Jan 22

“The Death Class”: “Death in Perspective” Class

Erika Hayasaki, who’d experienced the murder of her close friend in high school and as a journalist had reported on many others, not only enrolled in a “death class” but also then shadowed the teacher extensively for several years as research for her new book The Death Class: A True Story About Life.

Death in Perspective,” taught by psychiatric nurse and Professor Dr. Norma Bowe, is offered at Kean University in New Jersey, where students wait three years to be able to get in, a testament to the immense popularity of both the professor and the course.

Hayasaki points out that Bowe is a fan of psychologist Erik Erikson‘s theories, including his eight psychosocial stages. Erikson’s stage of “generativity,” involving learning to give back to the world in meaningful and positive ways, is key. “Death anxiety,” Bowe would say, is relieved by living a good life.

Besides pertinent field trips, Bowe assigns ongoing writing exercises, such as bucket lists, self-eulogies, and letters to themselves at a younger age. And always in the first class she gives instructions to write a “goodbye letter” to a lost loved one.

Below some of Bowe’s students speak about this and other class experiences:

Barbara Mahany, a former nurse, writes in The Chicago Tribune that Hayasaki’s book “practically serves as a take-home version of the class, filled as it is with writing assignments and discussion questions sure to stir deep thinking.”

Another chunk of the book, she notes, relates narratives about certain young folks Bowe has helped—“chilling accounts of the four students’ triumphant ascension from heartbreak.”

Mahany wonders, though, about some of the boundaries represented. For one, is Bowe too prone to overinvolvement in her students’ lives? While Hawasaki, says Mahany, reveals Bowe’s “indefatigable efforts to respond — at all hours, any day, anywhere — to students’ suicide threats and assorted dire straits, to drive miles out of her way to intercede in dicey family crises, to wrap herself in the cloak of the SuperRescuer…” she doesn’t examine this deeply enough.

Furthermore, and related to the above, did the author ultimately get too close to her subject? “The lines between journalism and friendship — a fine line often, one that must be navigated with excruciating balance — seem blurred.”

Nick Romeo, Boston Globe, is another critic who finds fault with the relatively unprobed “saintlike” portrait: “Bowe’s engagement far exceeds the standard duties of a teacher. She alternately acts as grief counselor, parent figure, and volunteer outreach coordinator.”

Moreover, Romeo adds another criticism: he says that in some spots there’s “a lurid lingering on the minutiae of disturbing scenes” and elsewhere there’s a lack of “a reasonable limit to witnessing the grief of others.”

Publishers Weekly would seem to agree: “Hayasaki’s studies of the suicidal and mentally ill seem clinical and unrelenting, and there is an unsettling prurience in these stories of emotional cataclysm.”

It’s likely that not all readers will share this distaste, however. And in the end, PW believes “the book helps make possible necessary conversations about death.”

Jul 15

“Unfinished Song”: Older Partners Coping With the Help of Music

Watching the new British film Unfinished Song, written and directed by Paul Andrew Williams, reminded me of the inspiring and worthy documentary Young at Heart (2007), about a real-life chorus of senior citizens in Massachusetts that sings contemporary songs. However, Unfinished Song is fictional, and the focus is mainly on only one individual, not the whole group.

From the official description of this dramedy: “UNFINISHED SONG is the funny and uplifting story of Arthur (Terence Stamp), a curmudgeon old soul perfectly content with sticking to his dull daily routine until his beloved wife (Vanessa Redgrave) introduces him to a spirited local singing group led by the youthful and charming Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton).” Tagline: Music is the cure for the common crank.

“Funny” is not the main sentiment that comes to my own mind, though. Yes, there’s humor—and thankfully; but there’s also plenty of poignancy. 

Arthur and Marion: More About the Plot

Stephen Holden, New York Times: “The suds machine kicks in from the outset when Marion, who is being treated for cancer, learns she has only months to live. Her fiercely protective husband insists that she stay at home and rest, but Marion, a devoted chorister who is beloved among the group members, insists on continuing for as long as she can. After she dies, about halfway into the movie [Elizabeth] coaxes Arthur to join and participate in a regional choir competition.”

No Ordinary Performances: More About The Stars

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: “What Stamp and Redgrave really accomplish here is to paint a portrait of a long marriage without resorting to flashbacks or expository dialogue. It’s in every look and gesture. In the film, a comment is made about the power of a voice being not in technique but in the journey it took to get there. Stamp and Redgrave and living embodiments of that philosophy. Just sit back and behold.”

Elizabeth Weitzman, New York Daily News: “Thank goodness, at least, for the sterling cast. In fact, you won’t find a better example of the ways in which craft and talent can elevate even the most rote material.”

Lou Lumenick, New York Post: “Stamp could not be better as a man set emotionally adrift when he loses the love of his life.”

Need a Good Cry?: More About What You’ll Feel

Tomas Hachard, NPR: “…Unfinished Song, which played festivals last year under the title Song for Marion, doesn’t earn its sentimentalism; instead it rolls through a series of cliched life lessons that never come close to exploring the film’s emotional territory with any depth or commitment.”

Stephen Holden, New York Times: “To gag or to weep, that is the question. You may do both while watching ‘Unfinished Song,’ a shamelessly sentimental, manipulative comic tear-jerker; a grumpy old man; and his saintly wife.”

Worth Seeing?: More from the Reviewers

Claudia Puig, USA Today: “A moving meditation on aging, illness, family conflicts and long relationships, Unfinished Song…also celebrates life and pays tribute to catchy songs.”

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone:Unfinished Song is Glee for seniors living in the hope of making it to nationals. Hold the cringes…Unfinished Song is better than Glee, way better. Nobody on that painfully-dying series has the talent of Stamp, 74, and Redgrave, 76, two acting legends who could breathe creative helium into anything, including this corpse of a script.”

Oct 17

Books About Dying: “Book Club” and “Exit Laughing”

Two recent books about dying—done with humor. One with a good dose of humor and the other with humor as a theme.

I. The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

When humanitarian Mary Anne Schwalbe was living with terminal cancer, her son Will came up with an unusual idea for an activity for them. And now, a few years after her death, you can read about in the recently released The End of Your Life Book Club.

Says son/author Will in the New York Times, “I privately dubbed our club ‘The End of Your Life Book Club,’ not to remind myself that Mom was dying, but so I would remember that we all are — that you never know what book or conversation will be your last.”

II. Exit Laughing: How Humor Takes the Sting Out of Death, edited by Victoria Zackheim

The second of these books about dying is Exit Laughing: How Humor Takes the Sting Out of Death, edited by Victoria Zackheim. From the publisher’s blurb: “As painful as it is to lose a loved one, Exit Laughing shows us that in times of grief, humor can help us with coping and even healing.”

In this collection, various authors tell true stories about dying and loss. For example: “…Amy Ferris explains how her mother’s dementia led to a permanent ban from an airline…Bonnie Garvin even manages to find a heavy dose of dark humor in her parents’ three unsuccessful attempts at a double suicide.”

Shelf Awareness“Death happens, and the writers in Exit Laughing show that humor can serve as an acceptable and beneficial means to mend broken hearts. Laughter, Zackheim writes in her introduction, ‘can open the door to emotions shared, and perhaps through this sharing we can not only process the reality of death but mend the complex and often difficult relationships we share with the person who is dying.'”

Sara Pritchard, author: “As funny and poignant as Harold and MaudeExit Laughing makes it clear that even the Grim Reaper will put on a monkey face and maybe even giggle, when tickled.”

Beverly Donofrio, author: “This gem of an anthology about what we fear, avoid, would rather not mention, let alone read about—death—is the funniest book I’ve read in years. Exit Laughing is a bold, outrageous, never sanctimonious, death-defying collection that looks straight in the eye of the inevitable while making you laugh real tears.”

Apr 24

“We Bought a Zoo”: Zoo Therapy For a Grieving Widower

Did I think “schmaltzy” at least once or twice while watching We Bought a Zoo on the plane ride home from my vacation? Yup.

Did I also feel things that mattered even more times than that? Yup again.

Whereas Richard Corliss at Time calls We Bought a Zoo “pure cornography,” Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune differs. He points out that Matt Damon, as lead character Benjamin Mee, is largely responsible for keeping that very same element in check. “Damon, thank the family-friendly-movie gods, really knows how to hold his head above the corn,” Phillips says.

The film is based on a true story about a grieving widower with two kids to raise. Fourteen-year-old angry, sullen Dylan is acting out at school, while seven-year-old adorable Rosie shows signs of becoming overly self-sufficient and parentified in the wake of her mom’s loss.

Benjamin yearns so much to get to a better space emotionally for himself and his kids that he abruptly quits his job and makes a questionable move to a different physical space—a house with a zoo that happens to be in just as much need of repair as each of their hearts.

Along with the purchase of the zoo grounds comes its motley crew—not the least important of which is zookeeper Kelly, played by Scarlett Johansson. Like many who choose work that involves caring for animals, she comes across as being more concerned with their well-being than with people’s—or even her own.

Time for the trailer:

Can you can immediately see where it’s all going? Most assuredly. As James Berardinelli, ReelViews, notes, however: “The general sense of blandness and predictability that marks the story’s progression does not damage its emotional strengths. We feel for these characters and, because we care about them, we yearn for the highs the film ultimately delivers.”

Dec 06

“The Descendants”: Husband/Father Faces Sudden Loss

I recently saw the new and highly praised/hyped movie The Descendants, a comedy/drama by director Alexander Payne. In a nutshell, Matt King (George Clooney), who’s been an emotionally distant husband and father, is suddenly forced to deal with grief and betrayal issues when his wife suffers a horrible accident.

The following are excerpts from the critics about the handling of the grief process in The Descendants:

  • Bill GoodykoontzArizona Republic: “…captures the complexity of emotional reactions that grief stirs.”
  • Josh BellLas Vegas Weekly: “Grief feels overly pleasant…”
  • Ann HornadayWashington Post: “A tough, tender, observant, exquisitely nuanced portrait of mixed emotions at their most confounding and profound…”
  • Rex ReedNew York Observer: “…I found the film’s moments of pathos every bit as unconvincing as the bigger picture of a man who learns late-life redemption through guilt, and I found Mr. Clooney’s tears and sentimentality especially clumsy.”
  • Dana Stevens, Slate: “This is a movie that wants to confront painful truths about love, loss, and grief, yet there’s a curious emotional brittleness about it. The script seems to operate in only two affective modes—deadpan absurdism and heart-tugging melodrama—and every time it switches gears, the grinding is audible.”

As for me, one of the two main things I liked about this film was the feeling that the family’s grief responses were complicated and often realistically so. And the other was the acting of Clooney and the two young women portraying his daughters, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller.

However, I think the biggest failing was a certain lack of depth. Why, for example, has Matt been so emotionally unavailable?

As for the comedy/drama aspect, for me the film seemed much more “drama” than “comedy,” as most attempts at humor fell flat. Peter Howell, Toronto Star: “This is stealth comedy, richly delivered…” Then I would argue perhaps it’s too stealth. But anyway…

In sum, it’s a tragic story—and although I appreciated its theme and apparent intents, I just wish I’d been more moved by it. As does Richard Corliss, who states in his review for Time:

Watching this adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’s 2007 novel about a man facing family crises in the modern Eden of Hawaii, I wanted The Descendants‘ elevated sentiments to wash over me, inundate me in its lapping warmth, like the restorative waters on a Kauai beach. I’m a notorious softie, and I found things to like about the film…but I remained untouched. I must have been wearing my wet suit.

See it and see what you feel—or think.