Thursday, March 24, 2011

Speaking to death and grief, part 1

The problem isn't that people do not know what to say to you when you tell them that your mother is dying it is that people want to say something wise, moving, insightful or spiritually uplifting.

Perhaps because so many of us are from small families and so few of us have experienced the practical details that attend sickness and death people have trouble understanding the deathbed realities of the grieving family.

The address book

My mother had an old well-thumbed address book. I think she bought it decades ago and over the years she had drawn lines through many of the addresses. In some cases my mother had simply lost touch with the person named but in a heart-breaking number of cases the struck-through addresses had the word "dead" written over them in red ink. But we could not simply pass on because of the red line drawn through the name. That person might still have living parents (unlikely), be survived by a spouse (somewhat less unlikely) or by children and grandchildren. We would search through the ragged address book looking for candidates.

We sat down and made a list of the people who needed to be called and shared the names out amongst us. We discussed what needed to be said and what was better left unsaid. And then we began making the phone calls.

How many times can one say 'my mother is dying?'
How many times times can one politely and patiently answer the questions?

"Are you sure?"
'Yes,' I would say, while thinking, would I call a near stranger to tell them this news were I not sure?"When did you find out?"

'Well,' I would say 'I am fuzzy about the exact day,' while thinking, please please don't be offended that my first response was not to call you.

"Is there anything I can do?"
'No,' I would say, while thinking, if I knew of anything anyone could do for my mother do you not think I would have already asked that it be done.*

You know that these people don't mean to hurt you. They may even think that they are helping you by giving you 'a chance to talk about it.' But talking about it doesn't make you less tired, less worried, less concerned about your father's health, less concerned as to whether your mother is scared or in pain.

Every second talking to someone else is a second you are not spending with your mother. And your mother has very few seconds left. You don't know when she will draw her last breath but you do not want to spend some of those last few precious moments of time telling yet another person 'my mother is dying.'

So you answer the questions with as much speed and as little emotional involvement as possible.

And then you go back to your mother's bedside. Talking didn't help. Sharing didn't help. Answering questions didn't help.

Your mother is still dying.

* There are some wonderful people do don't say vaguely "Is there anything I can do?" but instead make suggestions as to what they could do. This frees you from the fear that you have misunderstood the nature of their offer. "Would you like me to pick up your groceries?" or "Do you need to have any books returned to the library?" are much more useful offers than a vague 'anything.'

Friday, March 11, 2011

Dying isn't easy

They lie to you in movies and on television about what it is like to sit by the deathbed of a loved one. Movies are too short to capture the mixture of exhaustion, boredom, panic, worry and grief that closes in around the people at the bedside.  Television is too episodic to capture the grinding constancy of routinized sorrow. 

A year ago I thought I understood just how wrong are the images of dying we learn in popular culture. I was wrong.

The day after I learned my mother was dying I woke up early. The last I had seen of my mother the night before she had fallen into an fitful uneasy sleep. Since I knew the time of the nursing shift change I wanted to talk to my mother's nurse before she went off duty. A pattern had already been established. I introduced myself to the nurses as they came on shift and if I was not there when they went off shift I called them. 

The speed with which the patterns of hospital time became the patterns of my time was something I had not expected. By the end of the first few days I knew when they gave medications and when they changed the sheets. I knew when they took each patient's temperature and blood pressure and I knew when they gave my mother a bed bath and shampooed her hair. But I didn't know when they fed their patients because my mother would never eat again. 

We don't know exactly how long my mother had been suffering from severe pain after attempting to eat. It wasn't until the night my father found her vomiting blood that he realized how she was ill and insisted that she let him take her to the hospital. Although on the day of her "death sentence" she had been in great pain she was still able to think clearly and discuss her medical situation with her surgeon. Soon the mixture of pain killers and pain left her unable to remember exactly why she was so terribly hungry. 

I quickly learned that tending to a dying person means having to take great care lest you accidentally rip their skin. I learned that tending a dying person means holding their head as they gasp and cough and fight to breathe because they have have accidentally obstructed the ng suction tube. I learned that sitting at the bedside of a dying person meant monitoring their urine bag and their ng collector bag and always knowing the location of every nurse on the floor. I quickly learned that giving comfort and preventing pain was all I could do. 

By the end of the second day of my season of sadness I felt that I had learned much. By the end of that second day I thought I knew exactly how wrong the movies and television were about death bed vigils. I was wrong. There was much more I had yet to learn about exhaustion, worry, pain and grief.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A season of sadness

March 10, 2010. 

That was the moment I learned that my mother was going to die.

Of course I had always know that absent a drastic alteration of the normal laws of our universe that either we would die at the same moment or one of us would outlive the other. Unless I took up a career more dangerous than that of an academic  the odds were that I would outlive my mother.

Intellectually understanding something and actually knowing it in your gut are two different things.

I remember being at the dinner table in my house when the phone rang. I remember hearing my father's voice giving me the news. I remember arriving at my parents' home and finding my father in an almost pitch black apartment,  frantically looking through drawers and file folders for a mislaid hospital card. I have no memory of the hour and a half car drive that took place between those two moments of time.

My mother had made the decision not to undergo an operation that she was unlikely to survive. Without the operation she could not live. She had always been a fighter but she had no fear of death. She wanted a chance to say goodbye to those she had loved most and to those who loved her most. As much as it is possible for someone who has outlived most of her friends and much of her family she did so. 

But she did not go swiftly into that good night. She had no fear of death but she had never given up on a fight in her life and she was not about to do so now. The doctors gave her days to live. She lived for more than a month.

So this is my season of sadness as each day brings me closer to the anniversary of her death.


Friday, March 4, 2011

Who benefits from democracy?

To the reader who might  wonder what I meant in a previous post when I talked about  the "framing" of a news story I direct their attention to a CNN piece I watched February 27th of this year.

The question leading into Fareed Zakaria's commentary was:

  "who benefits from democracy in the middle east, Iran or the United States"

Zakaria gave the following explanation to his audience of what 'led to' the current unrest in the Middle East:

two American shifts have taken place that have unlocked the region. First, after 9/11 Washington become acutely aware that supporting middle eastern dictatorships had a down side. It was breeding an extreme anti-American opposition movement that had embraced terrorism, al-Qaeda, so the United States began pushing its allies towards reform and offered much less  unqualified support for the dictatorships and monarchies of the middle east. Second, American power itself was waning--Iraq, Afghanistan, the financial crisis-- all showed that the US was an exhausted superpower. The result? The United States is less willing and less able to play the old imperial role and prop up the old regimes. [1]

I admit that as the SO and I sat and watched this we yelled, in unison at the television set "The people benefit from democracy -- that what the word means."[2]

Notice how the question is framed. 

First, the unspecified audience member to whom this question was addressed is fairly clearly not the average middle eastern resident. There are many legitimate questions that Zakaria could ask such a resident about the outcome of the protests. He could ask "do you think that these protests will make the life of your family, on the whole, easier or safer?" He could ask "do you think that the United States or Iran will be more or less friendly to the government of your country in the aftermath of these protests?" But he asked neither of those questions.

Notice how the 'resident of the middle east' has been moved from the center of hir own story. That which happens to hir is judged and valued in terms of what it means for other governments and other peoples.

Second, the question is framed as a dichotomy. It is framed as a zero-sum game. Either the United States benefits or Iran benefits. Thus anything that might be seen to not benefit the United States is presumed to benefit Iran (that which does not make us stronger makes them stronger.) The consequences of the protests in the Middle East must then be examined to determine if they might benefit Iran. If they do benefit Iran then they cannot benefit America and therefore should not be encouraged--even though they may bring great benefit to the actual residents of the Middle East.

Third, it changes the story from one of Egyptians or Tunisians or Libyans acting to one of Egyptians or Tunisians or Libyans reacting. People are being beaten, jailed and hounded in their attempts to win liberty and justice--and their actions are framed as being due to shifts in American policy and strength.

So I wondered how a typical member of Zakaria's American audience would react to a documentary about the American revolution that opened and closed with the following question:
"Who benefited most from the American revolution, France or Germany?" How would that typical American react to seeing the history of hir own revolution told without even a mention in passing of the names of the founding fathers? How do you think the typical American would feel if they learned that in the history books of European countries scholars explained that the American revolution occurred due to a shift in the balance of power between France, Germany and Spain?

Well, that is how many people in the Middle East feel whenever they get a glimpse of what passes for news coverage and commentary in the United States.

[1] Fareed Zakaria. CNN. GPS. Feb. 27, 2011. 

[2] You know you were meant to be together when you find yourself responding in unison to annoying people on television. 

A place for friends to meet and talk


Thursday, March 3, 2011

Watching the Watchers

As is true for many Canadians Al Jazeera  is part of my normal cable package. I would not be surprised if many Canadians had up until the recent protests in the Middle East been unaware of the fact that their television package included this channel.

I first started watching Al Jazeera on a regular basis just after Christmas because I was frustrated at the limited coverage other news outlets were giving to the protests in the streets of cities across the Middle East. Although I wasn't sure what the real story was I was sure that asking a limited number of white, male, non-Arabic speaking pundits to explain things was not the shortest and surest way to find out. 

I soon developed a mental catalog of the news channels available to me.

CNN  was at its best a good conduit of the 'received wisdom' of the American elite. One quickly learned that the 'received wisdom' was not particularly wise if by that word one means 'full of insight as to what is actually happening on the ground and with a better than average ability to predict the fallout of current events.'  What CNN gave me, when they bothered to cover the news from Tunisia or Egypt or Libya, was a clear enough picture of how the government/punditocracy of the United States thought about things that I could make fairly informed predictions as to how they would respond to the unfolding crisis.

Notice however, the phrase 

when they bothered to cover the news from Tunisia or Egypt or Libya 

since at what seemed to me rather inexplicable moments the news editors at that channel would decide to cover some other event. 

The cynical part of me decided that the best way for Egyptians to make sure that the news of their government sending thugs into the streets to attack peaceful protesters to get banner coverage in the United States would be to threaten or hold hostage prominent American reporters. Sadly what happened when CNN did realize that some of their reporters were quite seriously in harm's way was that the story soon came to focus on the American reporters rather than the events they had come to report on.

I am not surprised that CNN is driven by / responsive to parochial concerns however I do feel that they should dial back on their self-satisfied gravitas given the fact they they seem now to be equal parts 'unofficial platform for the chattering classes / government' and 'tabloid television.'

CBC/CTV Both the Canadian news channels had adequate coverage of the world shaking events happening. They did have reporters on the ground reporting things they actually witnessed as opposed to repeating things told to them by 'inside sources' however the scope and depth of the reportage was limited. I understand why so much of their concern was basically parochial (what is happening to Canadians in that part of the world / how will these events effect Canada) however I think that this was one of the times when the networks should have risen above short term parochialism in order to fulfill their greater parochial duty -- to make sure that their Canadian audience was well educated about events around the world.

The BBC did a good job compared to CNN or the Canadian news channels. They had more people on the ground in the area than did the Canadian or American channels and they had more access to the intelligentsia of the Arab-speaking diaspora than did their North American counterparts. Still, there was an aspect of their coverage (outside of the usual criticisms lodged against them) I had a problem putting into words until events in other parts of the world (specifically the earthquake in New Zealand) clarified it to me. What happened in New Zealand was, without question, horrible and yet the amount of time the BBC devoted to it seemed disproportionate to the amount given to events happening elsewhere in the world. Now it isn't surprising that the BBC would give more coverage to an event that happened in a commonwealth country heavily populated by expatriates whose descendants speak (almost) the same language. The problem is that BBC "sees" and presents the world through occidental eyes. They don't just give disproportionate coverage to things that happen in their own political/cultural backyard -- they have a specific and identifiable way of cataloging and evaluating world events. This is sometimes a subtle matter of line readings on the part of news readers or of the ordering of stories. It may be a matter of the implied lack of respect given to the people around the news reporter or the willingness to intrude on the private sorrow, grief and pain of those around them.

I started watching Al Jazeera because I wanted to see the pictures that weren't being carried on the Canadian or American channels and, if nothing else, I wanted to avoid the endless focus on cricket [1] on the BBC. (For those who haven't had a chance to watch Al Jareeza it streamed on the net both in Arabic and in English.) The coverage over the last few months has focused on the Middle East but they cover news from all over the world. They didn't ignore the earthquake in New Zealand, they carried news of the Super Bowl, they interviewed American political figures, they had a look-in at the Oscars. However, all of these stories are covered without the subtle occidental / western filtering and shading that I noticed at the BBC.

Would I make the claim that Al Jazeera is objective? Of course not. Neither is the BBC nor CNN nor the CBC. However I think it is vitally important at this moment in history for us in the 'western world' to be able to get news about the non-western world from a range of sources western and non-western. We need to stop seeing the non-occidental world only through occidental eyes.

Note to anyone who is thinking at this point 'what about Fox News?" Given the sorry level of basic fact checking and the open support of individuals and parties involved in American politics I do not consider FOX a source of news. My only interest in it would be see how they were going to frame events or to check to see if they had even acknowledged the fact that something had happened.

And now - a special comment on CNN.

CNN, like many news channels, mediates and frames its news coverage. I am not sure that most of its watchers are aware of how deeply that impacts their understandings of what is happening in the world. More than once in the last few weeks I have been watching someone giving a speech in Tripoli or Cairo and I turned to CNN to find that the speech wasn't being shown. At best there might be a crawl across the bottom of the screen announcing, for example, that Gaddafi was speaking on Libyan state television. Then a commentator would appear and tell the audience members what to think about that speech. 

I, like many of the people who were watching the BBC or Al Jazeera as Gaddafi spoke, understand no more than a few words in Arabic however I learned much by watching the Colonel speak. Of course, his words were being simultaneously translated, but I could also see and hear him. I could notice the times he seemed at a loss for words and also make note of how often when Libyan state television cut away from him he was silent.  I could compare his body language with that of earlier televised appearances. None of this was possible when the coverage was not of him but of other people telling me about him.

CNN was standing between me and a news event. This is common on almost all American news channels. They do not show you the speech: they show you clips of the speech and then tell you how to understand it.

And because they do not show you the raw, unmediated event they deny you access to the data you need in order to answer some very important questions:

Do these people actually understand events better than do you?
Could you make equally good (or bad) predictions given the same information they have?
Could you make better predictions given the same information they have?

[1] Although, truth to told, Al Jazeera also covers cricket too much for my taste. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Book Review: High Rising

High Rising by Angela Thirkell (1933)

I found this book such a delight that I was torn as to how to read it. The writing and characterizations were so enjoyable that I didn’t want to put the volume down and yet I wanted to set it down every once in a while just to delay the moment when I arrived at the last line of the last page. Now having finished it I am seized with the desire to wave it under someone’s nose and declaim (loudly) this is the way to write a really good comedy of manners!

High Rising is the second Angela Thirkell I have read and I read it immediately after reading Ankle Deep. Both books were published in 1933 (in the order in which I read them) and represent her first two novels although she had already written shorter fiction and published an autobiography. As a first time Thirkell reader it seemed reasonable to expect to see little change in writing style or tone between the two books and yet the differences were immense. I appreciated Ankle Deep but I thoroughly enjoyed High Rising. Although one might expect (for the reader who knew very little about Thirkell background) that High Rising would more prone to the dangers of the “authorial stand in” than Ankle Deep this seems not to be the case. The events that unfold over the course of the book are seen through the eyes of (and concerns of) Mrs. Morland. Laura Morland is a successful novelist who, the reader learns, specializes in murder mysteries that take place in the world of high fashion. Morland approaches her writing as a job and has no pretensions to being even a middle-brow writer. She took up writing in order to support her family of four sons after the death of her husband and clears sees it as a profession not a vocation.

Thirkell was clearly a woman of a particular class and education writing principally about other people of the same class, education and social mores. Morland’s attitudes about social place and education are not in advance of the social upheavals that a reader can see, armed with the prescience that comes from reading a book 80 years after it was published, looming in England’s future. Nor is Morland portrayed as one of those people who cling to “the old ways” as if they could, by doing so, will change away. Indeed it would be fair to say that for the most part Morland simply does not think about such things at all. 

Thirkell does not situate Morland as an unreliable narrator although she does use the contrivance of having characters misunderstand situations, events or other characters. The book is written in the third person subjective/limited form in which the reader finds hirself seeing the world through the eyes/experiences of some, but not all, of the characters. The reader comes to learn/ is trained to understand that Laura believing something to be true does not necessarily mean that it is indeed true. What is true is that Laura actually feels those things which the narrative voice tells the reader she feels. To some extent the divide between those whose inner thoughts are shared with readers and those who are presented only from the outside is determined by social standing. The reader is privy both to the physical facts of Mrs. Morland’s interactions with Miss Grey and Mrs. Morland’s perceptions and understandings of those interactions. However the reader is never given a direct glimpse into the mind of Miss Grey herself. Because the actual interactions are well described the reader can fairly easily step back and consider for hirself the justice or value of Mrs. Morland’s interpretations of and reactions to people and events.

The care with which Thirkell lays out what Joe Friday would refer to as “just the facts” wedded to an interesting cast of characters and a lightly constructed and well-paced plot result in a book that is a good example of what a comedy of manners should be. Thirkell avoids the overreliance on coincidences which often mars books of this type and her characters are, from their first appearance, both true enough to stereotype that the reader has no trouble accepting their actions and attitudes and individual enough that the reader does not confuse them with different characters in this or other books.

In short this is an engaging and well written book. Additionally, this is a book that can be read in different ways—therefore:

Beyond here there lie spoilers.