Today’s photo of the day is entitled “Sleep in car,” and is by photographer Vincent Beck Mathieu (Flickr | Instagram | Facebook | website). To nominate a photo of the day yourself, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org; or see our Flickr favorites page and Instagram account for all the online images we’ve recently liked.
Like a lot of middle-aged children of elderly parents, I find myself these days doing a lot of research for the first time into how to best care for and help my parents as they approach the ends of their lives (a subject now known in the 2010s by the catch-all term “eldercare”), and find myself often feeling overwhelmed by the strange behavior and often contradictory impulses of such people as they reach their end-of-life years. For those like me, then, a fantastic place to start is with Atul Gawande’s 2014 Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, which does a better job than anything else I’ve ever come across at explaining why so many elderly people end up adopting such strange attitudes at their ends of their lives, what in our society and our brains causes these attitudes, and what we can do as the people who love them to both adapt to and fight against these sometimes self-destructive behaviors.
And the reason this book is so good is because it never resorts to simplistic explanations, which by definition is going to make it hard to do a write-up today that explains why you should read it; because the answer, according to Gawande, is partly historical, partly sociological, partly biological, and partly psychological. It has to do with the way that eldercare has evolved as a subject in the first place; which, as he astutely shows, actually grew out of the Victorian institution of “poorhouses,” which were so terrible that the newly invented “hospitals” of the late 1800s were convinced to start taking in the elderly instead, a big reason why eldercare is still to this day defined mostly through medical-focused terms like the prolonging of life instead of the quality of that prolonged life.
And it has to do with elderly people’s rightful fear of being thrown into that hospital-based institutional life under which most nursing homes still operate, in which daily routines are as codified and standardized as those of prisoners or soldiers, with all dignity and chances for individual choices stripped away under the noble but misguided cause of being “safer” and “more efficient.” (According to Gawande, the three greatest negative factors that affect the elderly are feelings of hopelessness, loneliness and boredom, all three of which can be directly tied to our current institutional model of eldercare.) And it has to do with the way we quantify and justify these kinds of subjects, when it comes to things like laws, grants and government approval: after all, it’s much easier to definitively state, “We cured 58 percent of our patients’ respiratory illnesses” than, “Our patients are 58 percent happier than when they entered our facility.”
There are no easy answers to the subject of modern eldercare, and Gawande doesn’t try to present any. In fact, one of the most sobering yet interesting points he hammers home, over and over, is that the process of getting to the end of your life is simply the process of the universe taking away more and more of the options you used to have for living your life, an unalterable fact that none of us can get away from; and that the only thing we can do about it is to learn how to gracefully give up the yearning for these lost options, redefine the priorities in our lives under these new terms, and understand how to continue living a life of purpose and self-defined happiness no matter how physically or mentally impaired we might become.
That’s one of the major problems with 21st-century eldercare, when all is said and done; as Gawande thoroughly and meticulously shows, we’re simply not providing the space and opportunity for the elderly to do this kind of mental and emotional redefining, not when so much of eldercare is currently devoted to prolonging life no matter how much suffering it might cause, which inspires most people to have a mistaken “WE’RE GOING TO FIGHT THIS!!!” attitude about end-of-life medical issues, instead of encouraging and teaching them how to embrace their growing limitations and redefine the way they live their lives, which can only be done with the help and resources of the institutions that are currently not providing that help.The reason #AtulGawande's #BeingMortal is so good is because it's never simplistic Click To Tweet
I know I’m making this sound like a downer of a book, but it’s not actually as doom-and-gloom as it might appear; a huge chunk of its page count is devoted to the kinds of practical steps you as an individual can do to help the elderly person in your own life, as well as the issues you can be politically pushing for to improve the entire subject of eldercare when it comes to government regulations, punctuated by Gawande’s case-study profiles of industry innovators that he literally went out and personally visited in preparation for writing this, making it the rare Oprah-friendly nonfiction book that also has academic credibility.
But still, he doesn’t sugarcoat the fact that caring for someone at the end of their life is a difficult, frustration-filled process; and as those who are going through it know, that can ironically be a refreshing thing to hear in a book like this, within a genre that is mostly filled with happy little pink-covered guides about “Here’s How To Have a Sunny and Upbeat Disposition Every Moment Of The Day No Matter How Much It Ironically Causes Problems To The Person You’re Trying To Care For (And We’re Going To FIGHT This Thing, We’re Going to FIGHT It, You’re A FIGHTER and We’re Going To FIGHT THIS!!!)” It’s that kind of attitude which is one of the major problems with eldercare as we currently define it; and for those who have always suspected such in the back of their head, this is 100 percent the book for you.
Today’s photo of the day is entitled “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” and is by Peruvian photographer Sohei Szincza (Flickr). To nominate a photo of the day yourself, drop us a line at email@example.com; or see our Flickr favorites page and Instagram account for all the online images we’ve recently liked.
There’s a running joke throughout Greg Egan’s 1994 Permutation City that neatly encapsulates both all the good things and all the bad things about the book in general. Namely, a TV show has recently been created in their day-after-tomorrow world that was specifically designed to sell the just-invented concept of virtual reality to the mouth-breathing masses, a show that’s been deliberately dumbed down to make it more palpable to the slack-jawed yokels, in which crazy fantastical things are always happening within a virtual space that doesn’t even begin to conform to reality, which for anyone familiar with this period in sci-fi history is very, very clearly Egan poking fun of the other cyberpunk novels of those early-’90s years that got a lot more famous than his, like William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. But in the actual virtual reality that all the smart, rich people in Egan’s universe actually do inhabit, the ultimate goal is for the virtual world to match the boring real world as exactly as possible, and the most excited anyone ever gets is when their avatars count out loud from one to ten to check the lag between their time and our own. (Or to quote The Simpsons: “Perfectly level flying is the supreme challenge of the scale model pilot!”)
That says everything you need to know about about Egan as an author, a “hard” science-fiction writer who is also a working mathematics doctorate holder in his day job, and who has built an award-winning and cultishly popular career writing speculative novels that stick as closely to real science as humanly possible. I think that’s great, I want there to be no mistake, and I’m glad that these kinds of books exist for all those science-oriented readers who get frustrated by the “soft” sci-fi books that tend to be the big bestsellers of the genre and have much more of an impact on the general culture. (If you ever want to cause an aneurysm in a hard sci-fi fan, ask them for their opinion on Star Wars.) But that said, hard sci-fi is generally not really my cup of tea — in fact, I doubt I would’ve ever read this unless it had been recommended by a new friend of mine in Chicago, fellow hard sci-fi author Jeremy John — and as a result I found Permutation City to be only a bit above mediocre, with a central premise revolving around quantum mechanics and multidimensional consciousness that might as well have been freaking Hogwarts, as little as I could keep up with the high-level real science being bandied about.#GregEgan's 1994 #PermutationCity falls squarely into hard sci-fi territory, for better and worse Click To Tweet
Unfortunately for hard sci-fi authors, most of us are never going to consider it a thrilling climax when a group of scientists flip a switch, stare at some dots on a computer screen, perform some calculations, then excitedly declare, “It worked! It worked!,” which is why hard sci-fi is fated to always exist on the cultish outskirts of genre literature. And despite his publisher’s best efforts to “sex up” this story, through the cyberpunk-looking cover art and a tagline that has absolutely nothing to do with the actual plot (“Ten Million People On A Chip!”), Permutation City falls squarely into hard sci-fi territory, making it easy to see why his “dumbed-down” ’90s colleagues like Gibson and Stephenson are now well-loved mainstream figures while Egan is still barely known beyond his core fan base of Larry-Niven-loving convention veterans. It should all be kept in mind before picking up a copy yourself.
Today’s photo of the day is entitled “film,” and is by French photographer “La fille renne” (Flickr | Instagram | Facebook | Tumblr | website). To nominate a photo of the day yourself, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org; or see our Flickr favorites page and Instagram account for all the online images we’ve recently liked.
So let’s make no mistake, the only reason Michael Gill’s 2007 memoir How Starbucks Saved My Life is even readable in the first place at all is that he is so relentlessly hard on himself throughout; the very definition of a white upper-class corporate-executive douchebag, he plainly admits here that he was essentially a human monster for reacting to getting laid off in his fifties from his cushy ad-agency job (one he got in the early ’60s literally because drinking buddies at Yale pulled some strings for him) by having an affair behind his wife’s back, accidentally getting his mistress pregnant, then determining that he’s going to “do right” by the child, despite having a 100-percent track record of fucking up the relationships with the three existing grown children he already has, and oh yes, not actually having any health insurance and being essentially homeless.
That’s a lot to swallow in the first 20 pages of a supposed feel-good memoir; and to his credit, writing veteran Gill (son of famed New Yorker writer Brendan Gill) pulls it off, basically by being ceaselessly harsh and unusually clear-eyed about his “pre-barista” life as a neolib one-percenter, the same kind of brutal honesty that inspired him to take a coffee-slinging job at the age of 64 at a Starbucks near Harlem where he was the only white employee (after accidentally attending a hiring fair by the company at one of their Manhattan stores without realizing it, having a young manager ask him as a joke, “I don’t suppose you’re looking for a job, are you?” and he after a moment admitting with candor, “Actually, I am”).
It’s what tips this book over into minimal readability, his zeal to not cut himself any breaks for his entitled childhood, his handshake-based former career, and the cavalier way he used to treat everyone in life who wasn’t a senior corporate executive like him, best seen in his observations about how he himself immediately became invisible to his former co-workers, literally on the sidewalk sometimes when they would walk by him, the moment he put on a polo shirt and a green apron. Unfortunately, though, that still leaves the book with plenty of problems, among the more major being that he sometimes devotes entire chapters to nothing but a detailed, log-like, minute-by-minute breakdown of what a typical day at Starbucks is actually like for an employee, which is the literary equivalent of watching paint dry and had me skipping over huge portions of the manuscript out of pure tedium. (Also, Gill’s infinitely upbeat enthusiasm for the empty StarbucksSpeak handed down from faceless marketing employees at the corporate headquarters [“Partners!” “Guests!” “Venti!”] was enough to make me want to claw out my own eyeballs by about two-thirds of the way through.)#MichaelGill's #HowStarbucksSavedMyLife is a troubling memoir you have to force yourself to like Click To Tweet
It all adds up to an admittedly interesting but still trouble-filled book, one you have to sort of force yourself to like despite the circumstances surrounding the true story, not because of them; and a tale that gets interrupted every time it starts getting good by another reminder of just what a inherent good ol’ boy in a good ol’ boy network Gill is in, despite him taking a slave-wage job in the service industry. (If you’re anything like me, you’ll throw your hands in the air in bitter frustration when learning on the last page that Gill managed to get this book optioned to Hollywood for a million dollars, precisely because of all his personal friends from his ad-agency days, and that it currently has Tom Hanks and Gun Van Sant attached to it.) An insightful book but not nearly as insightful as I had hoped it would be, your own mileage with it will profoundly vary based on who you are, your own age and race, and how much tolerance you have for SVP assholes who shrug their shoulders after a disaster and say, “Sowwwwy!”
I had fully been expecting Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air — in which a 36-year-old neurosurgeon writes a memoir about his own upcoming death by cancer — to be a weepy tearjerker; so it’s a testament to Kalanithi’s writing skills that it’s instead a clear-eyed, thought-provoking intellectual treatise about mortality and why humans react to the subject in the ways they do. Then again, it helps that Kalanithi actually acquired degrees in literature and philosophy before going to med school, and in fact only turned to medicine in the first place in a roundabout way; always fascinated by the human mind and in the ways humans interact with each other, he first spent his twenties delving into the arts to find answers to these subjects, only to realize that the true way to satisfy his curiosity was to directly study the biochemistry of the brain itself, putting himself through a grueling ten-year training ordeal that nearly ended his marriage, just to finally graduate and promptly be informed that he had a year left to live.
Unfortunately, though, the book isn’t very good for the purpose it had been originally been recommended to me; for like most middle-aged children of elderly parents in declining health, I find myself wrestling these days with Big Questions about the end of life, the quality of that life at the end of it, and what the proper way is for both the people at the end of that life and the people around them to react to such developments, and had hoped that this book might shine some light on these weighty issues. Kalanithi’s main conclusion about it all, though, is basically, “Impending death is an inherently confusing, horrifying and baffling thing, and I reacted to it with pretty much all the chaos that everyone else does too…although it did help a little bit to start believing in God again.” (Also, be aware that the last 25 pages of this 225-page book are written by Kalanithi’s wife after his death, sort of summing up what happened once he got too sick to write; and she’s a much worse writer, one who regularly wallows in sentimentality like a 22-year-old suburbanite bathing in cheap cologne before a night at the clubs, making a substantial amount of this book’s total page count easily skippable altogether.)#PaulKalanithi's #WhenBreathBecomesAir is a primer on handling impending death with dignity Click To Tweet
The reason to read this, then, is as a primer on how to handle impending death with a kind of grace, dignity and thoughtfulness that’s rarely seen in people about to die, obviously the main reason the book’s become so popular in the year now it’s been out; but don’t pick it up expecting any kinds of insights on mortality, because Kalanithi has none to give, which obviously is itself a telling statement about whether there actually are any kinds of insights about mortality to share in the first place, but you don’t need to read the whole book simply to know that the answer here is “no.” But that being said, it’s still a really well-done memoir, one that deliberately skips all the easy beats that usually come with this subject in order to deliver something much more intelligent and honest. It comes recommended in that particular spirit.
Out of 10: 8.5
Today’s photo of the day is entitled “The ball church (Ludovico Quaroni), Gibellina Nuova, Sicily, 477,” and is by Italian photographer Tiberio Frascari (Flickr). To nominate a photo of the day yourself, drop us a line at email@example.com; or see our Flickr favorites page and Instagram account for all the online images we’ve recently liked.