Hot Air: Precious Life?

When Death Is Good

Is life always precious? That’s the Q arising out of last week’s brouhaha over post on the xoJane website by someone named Amanda Lauren (possibly a pseudonym) saying, essentially, she was glad a former friend had been found dead.

Lauren wrote:

It sounds horrible to say, but her death wasn’t a tragedy, her life was.

See, the friend was mentally whacked. “It was as if mental illness took demonic possession over her,” Lauren claimed. The two had been close at one time but, Lauren recounts, a couple of personal disagreements and the friend’s inability (acc’d’g to Lauren) to care or provide for herself, her sometimes baffling behavior, her eating disorder and obsession to publicize it, and the friend’s own admission she’d been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder had all combined to sabotage the friendship. The two hadn’t been friends for a few years and then Lauren learned from a third party the friend had been found dead, drowned in a bathtub.

Lauren observed, “I felt like Leah’s [not her real name] death was inevitable. Every box for being a danger to yourself or someone else was checked.” Lauren even characterized the friend’s putative mental illness as “the hand that kept her head below water.”

Lauren concluded, “This girl had nothing to live for.”

Naturally, the interwebs blew up. Lauren was flooded with angry messages and, she claims, she even fielded death threats. Stassa Edwards on Jezebel called the piece “shit.” Rich Juzwiak of Gawker wrote that upon reading Lauren’s piece he was amazed at her “callousness.” Meg Wagner in the New York Daily News also called the piece “callous” and described its subhead “ghastly insensitive.”

The reaction was so swift and universal that xoJane issued a hasty apology and pulled the post from its website. The link to it in the first graf above is from the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

Conceding that Lauren very likely is not qualified to judge whether or not another person’s life is worth living or if their death is indeed “a blessing,” the question remains, Are there people who’d be better off dead?

Merely typing out the question makes me feel like a Nazi. Hitler and his gang firmly believed that physically and mentally “inferior” people ought to be sterilized at the very least and, more optimally, killed. Lauren’s friend “Leah” wasn’t really contributing to society and was making life hell for herself, her parents, and her friends, former and current. She was, in Lauren’s estimation, not worthy of life.

We all might agree that Lauren is full of almighty horseshit. Anyone might have had a flash idea that Leah’s death was a blessing upon hearing the news, but a sober-minded adult would have had the good sense to entertain a second thought. At no point did Lauren say to herself, What if I’m wrong about Leah?

Yet there must be people whose lives are torture, whose continued existence constitutes an unbearable burden. People in constant physical pain. People in unceasing mental anguish. People who can’t resist the urge to set fires to strangers’ homes, sexually molest children, take others’ lives, or who find the screaming voices in their heads intolerable.

If you knew someone lugging around any of the aforementioned burdens, would you conclude after hearing of their demise that their death was a good thing?

An even more compelling question: Would you wish for someone to die so their unhappiness, their pain, their agony could be relieved?

I think of my mother. Almost every time I spoke with her as she approached the very end of her life, she conveyed to me her deep fear that my sibs and I might one day force her to give up her apartment and make her live in a nursing home. “That would be hell,” she said.

She would remind me she was in her 90s yet still was able to take care of herself, clean house, pay her bills. She knew who all her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren were. And she never urinated in the potted plants or the garbage pail under the sink. These, she felt, were great accomplishments for a superannuated woman. Being unable to to live independently would be a fate worse than death.

Then one day she collapsed in her bedroom. As she fell her hips and part of her pelvis shattered. She passed out. By a most cruel coincidence, my brother, who spoke with her pretty much every day (he was the only one of us kids who hadn’t moved out of state), was unable to call her for a couple of days. When he finally did punch in her number, there was no answer. Knowing this was unusual, he dashed over to her apartment and let himself in. He called for her. No answer. He went through the rooms of the place and, when he finally got to her bedroom, he came upon a sight that stole his breath away.

There was Ma, laying on the floor, immobile, staring, her mouth agape, clearly having been stuck in that position for days. Ma, my brother concluded, was dead. He experienced all the panicky grief a son would be expected to feel.

Only Ma wasn’t dead. Somehow she’d survived. The ambulance came. Her hips and pelvis reconstructed as much as possible. The doctors told us she couldn’t live alone anymore. Now unable to walk, unable to care for herself, she would live out the rest of her life in a nursing home.

The hell she always feared.

We closed out her apartment and my brother arranged for her to live in a fine nursing home after she’d be released from the hospital. Only her ordeal on the bedroom floor had changed her irreparably. Her mind faltered. She ranted incoherently at times. She imagined things. She was certain she’d been visited in the hospital by relatives who’d been dead for years.

Finally, one day when it appeared she was lucid, my brother told her about the apartment and the nursing home. She was crushed.

She was released from the hospital after a few months and spent only a couple of weeks in the nursing home. One January Friday evening only four months after her fall, my brother called and said, simply, “Ma’s gone.”

I wrote about her death in this space. I recall suggesting it would have been far better had she died on the floor of her bedroom. After all, I reasoned, she suffered greatly during and after. And my brother, who’d discovered her there, had already experienced the shock of thinking she was dead, even though she wasn’t. That brief moment of grief surely was a blow he’d never forget. He had to go through it again months later.

Then Ma had to experience being displaced from her home. And she must have known she was losing her mind. She suffered plenty of physical pain as well in the few months she had left.

My conclusion: She’d have been better off dead. Dying on her bedroom floor, I reasoned, wouldn’t have been a tragedy. It’d have been a blessing.

Several people in my family were put out by my reasoning. How, they wondered, could I have called for her to die months before she actually did?

Today I wonder if my judgment was as “callous” as Lauren’s. Was my wish Ma’d died in September rather than January “ghastly insensitive”?

I only wanted to spare Ma four months of suffering. I’ll also concede I may well have been very wrong. For all I know, Ma might have wanted to live five more months — five more years, even — despite the pain and the sadness of losing her home and her mind, just to be able to see us kids, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren.

What’s the difference between my thoughts about Ma and Lauren’s thoughts about Leah? I just don’t know.



Prison Nation

How about that son of a bitch Sen. Tom Cotton of goddamned Arkansas (a Republican, of course)? Here’s what he said the other day about America’s prison system:

If anything, we have an under-incarceration problem.

Yeah, good one, Tommy-boy. This holy land has the highest incarceration rate in the freaking world. Let’s slam some more people into the joint. And let’s make sure all of them — not just the vast majority of them as it is now — are black, brown, and poor. Hell, why should they complain? They’ll get a roof over their heads, three squares a day, and the comfort of being surrounded by people exactly like themselves.

May 21st, 22nd, & 23rd Birthdays

The 21st:

Elizabeth Fry — Born Elizabeth Gurney and known as Betsy, Fry was called the “Angel of the Prisons” for her efforts to improve conditions therein. She also established the first homeless shelter in London.

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Fats Waller — Born Thomas Waller, he was one of the originators of the “stride” style of jazz piano playing. The stride style built on the rhythms of ragtime music but expanded it via improvisation. It’s pounding, insistent beat was generated by the repetition of a single bass note followed by a chord played by the left hand. Waller wrote the standards “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and “Honeysuckle Rose.”

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Raymond Burr — Starred in Godzilla, which was actually sort of a remake of an original Japanese film production. Ishirō Honda directed the first movie in 1954 as an allegory for the threat of nuclear warfare. He stated that Godzilla had to be some previously unknown type of creature who couldn’t be stopped by normal means — he was un-defendable, like the bomb. Honda said, “So, I took the characteristics of an atomic bomb and applied them to Godzilla.” American producers two years later took that original film and added footage of a reporter, played by Burr, giving a recorded account of Godzilla’s rampage through Tokyo. The music, the tension, and the realistic existential fear conveyed by Burr made the second version one of the most riveting horror movies I’ve ever seen.

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Williamina Fleming died on May 21st, 1911 — Scottish-American astronomer, she discovered the spectacular Horsehead Nebula. Her mother worked as a maid for Harvard College Observatory astronomer Edward Pickering. He complained often about his male assistants, known as “computers” — they counted and charted celestial objects — saying, “My Scottish maid could do better.” He wound up hiring Williamina when she reached adulthood and she was eventually promoted to lead Pickering’s crew of all-female computers.

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The 22nd:

Richard Wagner — Hitler’s — and Lt. Colonel Kilgore’s — favorite composer.

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Mary Cassatt — American impressionist painter who specialized in images of mothers and children in intimate settings. An early feminist, she resisted the art world’s anti-woman attitudes and celebrated the “New Woman,” an ideal of the independent female who enjoyed accomplishment in the greater world.

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Hergé — Creator of Tintin.

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Hergé (L) With Andy Warhol

Sun Ra — Born Herbert Blount, guitarist, keyboardist, and leader of the Arkestra, Sun Ra pioneered an improvisational style of jazz. He also likely was psychotic — even being diagnosed as such by US Army doctors when he applied for conscientious objector status during World War II. Ra claimed to have been teleported to the planet Saturn as a college student and was advised by the aliens who’d brought him there to drop out of school and, through music, attempt to save the world from chaos.

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On this day in 1967, Langston Hughes died. Author, poet, and civil rights activist, Hughes was a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s. Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and others sought to portray the and the downtrodden black characters. Hughes and many of his colleagues brought to light the tendency of some blacks to discriminate against other blacks based on how dark their skin color was. In the 1930s, Hughes travelled to Russia to make a Soviet-financed documentary of American racism but the project was cancelled when the US recognized the Soviet Union in 1933. Hughes would fight charges he was a communist for the rest of his life.

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May 23rd:

Carl Linnaeus — Created the binomial system — we, for instance, are Homo sapiens (note the two-word classification) — by which biologists, zoologists, botanists, and many other -ists codify all known species. Linnaeus (the Latin version of his Swedish surname, Linné) serves as the type specimen for the species Home sapiens. Type specimens typically are individual samples of each species, preserved and displayed to illustrate exactly what those species are. Since Linnaeus studied himself as the model for our species, he has been named its type specimen. Sadly, his corpse has not been preserved and kept in a lab or museum for us to learn precisely what Homo sapiens is.

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Margaret Wise Brown — Author of more than 100 children’s books, the most famous of which was Goodnight, Moon. Brown died young (aged 42) when, during a medical exam, she flung up her legs to show the doctor how spry she felt. The gesture unloosened an embolism in a leg vein and it migrated to her heart, killing her.

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Robert Moog — A Cornell University PhD in engineering physics, Moog was interested all his life in electronic devices that could make music. He built his own theramin once, an accomplishment he considered his life’s highlight. He invented the Moog synthesizer in the mid-1960s. It was demonstrated at the 1967 Monterey Int’l Pop Festival, earning attention from musicians, and Walter (now Wendy) Carlos’s 1968 album, Switched on Bach, introduced the machine to the record-buying public.

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On this day in 1986, Sterling Hayden died. One of my favorite actors of all time, Hayden’s roles ranged from Capt. McCluskey in The Godfather and Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove… to Dix Handley in The Asphalt Jungle. He was equally at home playing a crooked cop or a deranged general as he was playing a “hooligan” with a gambling addiction. His brief flirtation with the communist party after serving as a decorated Marine in World War II led to him being brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee where he repudiated his communist ties and named names. Later, ashamed of cooperating in the witch hunt, he wrote in his autobiography, “I don’t think you have the foggiest notion of the contempt I have had for myself since the day I did that thing.”

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