Apr 10

“Natural Causes”: Medicalized Life Vs. Living Well

We insist on too many pointless checkups, too many pointless surgeries and too many pointless drugs. It has become a “ritual” that doctors perform for our comfort. That doctors have begun having themselves tattooed with “DNR” (Do Not Resuscitate) is a clue how extending life a few days or weeks in intensive care is of little benefit. From San Francisco Review of Books, regarding Natural Causes by Barbara Ehrenreich (2018)

Noted author Barbara Ehrenreich is back with a look at our often futile attempts to prolong life via food, exercise, health, and medical ideas and crazes and procedures. The title is Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer.

“In some ways,” notes Scott McLemee, Inside Higher Ed, “it is a book-length sequel to ‘Welcome to Cancerland,’ her unforgettable essay from 2001. There, in recounting her diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer, Ehrenreich’s instincts as a muckraker kept her in a standoff with what she called ‘cancer culture’: while the medical protocol left her depleted and nauseous, the New Age-tinged demands for positive thinking felt insipid and infantilizing.”

Whether we take great care of ourselves or not, many of us fail to live long lives, and in this culture “we persist in subjecting anyone who dies at a seemingly untimely age to a kind of bio-moral autopsy,” states Ehrenreich.

Although all are potentially subject to such judgment, those with decreased financial resources—who are therefore less able to jump on health/medical bandwagons—seem to incur the most blame and shame.

Excerpted from Natural Causes (The Guardian):  

…(W)e seek an explanation…We can, or think we can, understand the causes of disease in cellular and chemical terms, so we should be able to avoid it by following the rules laid down by medical science: avoiding tobacco, exercising, undergoing routine medical screening and eating only foods currently considered healthy. Anyone who fails to do so is inviting an early death. Or, to put it another way, every death can now be understood as suicide.

The quest to prolong life usually becomes particularly amped up as we age. Results vary but are iffy. Publishers Weekly:

She comes down hard on what she describes as ‘medicalized life’: the unending series of doctor’s visits, fads in wellness, and preventative-care screenings that can dominate the life of an aging person. Ehrenreich’s core philosophy holds that aging people have the right to determine their quality of life and may choose to forgo painful and generally ineffective treatments. She presents evidence that such tests as annual physicals and Pap smears have little effect in prolonging life; investigates wellness trends, including mindfulness meditation; and questions the doctrine of a harmonious ‘mindbody’ and its supposed natural tendency to prolong life. Contra the latter, she demonstrates persuasively that the body itself can play a role in nurturing cancer and advancing aging.

Kirkus Reviews: In summary, “[Ehrenreich] urges that we recognize that death is natural, that we enjoy our lives while we can, and that we disabuse ourselves of any self-serving notions of post-mortem permanence or even influence.”

In her mid-70’s Ehrenreich states about herself, “I eat well, meaning I choose foods that taste good and that will stave off hunger for as long as possible, like protein, fiber and fats. I exercise — not because it will make me live longer but because it feels good when I do. As for medical care: I will seek help for an urgent problem, but I am no longer interested in looking for problems that remain undetectable to me.”

Jul 25

“Wish I Was Here” By Zach Braff: Reviewing the Reviews

Scan the movie reviews for Wish I Was Here, Zach Braff‘s new partially crowd-funded film, and you’ll find plenty of wordplay regarding both the title—“Wish I wasn’t here, in fact”—and the star’s crowd-funding controversy—“You’ll be wanting your Kickstarter money back.”

And although consumers are often rating it higher, the reviews from top critics are largely bad and snarky. A sampling:

Scott Foundas, Variety: “After exploring twentysomething Millennial malaise in his 2004 hit ‘Garden State,’ Zach Braff shifts his attention to mid-thirties, post-marital anomie in ‘Wish I Was Here,’ a cloying compendium of follow-your-dreams platitudes, new-agey spirituality and mawkish, father-son deathbed bonding that strains so hard to recapture ‘Garden State’s’ calculating but effective blend of whimsy and pathos that it nearly gives itself a hernia.”

Ty Burr, Boston Globe: “Sophomore slumps don’t come any more irritating than ‘Wish I Was Here,’ the painfully sincere, emotionally fraudulent new comedy-drama from actor-writer-director Zach Braff.”

Rex Reed, New York Observer: “Pretentious (it thinks it’s a comedy but descends into depression faster than you can fill a Prozac prescription) and self-indulgent (whole scenes are thrown in for no reason except to stretch a five-minute sitcom pitch into nearly two hours of phony, contrived tedium), it’s a mess begging for coherence.”

THE MAIN CHARACTERS AND PLOT

Braff’s character Aidan is married to Sarah (Kate Hudson). Aidan’s father is played by Mandy Patinkin.

Boyd van Hoeij, Hollywood Reporter, sets up the story:

Aidan Bloom (Braff) is a struggling actor in L.A. whose last job, from a while back, was the ‘before guy’ in a dandruff commercial. His wife, Sarah (Hudson) works in an office putting data into spreadsheets and essentially providing for their two kids, tomboyish teen Grace (Joey King) and her younger brother, Tucker (Pierce Gagnon), as well as her husband, who keeps doing the audition rounds.

The fragile status quo of the family comes apart when the paterfamilias, Gabe (Patinkin), announces he can’t pay for his grandkids’ Jewish school tuition anymore because his cancer’s come back and he needs the money for an experimental treatment. This triggers both practical problems — the kids need an education and Aidan refuses to send them to public school — as well as more spiritual ones, especially after it becomes clear that Gabe’s got little time left.

THE TRAILER:

MAIN THEMES

Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com: “‘Wish I Was Here’ shows what happens when people are forced to slow down, assess their lives, and ask the big questions; face the big moments, death, and disappointment. We are stronger than we realize.”

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune: “Braff’s film is sincere down to its toes, expressing in forthright ways, over and over, the importance of seizing the day and being true to yourself but also being of some practical and emotional use to your loved ones.”

AIDAN

Ty Burr, Boston Globe: “The real problem is that the hero is a self-absorbed child who, when his wife expresses dissatisfaction with her hellish job, whines ‘I thought you supported my dream.’ The entire male side of Aidan’s family makes a terrible impression, actually, from that judgmental father to brother Noah (Josh Gad), a misanthropic creep who lives in a trailer and who we’re apparently meant to find adorable.”

Rex Reed, New York Observer: “…Aidan is a bona fide A-hole—a grown man with responsibilities who contributes nothing to his family or society and wastes all of his passion dreaming about stupid roles in sci-fi fantasies about space ships. He won’t get a day job. He refuses to send the kids to public school, but his attempts at home schooling are pathetic. Mr. Braff thinks Aidan is somehow a lovable jerk to be embraced for his iconoclasm, but the guy is really shallow, spineless and insincere.”

SARAH

Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com: “…works for the L.A. Water Department, and endures sexual harassment from her cubicle-mate, but she is the bread-winner in the family, and can’t quit. Their lives have been set up to support Aidan’s dream, a dream that is slowly dying, but Aidan can’t let go of it. And Sarah is losing patience with the entire situation.”

G. Allen Johnson, San Francisco Chronicle: “…(T)he depth she [Hudson] displays here, both dramatically and comedically, is key to the success of ‘Wish I Was Here’.”

GABE

Bilge Ebiri, Vulture: “Patinkin is terrific as the dying patriarch whose judgmental jabs at his son come with such regularity that they’ve become mere background noise, a quiet drone of disappointment.”

OVERALL REVIEWS

Ian Buckwalter, NPR: “…(A)s messy as the setups are, the solutions are ludicrously neat and tidy. There’s truth to be found in platitudes, of course; in a general sense, a positive outlook can do a lot to improve one’s quality of life, forgiveness is a virtue, and coming to terms with mortality and one’s place in the universe can be a source of peacefulness. But those are simplified distillations of complex processes, and Wish I Was Here never gets beyond that surface level…”

Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com:

It is sincere, funny, thoughtful and spiritual, often poignant, and with a deep strain of existential worry running underneath the whole thing. The worry is not eradicated at the end. But maybe the characters can find a life that suits them, that pleases them, in the midst of worrying about what it all means. At its best, ‘Wish I Was Here,’ (the title alone expressing the disconnect so many of us feel about actually experiencing the minutia of our own lives) is all about that. It doesn’t break new ground, but it is a personal film, something audiences are hungry for, with Braff’s particular spin on the universe. ‘Wish I Was Here’ is a good story with interesting characters, thoughtfully told.

Mark Olsen, Los Angeles Times: “The story is wildly disjointed, cramming together thematic notions about parenting, family, male maturity and Jewish identity — any of which would have made for a better movie if more deeply explored.”

May 07

“The End of Eve”: Ariel Gore’s Memoir About Caregiving Her “Crazy” Mom

In the weeks immediately after her mom died, when Gore half-jokes that she should have been clearing out her mom’s house and going into therapy, she instead started writing her reflections on her mother. Sarah Maria Medina, Bitch, about The End of Eve

The bio page on the website of prolific author Ariel Gore, editor and publisher of Hip Mama, an award-winning online magazine, notes that her new book, The End of Evehas been called “Terms of Endearment meets Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”

Part of the publisher’s description of Gore and The End of Eve:

At age 39, Ariel Gore has everything she’s always wanted: a successful writing career, a long-term partnership, a beautiful if tiny home, a daughter in college and a son in preschool. But life’s happy endings don’t always last. If it’s not one thing, after all, it’s your mother. Her name is Eve. Her epic temper tantrums have already gotten her banned from three cab companies in Portland. And she’s here to announce that she’s dying. ‘Pitifully, Ariel,’ she sighs. ‘You’re all I have.’ Ariel doesn’t want to take care of her crazy dying mother, but she knows she will. It’s the right thing to do, isn’t it? And, anyway, how long could it go on? ‘Don’t worry,’ Eve says. ‘If I’m ever a burden, I’ll just blow my brains out.’ 

Why Did Gore Choose toTake Care of Her “Crazy Dying” Mom?

As told to July Westhale, Lambda Literary:

I became my mom’s caregiver because she was widowed and only had two kids and my sister refused to have anything to do with it. So it fell to me to take it on or to abandon her, which was certainly an option. I think usually if there is a queer kid in the family it falls to the queer kid to do the caregiving. In the same way that if there are no queers but there’s a female—it would fall to the female before it fell to the male children very generally speaking.

Wayne Scott, Oregon Live: “‘I knew my mother was impossible, and worse,’ writes Gore. ‘But some part of me had always liked her.'”

Kirkus Reviews: “Convinced that she needed to do as the Tibetan yogis she admired did and ‘go to the places that scared [her],’ she became Eve’s caregiver.”

Eve Under Gore’s Care

Wayne Scott, Oregon Live: “Eve is a theatrical, tightly wound narcissist; a cross between ‘Mommie Dearest’ and ‘Portlandia’ with a dash of ‘Interiors’; beautiful yet stylishly cruel, distinctive, sometimes eloquent, in the excesses of her sharp attitudes.”

Kirkus Reviews: “…(H)er mother took over the house her daughter had bought and began renovating it. While the author and her family scrambled to make a life ‘out of stardust and panic,’ Eve flirted outrageously with an Anaïs Nin scholar–turned-contractor, watched Hollywood noir movies and reminded everyone that she was dying.”

What Happens to Gore’s Life?

For one, she gets kicked out of her own house after standing up to her mom. For another, her 10-year relationship goes kaput.

Susie Bright, author: “This is the story of the world’s most startlingly insane, beautiful mother who was supposed to die in one year— but nearly killed her entire family and staff before she was through.”

Kirkus Reviews: “…(T)he life Gore had ‘always imagined she [wanted]’ soon fell apart. Desperate to understand her own role in making ‘all this violence seem necessary and inevitable,’ Gore fled to a house outside of Santa Fe where she began redefining the meaning of love.”

She meets someone new. Readers will only know this new love interest as “The Chef.”

Sarah Maria MedinaBitch:

The love story is an integral part of Gore’s memoir—it’s clear that her mom’s death is not the only part of Gore’s life that is changing. Instead, the death marks both an end and a beginning. ‘My mom was dying, but this dynamic in my life was dying, too: the dynamic of being attracted only to people who are withholding and mean to me on some level,’ says Gore.

What Kind of Caretaker is Gore?

Wayne Scott, Oregon Live: “Without defensiveness, Gore maintains her compassion and loyalty. In spite of her mother’s abandonments and manipulations, up to the last days of her life, Gore remains steadfast, trying to set up hospice, bringing food, and worrying.”

Want to Read An Excerpt?

Go to The Nervous Breakdown to read “Lung Cancer Noir.”

Catch the Author on Tour?

It’s all on her website.

Overall Reviews

Kirkus Reviews: “Wickedly sharp reading filled to bursting with compassion, rage, pain and wit.”

Wayne Scott, Oregon Live: “Transcending blame, Gore shifts the paradigm that usually dominates grief memoirs, charting a courageous course through a different type of sorrow: mourning for the parent who couldn’t, wouldn’t love her enough.”

Tom Spanbauer, author: “The depth of insight of The End of Eve often took my breath away. Not to mention its drop-dead humor, the sadness, and the rage. Ariel Gore’s memoir is in its essence a how to book. In the face of death, our grief, how to breathe, how to be brave, how to be funny, how to be authentic. How to make it through. But most of all: tenderness — how Ariel puts human tenderness on the page is an act of poetry damn close to sublime.”