Friday, May 30, 2008

Needing Some Avodart Action on Lost

Have you seen those commercials for the enlarged prostate drug Avodart where the tagline is essentially let's "bring this down to size." I need a little of that prescription for Lost right now. (BTW: Don't read this entry if you haven't watched the finale yet. And you can do that for free online.) For the second time in the same season, the producers left us hanging as to whether Jin was alive or dead. The boat he was on exploded into essentially nothing, so it seems like he is gone, but this show blurs the lines between life and death/past and future so readily, you can't ever be sure until they really spell it out for you. And Michael, who was on the same boat was essentially welcomed into the afterlife by Christian Shephard. I guess he's become the island's resident spiritual guide? Anyway, I'm overwhelmed and exhausted by this development.

As I wrote yesterday, Jin is one of my favorite characters, and I've enjoyed watching him for several years now. I really feel manipulated, and it sounds overly dramatic to hear myself even say it, but the only way I know how to process to confused emotions I'm feeling about this manipulation is to limit the extent to which I care about this show. I have to shrink up the part of me that cares about Lost. Let's bring it down to size.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Stonehenge Used as Cemetery

From the New York Times:
"'It’s now clear that burials were a major component of Stonehenge in all its main stages,' said Mike Parker Pearson, an archaeologist at the University of Sheffield in England."

Radiocarbon dating performed in the past several weeks on human remains found near the enigmatic stones on England's Salisbury Plain show the site was used as a cemetery from 3000 B.C. to 2500 B.C. British researchers estimated up to 240 people were buried there, all as cremation deposits. This is all according to the NYT. Full article is here. (Photo from National Geographic)

Also according to the NYT, skeletal burials were rare at this time in history, and cremation was reserved for the elite, making it likely that Stonehenge was used as a monument for someone of the highest class. The article quotes Dr. Parker Pearson, "Given the monumental surroundings, Dr. Parker Pearson said, 'one has to assume anyone buried there had some good credentials.'"

Sharon Stone Hoopla

I'm sure you've heard of this drama by now ... here are the actual words Sharon Stone said in reference to the Chinese earthquake:

"I’m not happy about the way the Chinese are treating the Tibetans because I don’t think anyone should be unkind to anyone else. They are not being nice to the Dalai Lama, who is a good friend of mine. And then all this earthquake and all this stuff happened, and I thought, is that karma – when you’re not nice that the bad things happen to you?"

My first thought, and the thought that I can't let go of, is this is tacky, tacky, tacky. I know that's not the most erudite observation. The little I do know of Tibetan Buddhism is that a lot of it revolves around compassion, and Ms. Stone, who purports to be a friend of the Dalai Lama is not showing much compassion for the more than 65,000 people who died in the earthquake, nor the others who survived and are suffering in the aftermath.

As a result of the statement, Ms. Stone has been dropped in China by Dior, who has been using her image for advertising, and her films have been banned from China by a major distributer. Here is an article that details some of the ensuing mess related to the controversy.

And I do recognize there is a bit of a gray area here. Sometimes we can use death and tragedy as a red flag to show us that political change must happen. Take Myanmar as an example. Clearly, something needs to change with their leadership if the junta cannot even allow aid to come into the country after a natural disaster of that magnitude. But this does not seem like a reasoned, thoughtful understanding of a complicated situation shared with the goal in mind of helping people. It feels more like venting frustrating at the Chinese government and pulling the memories of tens of thousands of innocent people into the mud in the process.

Lost Finale Tonight

So, I'm a huge Lost fan. It's maybe the only episodic TV show that I actually follow week to week. And tonight, in the season 4 finale, death is sure to play a part in at least a minor, if not a major way. First, it has been rumored that one, possibly several major characters will die.

I'm a little worried that one of my favorite characters, Jin, will die tonight since earlier in the season they showed Jin's grave back in Korea as part of a flash-forward. This may have been a ruse to help the Oceanic 6 keep up whatever their lie is, or Jin may actually be dead and we have yet to see how he dies. (The date of his death was the date of the plane crash, so they clearly lied about how he died, either way.) From the previews, everyone looks to be in peril, although we know the so-called Oceanic 6 cannot die in tonight's episode. That means Jack, Kate, Aaron, Sayid, Sun, and Hurley are safe.

I have to say, I'll really be sad if Jin dies. And part of me recognizes that he's "just" a television character. But I have watched his development from a controlling, emotionally abusive husband to a loving, caring man who just wants to get his wife and baby off of the island so that they will be safe. And I can't shake the feeling, as a former English major, that it will be so fitting, with all of this buildup, if he sacrifices himself to save Sun and their child. :(

I recognize this isn't like losing a person in real life. But have you ever felt loss at the death of a television character?

On another note, tonight, we may finally find out what Charles Widmore wants with the island. I've been speculating that he was the original money behind financing the Dharma Initiative's experiments—hence Ben's indictments of him saying Widmore never understood what the island was about and Charles's indictments of Ben saying he stole the island from him. Anyway, one theory is that Widmore is trying to capitalize on the island's potential for immortality. The NY Times delves into that a bit in an excellent article about Lost:

"Widmore apparently wants to exploit the island’s mystical property — but what does it grant, exactly, the power of immortality? The island can heal cancer in some and paralysis in others, but it negates the ability of human beings to reproduce. Pregnant women die there. An occasionally appearing eerie smoke kills people."

The entire article is off topic for this blog, but if you're a fan of the show, I highly recommend reading the piece.

I'm sure I'll have something to write tomorrow once the smoke has settled and we find out how death has taken its toll on Lost.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


An answer from Billy Graham's syndicated column dealing with afterlife. A writer, M.D., asks how he can possibly get into heaven with only one life to atone for all of his sins. And Graham explains the Christian theory of salvation, in his own words. I thought it was a succinct and articulate, albeit brief, summary and worth posting.

I would like to open a conversation about how our beliefs about the afterlife affect our feelings about death. Myself, I am more of an atheist than a believer, and I am okay talking about death and thinking about death. I'm not particularly afraid of death, even though I feel that we most likely go to nothing when we die. I'm not sure if these two facets are connected. Do you think your feelings on death and the afterlife are related?

This life is the only chance to enter heaven


DEAR DR. GRAHAM: Does God give us a second chance at salvation after we die? I sure hope so, because I know I don't stand a chance of getting into heaven if He doesn't. — M.D.

DEAR M.D.: Nowhere does the Bible teach that we will have a second chance to receive Christ and be saved after we die. This is one reason why the Bible says, "I tell you, now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation" (2 Corinthians 6:2). I pray that you will take this warning very seriously.

In fact, the Bible teaches that this life is the only one we'll ever have this side of eternity — and if we're ever going to turn to God and put our trust in Christ, it must be now. In other words, we are not promised a second chance, either through coming back to Earth again (which is what those who believe in reincarnation claim), or in some intermediate state after death. The Bible says that "man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment" (Hebrews 9:27).

I suspect your real problem, however, is that you don't understand what the Bible teaches about salvation. If our salvation depended on how good we were, then you'd be right: We'd never live long enough to cancel out our sins. In fact, we never could do that, because even one sin would keep us out of heaven.

But Jesus Christ came for one reason: to make it possible for us to be saved. He did this by taking all our sins upon Himself, and suffering the judgment and Hell we deserve. Think of it: All your sins were placed on Christ, and He died in your place! Turn to Him and confess your sins to Him today, and then ask Him to cleanse you and come into your life and save you — and He will.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Sacrifices made by service men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan

I'll be on the road for this Memorial Weekend ... and I'm not sure how much computer access I will have. In the meantime, here's an appropriately themed episode of On Point. A brief description:

"For most Americans, the sacrifices made by service men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan are — after all these years — still out of sight and far away.

For colleagues, for comrades in arms, those sacrifices are as close as a man's last breath. A woman's last word.

Memorial Day honors sacrifice across many generations. But this Memorial Day weekend, with two grinding conflicts underway and plenty of sacrifice out there, we'll hear from those who know it firsthand."

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo

"The vertigo we understand now is his and all of ours simultaneous attraction to and fear of death."

It's the 50th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, one of my favorite movies of all time. The line above is from Jack Beatty, senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly. He's describing the titular emotion experienced by both Hitchcock's main character, played by Jimmy Stewart, and by Hitchcock's audience. You can hear that comment and more great discussion of the movie on this episode of On Point.

Indeed, it's quite an experience to watch this film. It's no ordinary thriller, and it will send your mind and your emotions reeling. I love this movie. It's smart. It's suspenseful. It's erotic. And I don't care how many times you watch it, you won't understand the ending.

Tattoos and Death—Opening a Conversation

First, thanks to my Aunt Ranee who suggested this as a topic in the comments thread of another post.

Many people, after losing a loved one, memorialize them with a tattoo. That tattoo may take the form of the deceased's portrait or a symbol that represents the deceased. These tattoos can become markers of the passed life that the living person can always carry with them, unlike a gravestone, which the living might have to travel to visit.

I have a tattoo myself (not a memorial one), and I have to say, it is a very ritualistic process, full of pain. You consult the wisdom of those who have been through it already, gear up for it, study what it will be like. The artist has a whole procedure he/she goes through. Afterwards, you show it off, like a new part of yourself. I wonder if, to the extent that it is ritualistic, tattooing helps people heal from grieving. We don't have many rituals in modern life, but when someone dies, that is certainly one of the times we do feel the need to ritualize (e.g., the funeral).

There may be something significant and satisfying about having a permanent reminder of this person etched into your body. And in a sense, their mortality is picked up and linked with your current vitality.

Most Common Elements in Memorial Tattoos

I'm working on a post about memorial tattoos (more on that later) but while researching, I ran across this list of some of the most common elements in memorial tattoos, from this webpage. I thought it was worth sharing:
  1. The birth and death dates
  2. A depiction of something he or she loved, such as a specific animal, an instrument or the name of his or her children
  3. A symbol of his or her zodiac sign
  4. A portrait of the beloved’s face
  5. Red and/or white roses and other floral designs
  6. Hearts
  7. An angel or cherub
  8. Stars
  9. The deceased’s birthstone
Do you have a memorial tattoo? Does yours include any of those elements? Why did you design yours the way your did?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

When a Celebrity Gets Sick

Today on the Diane Rehm show, Dr. Deepa Subramaniam, Director of the Brain Tumor Center at Georgetown University Hospital, points out a difficulty faced when a person of notoriety, such as Senator Kennedy, is diagnosed with a serious condition. The media coverage makes it difficult for Kennedy and his family to contain their discussion about his condition amongst themselves and their medical team. Frank talk about his chance of survival, what will happen to him, how his cancer should be treated, is being played out in newspapers, on the radio, on TV, around the world. And Dr. Subramaniam mentions this can be added stress not just for Dr. Kennedy but for other people with malignant brain tumors as well. She notes the presence in the media of phrases like "grim diagnosis" and "survival rate of a year" in the media. That would be hard to hear if you had a malignant glioma, even if you had already heard it from your physician.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Poem about Chinese Earthquake

Last night I cried listening to this poem about the Sichuan earthquake from a Chinese poet. You can hear it in Chinese, read by the poet himself, here. When it works, I think the Chinese have some of the most eloquent and simple poetry. The last image in this poem just breaks my heart.

Thousands upon thousands of anguished cries
Returning to silence and tranquillity
Heavenly acts cannot be predicted
The moon over Wenchuan
Still, a question mark
Aftershocks extend to Chengdu
Sorrow engulfs half the world
Tears turn to ice
Let candlelight melt them away
Children, climb on a dandelion
and line up for heaven

Monday, May 19, 2008

Physicians' Involvement in Executions

In the current issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, there is an interesting discussion about the involvement of physicians in execution and whether it is ethical given that they are beholden to the Hippocratic Oath (first do no harm, etc.). Like most issues of medical ethics, there really is some gray area here, so it's pretty fascinating to mull over. In the Jan. 24 issue, NEJM ran an editorial that recommended physicians not take part in executions. These current letters are in response to that piece.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

On Point episode about China earthquake

The radio program On Point featured an hour today about the earthquake in China. Around minute 8, you can hear a discussion about how open the Chinese government has been in giving information about this crisis—both to their citizens and to the world at large.

James Areddy speaks of hearing updates on the radio while riding around in cabs in China and seeing up-to-the minute photos. He says state media has become more careful with what it says in the last couple of days. But host Tom Ashbrook and commentators contrast this behavior with Chinese government coverage of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake and the way they covered up the extent of the more recent SARS outbreak, remarking that what we're seeing now is a much more transparent discussion, even though it is not ideal.

There Will Be Blood

If you haven't seen this movie yet, and don't want any details spoiled, you may not want to read this post. And you may also want to go see this movie. Soon! Really! It's good. Rent it! Or buy it! ... My boyfriend and I watched There Will Be Blood last night—and what a film! I'm a bit hesitant to say this about a movie I just saw, but it has to be one of the top 10 movies I've seen in my life. The parallels to silent film. The eerie soundtrack. Daniel Day Lewis's performance—his voice like an old radio star. All of the ambiguities—are Paul Sunday and Eli Sunday two different people, does E.W. Plainview know that Henry Plainview is a fake, what is the significance of the last line "I'm finished."

But my blog is about the way we communicate about death, so I want to bring up one particular genius maneuver on the part of P.T. Anderson. There are several incidents throughout the film that make you think you are going to see blood: a couple of deaths occur in oil wells that have the potential to be bloody; when Daniel Plainview is baptized and has the metaphorical blood of Christ poured over him, for a second you think it might end up being real blood; when Daniel kills his impostor brother with a shot to the head. But none of these bring blood. It is only in the last scene, when Daniel beats Eli Sunday to death that you actually see blood. And then Daniel Plainview simply declares "I'm finished." On one level, those words could be coming from the director himself. Anderson could be saying to the viewer, I promised you in the title "There Will Be Blood," now there is blood ... and now "I'm finished."


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

My sister to spend eternity in Tokyo

I just found out from reading the comments on another post that my sister, who married into a Japanese family, is planning to have her ashes spread in Japan when she passes. I'm surprised. She's never lived in Japan, but her husband was raised in Tokyo and did not move to the U.S. until he was 18. His entire family is still in Tokyo. My sister says, now that she is part of that family and has their name, she will join them once she passes. It makes complete sense. Once you marry, your plans for a funeral and after-life arrangements should revolve around your husband/wife and not your family of origin. But it makes me wonder, how many families do not realize such surprises over the course of their lives and are surprised with decisions like this at the point of death?

Thanks for telling me now and not when you're 84, Sis!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Medium Provides A Message

This photo is from my sister (commenter CRKodama). It's of our parents' backyard last winter. She sent it to me over email and wrote, "When I was taking photos in the backyard, I was trying to pick out the best one. I was looking at them on the Wii so they were as big as the TV, and I noticed this one. I am not saying it's a ghost, but if you look at it, it looks like a woman or girl posing for the camera in a purple outfit, in front of the tree and on the Wii she looked like she had leather tie boots like a native american. Dad said, 'That looks like a person, turn it off.' It creeped him out! I thought it was cool!"
You can see the figure she is talking about outlined in white, against the tree. Now, I don't know if I believe in ghosts or not, and I don't know if I believe it's possible to take pictures of ghosts or not ... but it's fun to think about. Do other people have photos like this, or have you heard stories about such photos? I took one on a high school trip to England. It was at William the Conquerer's castle and had a blob of what looked like white light that couldn't be explained by the flash or the position of sun. Whatever you believe on the subject, I'd be interested to hear. I thought this would be fun to share. I also thought my dad's reaction was sweet. He LOVES his backyard and I don't think he was wants photographic evidence that he's sharing it with an other-worldly being.

Robert Rauschenberg is Dead :(

One of my favorite artists, Robert Rauschenberg, has passed away. He was truly a modernist ... not just for his technique and subject matter, but for his willingness to switch styles. Rauschenberg was amazingly prolific. Even being somewhat studied in his work, I could walk into a museum and be completely floored by something of his that broke what I thought was the Rauschenberg mold. The New York Times has an obituary for him online. It's four pages long. Four pages! Most of their obits are two, maybe three pages. So what, you might say? Well, that extra page is one way the Old Gray Lady is telling us they think this man is important. And well, for what it's worth, I do too.

Public Grieving Courtesy of Melissa Block

NPR's All Things Considered is in China this week. They were doing reporting for the upcoming Bejing Olympics, but after yesterday's earthquake, their coverage has obviously changed. Correspondent Melissa Block was actually recording an interview when the quake hit. Shortly after the quake, she went to visit a collapsed middle school from which the the bodies of children were being pulled. Both reports have been combined into one dramatic clip online.

It is emotional. It is articulate. She mentions the grief and the way the parents are mourning and sending their children on to the afterlife. Melissa's voice cracks when she mentions how many dead children she saw—showing that even though she is a reporter who is used to covering the facts, the sheer devastation is getting to her. This is a moving and amazing report.

I'm a big fan of public grief, especially when humanity is hit with a mass tragedy, one like this earthquake. Sometimes we need it, and we should indulge that need. I think Melissa Block has provided us all with a great opportunity to explore some of that public grieving with this 8 and a half minute clip on NPR. You can find it here.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Match Game Murder

Something funny from Saturday Night Live.

Homer's mom dies

The Simpsons may be the best mainstream critic of American society. So it was with great interest that I watched this past week as they dealt with death. Homer's estranged mother Mona passed away, leaving him with many unanswered feelings. My favorite exchange came at the Kwik-E Mart and was between Homer, Apu, Ned Flanders, and Majula (Apu's wife):

Homer: Apu, what do you think happens after you die?
Apu: Manjula will sell this store, die her hair blond, and marry my cousin ... .
Manjula: Yes, I will!
Homer: I mean, do you think my mother's out there somewhere? Does she know I feel bad about things I said?
Apu: Oh, perhaps she's around us now. She may have already been reincarnated as that newborn baby or that tiny mouse in the nacho cheese.
Ned: Oh, for crying out loud, people aren't mice.
Apu: Oh, what a surprise, Joe Jesus Jr.'s going to set us all straight.
Ned: Look, Homer, people don't come back as anything, except for our Lord who came back as bread. That's it.
Homer: That's it. (sighs)
Apu: That's the thing with your religion; it's a bummer.
Ned: Even the sing-alongs?
Apu: No, the sing-alongs are okay.

I love this show. Where else on primetime TV will you see such frank and lighthearted discussions of death and religion? There's no animosity and no bile, but a clear discussion of the differences in opinion. I love it!

You can watch the full episode online here.

Friday, May 9, 2008

"Insensitive and entirely inappropriate for the dignified treatment of our fallen"

Those are the words of Pentagon Press Secretary, Geoff Morrell, describing Robert Gates' thoughts at revelations that some US soldiers were cremated at a commercial facility that cremated both human remains and pet remains. Morrell went on to say: "... the secretary believes that it is inappropriate, even if though permissible under the rules, to cremate our fallen, our heroes in a facility that also cremates pets," he said.

According to the Defense department, human remains and pet remains were handled in differen locations, just at the same facility. And the soldiers' remains were never misstreated.

Are we romanticizing the notion of human remains? Well, let me rephrase that a bit. Clearly we are romantacizing the notion of human remains ... but are we romantacizing it more than is appropriate? I'm a little shocked by the immediate and dramatic reaction to this story by the Defense department, although I guess that's the world of politics. Would you be okay with someone you love being cremated at a facility that also handles pet remains? I guess my vote is yes.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Presidential Candidates Not Talking about Long-Term Care

The New England Journal of Medicine has an opinion piece by Doctor David G. Stevenson, Harvard Medical School. He criticizes the current presidential candidates' unwillingness to discuss long-term care, how it will be addressed and how it will be paid for by our increasingly aging population. This interesting graphic is from the article. It shows the rate at which our population is aging and contrasts it with projected spending on long-term care for the elderly. The piece doesn't specifically address death—but it addresses the unwillingness of our leaders to talk about end-of-life issues.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Heath Ledger's Joker Doll Selling Out

Leave it to America to translate our public grief in to mass consumption. The New York Post reports that Heath Ledger's Joker doll is selling out at Toys "R" Us stores across the city. There is no mention of what is happening in other markets throughout the country, but a Toys "R" Us spokesperson is quoted as saying, "There are none left in the warehouse, either." The article also mentions that the figures are already appearing for sale on eBay for higher than their original $9.99 selling price. Folks must be assuming this will become a collector's item because of Ledger's death. And I imagine it's the current must-have toy for any big Batman fan. I'm not someone who has ever been into action figures, but it is pretty cool looking. Although I can say from trying to unload some Gone with the Wind memorabilia recently, now that eBay makes things so easy to sell, I wonder how much of a long-term market there really is for stuff like this, even when you factor in the high-profile death of a pop-culture figure.

End-of-Life Care

My paternal grandfather is 90. He has been in and out of the hospital recently for issues related to fluid retention and blood pressure. His doctors can't quite figure out what is going on with his systems. Every time he checks in, they tell him he needs to stay until they find the cause of his problems ... and then about two days later, they send him home, having not actually found the cause. So, what we're concluding is they're just not too concerned about him since he is 90. (Not to say he has been ill treated while he's at the hospital or anything like that.)
Last time he was in, the doctor suggested my grandfather would benefit from physical therapy. My grandmother, who is 83 herself, told him there was no way they could make it in to the hospital for regular appointments ... so the doctor just let it go. It was only after talking further with family members (my mother who worked in medicine for 35 years, my aunt who was a nurse for a similar amount of time) that she realized she should follow up. There is no reason why their insurance would not cover in-home visits by a physical therapist if my grandfather needs them. I don't want to ascribe motivations to people I don't know, but it really feels like they were letting it slide because he was 90. But being able to move his body better will dramatically improve his quality of life for whatever time he has left.
Well, the good news is my grandmother did follow up and now Grandpa Knapp is receiving physical therapy and will get a consultation from an occupational therapist to see how well he dresses and gets around with his everyday tasks. I'm so happy about that!
Why was it so easy for my maternal grandfather to get really expensive, massive brain surgery, in a split-second decision, which he probably was not going to survive because his day-to-day doctors were telling him he was not in a health situation where he could survive any kind of surgery, but it was so hard for my paternal grandfather to get something reasonable like in-home physical therapy? Something is seriously wrong with the way we allocate resources in our medical system.

NYT Opinion Piece on Myanmar

One thing death does is draw our attention. Death in large numbers, like we're seeing in Myanmar, will capture the focus of most of the world. While the UN, governments, and aid organizations are still in a desperate fight to get relief workers into Myanmar and save lives, we may be seeing the first seeds of an important international discussion. Should the world community try to free Myanmar from the junta once this crisis is settled? There is an opinion piece in The New York Times today addressing exactly this issue. The editorial board eloquently says, "We wish we could ... say that this is no time for politics, but that simply would not be true."

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Can a Parent's Death Be a Good Thing?

Author Jeanne Safer writes about the opportunities for growth that came out of her mother's death in her new book Death Benefits: How Losing a Parent Can Change an Adult's Life—For the Better. She was interviewed earlier today by the glorious Diane Rehm (yes, more NPR gushing from me). Here's a link to the interview. I admire the honesty of her approach. It's not all doom and gloom that comes out of death. Sometimes, new growth can come from our experiences with it.

Myanmar Death Toll

Can we even comprehend a death toll as high as 22,500, which is where the numbers stand from the Myanmar cyclone as I write this post. That's not even including the additional 41,000 people who are still missing. How do we handle something that tragic and huge from afar? (I'm sure it's a completely different matter for the people in Myanmar, and we can't even imagine what they're going through right now.)
In terms of the mass media, I've almost noticed that they seem to be latching onto one of the stages of grief. You know the cliche five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. What we're seeing, I think, is anger.
Look at this second paragraph from today's New York Times article on the disaster:
"Shaken by the scope of the disaster, the authorities said they would delay a vote in the worst affected areas on a new constitution that was meant to cement the military’s grip on power."
They are mentioning the fact that Myanmar is a military-controlled country, with a military who is trying to get even tougher controls, right up front. It is only in the third paragraph that they move on to expand on details of the death toll count. The article goes on to describe an "ineffectual government" and a "mood of anger and a grim resignation." And note the slightly threatening tone of this line from an article in the Seattle Times "... keeping out international aid would focus blame squarely on the military should it fail to restore peoples' livelihoods." Now, I am not disputing these charges by the NYT and the Seattle Times, only pointing out the way they might be using them to cope with the massive and almost incomprehensible scale of death.

Also, those who know me know I'm not a big Laura Bush fan, but I do want to say I think she did an admirable job speaking out against the government of Myanmar and their original refusal to accept foreign aid. I wish she would take more vocal positions like this. She did a good job and seems to have some diplomatic skills that she has been hiding. And hello media ... maybe we could cover this a little bit more?

Monday, May 5, 2008

Last Wishes

Vladimir Nabokov's son, Dmitri, has decided to posthomously publish his father's last work, the beginnings of a novel called The Original of Laura. The book is not finished and is still in pieces on 3" by 5" notecards, Nabokov's trademark writing technique. Here's an interview with Dmitri in the New York Times. Before his death, Nabokov instructed his widow and his son to burn the notes for this book and never to let it be published. So, in publishing the work, Dmitri is going directly against his father's dying wishes.

I'm torn. On one hand, there are the man's desires for his last pieces of work. And he was a perfectionist: This work is unfinished. On the other hand, the writer's work exists separate from him/her once it is completed. You do not check with the author on how to interpret a novel. So, do you need to have their permission to publish?

How important is it to honor last wishes? Do they take priority over just doing the right or reasonable thing after that person is gone?

Friday, May 2, 2008

Casualty Officers

Before a military member goes to active duty, the family is instructed that, if their loved one is injured, they will receive a phone call. The only way the family will receive an in-person visit from military personnel is if their soldier has died. How's that for non-verbal communication?

From Wednesday's Fresh Air with Terry Gross: a talk with journalist Jim Sheeler and Marine Colonel Steve Beck. Beck's was a "casualty officer," charged with notifying family members of the passing of their loved ones. I did not even realize that there was such a specific job, although now thinking about it, I can understand why it would be necessary to have a specific officer dedicated to the task. ... and what a service to the country to do this for our fallen soldiers and their families.

The book is called Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives. Sheeler has won a Pulitzer Prize for his writings about Beck. You can read an excerpt of his book here, and you can hear the interview here. I haven't read the book, at least not yet, but I highly recommend the interview.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Ethics of Withholding Information

I just finished reading David Rieff's book about the passing of his mother Susan Sontag. The book is called Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son's Memoir. The thing that mostly stuck out to me, all he way through the book, was Susan Sontag's refusal to accept her own death. Rieff calls her a lover of life and says she always had a fear of death. But she goes so far as to not even admit death is imminent when it is reasonable and healthy to do so.

Sontag is diagnosed with MDS, a particularly vicious form of leukemia. Her odds of surviving are very low—1 in 1,000 or less. The first doctor she sees tells her some patients with MDS are candidates for bone-marrow transplants, but she is not one. Instead of accepting this diagnosis, or getting a second opinion, Sontag searches and searches until she finds an expert who is willing to tell her that she has a chance to live ... one who will do the bone-marrow transplant. The process is terribly painful, and terribly expensive, and to no one's surprise, it fails.

So, she goes through an awful procedure at discomfort to herself and family and at great cost to her family, others on her same insurance plan, others at the same hospital, taxpayers who support the state hospital she was at, etc. To the end of the book, Rieff wonders whether he did the right thing, enabling his mother's desire for hope above all, never forcing her to look at her mortality. And he is never able to answer that question. I can't help but think she could have had a better death if she had accepted her terminal illness and focused on saying goodbye. Sontag was so convinced that she was going to beat the odds, even though she had MDS, she made no plans for her own burial.

My new poll for May is related to this topic. Would you want to know everything about your disease if you had a potentially terminal condition? Do you think it's right for doctor's to give a patient false hope? Hope is one thing ... but what if there is no hope to be had? In Two Weeks of Life, Eleanor Clift describes a moment where her doctor simply told her and her husband that it was time to move on to hospice care, meaning, death was fewer than six months away, time to accept it and prepare for it. Why couldn't Susan Sontag have made a similar move? Or am I out of line? Do people have the right to pursue any medical treatment they want to pursue until the moment the die?