Tag Archives: memoir

Why I Support Medical Aid in Dying – death of a friend

I remember…

Karl (not his real name) was my friend from 1975 until he died in 1997. He was a retired Professor of Physics and an avid tinkerer, installing solar hot water on his house in 1976! We were neighbors, and in lived in identical tract houses. Whenever something went wrong at my house (plumbing, or birds nesting in the dryer outlet), I called Karl and he told me how to fix it.

Karl and his wife moved away in 1987, but we kept in touch. Karl was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease around 1990. It was treated with some success, but inevitably, over time, it progressed. Karl hated dropping things, and stumbling. He detested the idea of losing his independence and wanted control of his fate.

In January of 1997, Karl shot himself in the head. This action was carefully and thoughtfully planned, though not explicitly announced in advance. He made sure his wife was not alone when his body was found.

Karl died alone, and he died by violence. These two circumstances were in total contradiction to his life and values. Karl was sociable and extensively connected to family and friends, and certainly he was never violent. What a shame that he had no better choice. What a shame that my memory of him is darkened by the grim thought that at least he got it right on the first try.

Please, listen to that again.  At least he got it right on the first try. Something is profoundly wrong when this is the best that a dying person can hope for.

I doubt that New Jersey’s new (and still controversial) Aid in Dying law would have helped Karl. Would any doctor attempt to project the life span of a person suffering from Parkinson’s disease? Possibly not. But, as medical science continues to prolong life, we need to consider and reconsider how best to support human dignity and autonomy at the end of life.

 To brighten my dear friend’s memory, a cheerful anecdote: One day I spotted Karl in the restaurant next to the local Post Office, drinking coffee. I didn’t have time to stop for a cup, but I dashed in. “Karl, let me smell your coffee!” I inhaled deeply over his cup – wonderful! We exchanged 30 seconds of news and I rushed off. Unfortunately, I was recognized by somebody as “that lady from the Health Department” and a rumor started that there was something wrong with the water, or the coffee, or the restaurant! I had to reassure anxious neighbors that no health department ever evaluated drinking water (or coffee) by smelling it.

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“Rough Magic: Riding the World’s Loneliest Horse Race” by Lara Prior-Palmer

Every heard of the Mongol Derby? Nope, neither did I. In fact, I was unaware of the sport of equestrian endurance racing.

The (modern) Mongol Derby originated in 2009, but is based on the sophisticated communication system created by Genghis Khan in 1224. Messengers on horseback connected Khan’s vast empire. Every year a new route is selected for the modern 1000 kilometer, multiday race. Each rider mounts a different horse daily, selected from those at a “horse station” in the Mongolian outback.

Ms. Prior-Palmer won the race in 2013, the first woman to win and the youngest competitor to that date. Her account is gripping. She was an experienced rider, but this race was an exceptional challenge in harsh, isolated terrain. Her book subtitle refers to loneliness. Riders are on their own most of the time, and language issues complicate their stays with nomad families along the course.

Much of the structure of the race is designed to protect the horses. Riding is restricted to certain hours, and veterinarians check on their condition (most heart rate) after each 40 kilometer segment.

It’s interesting to learn about the nomads still living traditionally on the Mongolian steppe, and to get some feel for the Mongol empire at its peak.

If you like travel, adventure or Asian history, you will enjoy this book.

PS – The 2019 Mongol Derby was won by a 70 year old Robert Long of Boise, Idaho. The race, which had 41 competitors, ended on August 14. Long described the race as a “death march”.

“When I Was White – A Memoir” by Sarah Valentine

 

Another lucky grab from the “New Arrivals” shelf at my local library. Sarah Valentine was a mixed race child born into an otherwise white American family.

Ms. Valentine’s childhood was in most respects idyllic – suburbia, good schools, friends, family (including two younger brothers). Her parents were devoted to their children. She was athletic as well as academically talented.

Her parents kept from her the fact that she had a different father from her two younger brothers. She was told that her skin tone (darker than her brothers) and relatively curly hair came from her father’s Greek and Italian ancestors. There’s too much for me to summarize here. Ms. Valentine still identified as white when she finished college, but considered herself African American or multiracial when she finished her PhD (in Russian literature) at Princeton University.

One thread running though is book is the power of secrets. The choice to keep a secret, to withhold important information from another person, is weighty. Secrecy distorted Ms. Valentine’s relationship with her mother and greatly troubled her brothers.

Ms. Valentine was a very high achieving child and continued to earn academic honors during college and graduate school. In this respect, she reminds me of Michelle Obama, whose memoir I reviewed on December 14, 2018. I wonder if the two ever met? Each is a very accomplished woman, but Ms. Obama has never had to wonder who she was or where she came from. Her identity was secure, though she occasionally encountered criticism for being “too white”. Ms. Obama, who has spent at least 15 years in the public eye, may envy Ms. Valentine’s “private citizen” status.

“When I Was White” is a wonderful, energetic autobiography and a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion of race in our country.

“Drawing Fire – A Pawnee, Artist and Thunderbird in World War II” by Brummett Echohawk with Mark R Ellenbarger

University Press of Kansas, 2018, 215 pages plus Glossary (Native American Terms and Phrases, also designations of weapons), Dramatis Personnae (Echohawk and his comrades used both Native and mainstream names, as well as tribal affiliations) and Index. More than one hundred portraits, sketches and photographs.

In early June, my local public library featured a display of books about World War II, in honor of the D-Day anniversary. I grabbed two books. Drawing Fire caught my attention because of the generous inclusion of artwork, most produced on the battlefield by the author.

Don’t you love the name Echohawk? Brummett Echohawk was born in 1922, into a Pawnee family long connected with the American military. At age 18, he joined the Oklahoma National Guard. His unit, which included more than 1000 Native Americans, was deployed in the retaking of Italy in 1943. This memoir is a battlefield classic.

Echohawk identified as both a soldier and a warrior, bringing TWO lives, languages, skill sets and worldviews into the war. “Warrior” carries profound cultural/spiritual weight in addition to what English speakers generally mean by “soldier”. In addition to being bilingual, the Pawnee (and members of other tribes) used sign language (hand signs) which improved their communications. They also used animal calls to communicate between units, usually just to say “We’re here, good night” but occasionally to warn of danger.

It’s not clear to me just how Echohawk wrote these memoirs. Diaries and journals are discouraged (forbidden?) on the battlefield, because they could reveal classified information to the enemy. Echohawk was a diligent artist, drawing at every opportunity. Some of his sketches are on stationery provided by the Red Cross – many are tattered and stained. Most are annotated with names and locations. He sketched prisoners of war as well as soldiers from various allied nations. Many of his subjects were his closest friends, not all of whom survived.

The recapture of Italy was grueling and sometimes seemed impossible. At one point, Echohawk’s infantry division was told to prepare for the possibility of being overrun and captured. He ripped out the front page of his Bible, because it identified his Army unit, but then he hid it in a sketchpad. The native American fighters discussed their dilemma – Pawnee warriors (who call themselves “Men of Men”) do not surrender, but American soldiers follow orders, surrendering if their superiors tell them to.

The war ground on and on. Everything was in short supply, even water. The soldiers rigged improvised weapons and haunted the first aid stations (from which the injured were being evacuated) to replace their destroyed uniforms and to scavenge parts for their guns. The scale of waste and suffering and loss is hard to comprehend.

Echohawk survived the Italian campaign, returned home and died in 2006, after a distinguished career as artist and illustrator. Read this book!

 

 

 

Memories of high school English with Mrs. Gerhardt (1964-65)

One day my sophomore English class convened to find, on each desk, a blank piece of paper. Our teacher wore a serious expression. “Today is lottery day”, she announced. We silently shuffled our mental files, arriving quickly at Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery that we had read earlier in the year. We looked at Mrs. Gerhardt inquiringly. She told us to turn over our papers – she had one, too. A young woman had the black spot. Another pause. Mrs. Gerhardt crumpled her paper and threw it at the chosen victim. We followed suit, littering the classroom.

There was a collective sigh… Release of tension? Discussion followed. The “victim” was asked how she felt. “I knew you wouldn’t really hurt me.” My high school did not protect us from controversial and potentially upsetting literature. Wikipedia tells me that The Lottery (published in 1948) was so unpopular and notorious that it was banned in some jurisdictions, and Jackson received hate mail. Some would define the theme as “it can’t happen here”.

How many teachers can teachers can plan a class that you remember FIFTY YEARS later? Mrs. Gerhardt was a wonderful, stimulating teacher. She took us seriously as readers and writers.

Sophomore year was reserved for American literature, with the usual deviations. Every year, we read one play from Shakespeare (sophomore year, maybe it was MacBeth), worked our way through a grammar text identified only by the name of the author (Warriner), and gobbled up vocabulary from a book calledWorld Wealth. We got SO good at grammar and vocabulary! That left at least 70% of our classroom time for other pursuits.

What did we do? We read! Sometimes we read plays. I was cast as the mother in Our Town by Thornton Wilder. Two boys with theatrical inclinations performed Edward Albee’s Zoo Story. And once each semester, we had a “Folk Day”. We prepared and shared whatever we wanted, so long as it had some relationship to American folk culture. This was in the day of the “hootenanny”, of folksingers Peter, Paul and Mary, of Bob Dylan. Folk Day was wildly popular. A friend and I sang an old English folk song, a love ballad, accompanying ourselves with guitar and recorder.

Searching for something that didn’t require a partner, I stumbled on the book Over Their Dead Bodies – Yankee Epitaphs and History by T Mann and J Green. Great! It qualified for Folk Day. But I had a problem. One of the epitaphs struck me so funny that I couldn’t read it aloud without cracking up. I de-sensitized myself by repeating it over and over, until I could recite it with a straight face. This planted it permanently in my brain:

Under the sod and under the trees

Lies the body of Jonathan Pease.

He is not there, there’s only the pod.

Pease shelled out and went to God.

Really?! Was the author kidding us? Has anyone else got such a silly bit of drivel stuck in his/her brain from decades ago? Please share under comments. Using Amazon, I confirmed that this book was published in 1962. Used copies are available! Genealogy fans take notice.

I already wrote about the journals Mrs. Gerhardt required of us. See my blog entry of July 8, 2016. Fifty years of my journal writing has been consigned to a reliable archive.

Another activity from sophomore English was the Book of the Month competition. I think it actually happened four times a year. This wasn’t just an oral book report. You had to “sell” your book as the “best” book, make everyone want to read it. The class voted, and two books (there were two sections of Honors English) would be posted as winners. Once I went all out. I read Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis, and plugged it as exciting and patriotic. And I won! But the other class, in a fit of mischief, all agreed to vote for someone who did a terrible job on a perfectly awful sounding book. Mrs. Gerhardt, offended, posted my name and winning title/author in lonely splendor on the classroom bulletin board.

Rest in Peace, Mrs. Gerhardt! You enriched our lives and kept us busily occupied through a year of adolescence.

If YOU had a wonderful teacher in high school, please share!

“The Fly Trap” by Fredrik Sjoberg, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal

Published in 2004. Translated from Swedish in 2014 by Thomas Teal. Paperback by Vintage Books, 2014. 278 pages.

The Fly Trap by [Sjöberg, Fredrik]

This cheerful book delves into two of my amateur interests, entomology (the biology of insects) and art history (with emphasis on art theft and forgery). I hang out with entomologists, and visit art museums casually.

The Fly Trap is both memoir and biography. As Sjoberg’s personal memoir, it is the first volume of a trilogy. The next two books are The Art of Flight (2016) and The Raisin King. One reviewer suggests that these three books might also be categorized as travel, natural history, popular science or even poetry.

The “fly trap” of the title is a collecting device used by entomologists and called the Malaise trap. It is named after it’s inventor, Rene Malaise (1892 – 1978). According to Wikipedia, Malaise was an eccentric Renaissance man, and little was written about him before Sjoberg produced somewhat biographical this book.

Sjoberg is described (by Wikipedia) as

  • entomologist
  • literary and cultural critic
  • translator (If you are Swedish, do you have any choice?)
  • author

Malaise was

  • entomologist
  • explorer (Siberia)
  • art collector
  • inventor
  • geologist (one time defender of the Lost Continent of Atlantis)

With a mix like this, the book was bound to be interesting. It is enhanced by Sjoberg’s whimsical, non linear style. While studying Malaise, Sjoberg “caught” the art collecting passion, described in the book’s final chapter.

I pay attention to authors mentioning other authors. In one chapter (entitled “Slowness”), Sjoberg mentions (at least) three authors:

  • Lars Noren – Czech born French writer, still living
  • Milan Kundera – Swedish playwright, still living, best known for The Unbearable Lightness of Being
  • D H Lawrence – English, 1885-1930, best known for Lady Chatterly’s Lover

I recommend this book if you like the out of doors, natural history and/or bugs. Also books, art and travel.

“The Book Shopper – a Life in Review” by Murray Brown

This book is fun, and useful to anyone looking for suggestions in the category of modern fiction and (to a lesser extent) non-fiction. Brown and I have several things in common. We’re both frustrated book reviewers. We both have blogs. His is at www.thebookshopper.org Neither of us is listed in Wikipedia. Or if Murray Brown IS there, he’s lost among a crowd of other people with the same name.

The memoir aspects of this book are as interesting as his opinions about books. One early influence was his grandmother, who loved books, patronized her local library and eventually asked her grandson to pass along his copies of the New York Times Book Review.

Did you ever hear of “competitive reading”? In eighth grade, Brown (unable to win distinction as an athlete) decided to read the most books of any pupil in his class. At the end of the school year, he received a trophy. Would he have been happier with a free meal at Pizza Hut, the bribe offered to my sons in elementary school?

One way or another, some of us get hooked on books.