorical and products of colonialism: to be proud of heritage from Sierra Leone is nice, if it gives you something, but it is also based on a false version of history.

I know this is a lot to take in, and if you're like me, you're probably wondering, well, wait- we ARE from somewhere, right? Or, maybe in the back of your mind, you're saying, well, aren't certain kinds of people more prone to certain diseases than others? What about Jews and Tay Sachs? (That's the one I kept thinking of- I don't know anything about genes, but I'm Jewish, and have been told as long as I can remember that Jews have to be screened for Tay Sachs because it's something we carry. Sounds like biological race, right?) For one thing, Tay Sachs is located on one gene- it's been located and identified, unlike most diseases which are not easily identified, partly because they're spread across multiple. For another, it is rare: it is very highly concentrated in an ethnic group (though it is not exclusive to Jews). Roberts writes, "genetic mutations are not grouped by race. Race-based testing reinforces the myth that races are genetically distinct from one another and that our genetic risks are determined by our race." The BRCA1/2 mutation (breast cancer) is commonly thought to have a higher incidence among women with Ashkenazi Jewish heritage. But there is a gap in who gets the genetic testing: the test costs $3000, and white women are almost 5 times as likely to undergo counseling. As Roberts explains, "it is just as useful clinically for black at-risk women to be tested as white at-risk women." Until that happens, our common perception that the BRCA1/2 mutation is exclusive to Jews is dangerous, as is the reverse of the tautology: that the incidence of BRCA1/2 in Jews proves the biological construction of race.

This stuff is all troublesome. But the outcomes are more troublesome. When we start looking for genetic answers to racial disparities, we let ourselves off the hook for the real causes the differences: systemic issues. Roberts uses the example of the hugely genetically different group of African Americans (Africa is a giant continent, remember?). It would be pretty strange for such a genetically diverse group to inherit "so many bad things." More likely, "given the persistence of unequal health outcomes along the social matrix of race, is that they are caused by social factors."We live in a troubling time that is hard to make sense of- genetic differences help us cope with some terrible statistics Robert throws at us. For example, "There are more blacks under correctional control today than there were slaves in 1860." It's easier to find some gene, like the "warrior gene" to explain this than to look at the money involved in the prison system or the lack of money involved in the school system. It's easier to think in the back of our minds that "'they' were born that way" than to think that we need to take a hard look at the environmental, social and judicial injustices we practice that keep socially constructed racial groups in such low places. We are all people, we are all the same. We have to make that a reality.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Introducing Catfish

Rollie loves dogs. He adores them- starts prancing around and making all this noise and picking up toys and throwing them and you get it. He is happiest when another dog is around. I've never wanted two dogs- I was fine with Mac not liking other dogs; a perfect reason to only have one dog. I've had Rollie for over two years now, and it's been clear that he wants another dog. I've fostered a couple and he's so happy when they're here. The only thing is that he doesn't like the change that happens- the baby gates I put up and xpens- I usually have puppies that can't have free rein of the house. Rollie's vision is poor and it seems like he can't quite see the gates- they're like invisible walls.

So, I've been idly thinking about getting another dog- an older, mellower dog. I met a lovely dog, allegedly 10- possibly younger, last weekend, and thought, well, I could do this. Then I went to the shelter Sunday afternoon to go meet another dog, allegedly 10. The picture on the website was terrible- just a black blob. Well, the dog didn't look 10. The boyfriend and I actually laughed when we saw her. She was decrepit- looks closer to 14, no teeth, arthritic, has spondlyosis, curved over, spine fused, very little control of her back end. It just seemed very silly to have her in the shelter. She met Rollie and tolerated him, which is saying something, because he's rude. He plays like a puppy, and loudly.

So I went home and thought about it. And then I realized I was still thinking about it. I decided to bring the dog (formerly Gracie) home, and give her whatever time she had left at my house. Somehow I forgot how pathetic she really was. I gave her a bath and she looks better now, but she looks... really bad. The dogs are having fun- attempting to play and then falling over, then napping on the bed and then switching beds, etc. She's tiny- supposed to be maybe 40 pounds, but is so underweight that she's 32lbs now. She makes Rollie, at 42lbs, look HUGE. And young and spry.


 She jumped right in the car (or tried before I could stop her- her back end isn't strong enough to get in by herself). She has tried about 5 times to sneak on the couch, and she's fast enough to do it when my back is turned. She runs right into the crate- even put herself there after I gave her a bath. Poor dog was stinky and dirty and has another one in her near future.


Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Roxanne Gay: Bad Feminist

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What I'm about to say is going to come out totally wrong, and I apologize in advance for any potential meanness that it may sound like I'm projecting- that's not what I'm going for. A little jealousy, maybe, a little bewilderment, sure, but in the not-judgemental sense of the word.

Bad Feminist is a collection of insightful, often right-on "damn, I was thinking that but I sure wish I had written that" blog posts. The cover says "essays" but the whole time I was reading it, I was thinking, man, I want to get well-respected enough and famous enough to have enough time to think out and expand my blog posts and have an editor help me clean up my blog posts and then put them together in a nicely designed book and call them essays! Again, this is not a bad thing. I am not being a bad feminist (I think Roxanne Gay would understand this, at least I hope she would- and I suspect she might be the type of person who occasionally googles her name to see who's writing about her- much of her writing is very timely, which I love, and talks about the effect and importance of the internet and social media on our culture). I am not taking a slam at Gay by saying she shouldn't be able to publish a book full of insightful, sometimes funny, critical, important blog posts, I'm just startled and a little jealous.

The fact that Bad Feminist reads like a bunch of blog posts strung together makes it a not-great-read. Ten years ago, before the possibility of it being published blogs, I would have said it was made to be a text book- lots of great fodder for college readers. I'm not sure I would have been any less critical- still hard slogging through a book that really should be a reader. That said, many of the essays are great, timely and kind of like if a smarter, more educated version of me had been writing what I was thinking. You know, when I try to explain to people why The Help and Django really aren't the most wonderful, sensitive, be all end all pieces on race? No one gets it. My boyfriend says I'm taking it to far. Gay says it. She says it well, emphatically, and I would like to see the looks on unbelievers' faces when they have to pick their jaws back up off the floor. OH, you mean, I didn't really need to fetishize slavery by watching ANOTHER movie about it? I already knew it was bad? OH! The Help made black women help out a young white woman again? Or rather, the young white woman helped the adult black women "find" themselves? Gee, we haven't heard that before? Gay writes insightfully about trigger warnings (blugh), men ruling women's lives because women's rights aren't actually inalienable (true story), being likable (or not), and what feminism is or isn't. Strangely, even though this is a book I don't love, it's a book I wish I own (not borrow from the library) so I can pull out certain essays and look at them again or xeorox them and slip them under unsuspecting and needing-education friend's/neighbor's/relatives doors.