Sunday, October 16, 2011

What is Death

I've only had to declare death a couple of times. Once in a three-year-old and once in an adult. In each case the heart had stopped beating. Death was clear.

Brain death is tougher to cope with, both clinically and psychologically. I imagine it would make anyone want to say, at some point, "Are you sure? Are you really sure? How do you know? How can you be sure?" Some times when brainstem function is gone and seems clearly irretrievable, there remains a good, strong heartbeat. Strong. Vital signs vigorous.

At one point this month, as I often do around Halloween, I was watching an old episode of the T.V. Show Ghost Whisperer. I enjoy ghost stories. I think whether or not one believes in a soul that can live on after bodily death, ghost stories can be interesting and appealing because everyone can relate to the feeling of being haunted or wanting to haunt. Even the impulse to visit places we haven't seen in years is this kind of gravitation toward haunting. The place still haunts us, and we want to return to haunt it for bit.

In this episode the main character, who is able to see and speak to spirits, receives signs and visions from a man whose body is in a coma but whose soul longs to break free and move on. His family is reluctant to remove life support, so he remains tethered, unable either to wander as an earthbound spirit or cross into a realm of peace that lies beyond this world. Every time I walk into an ICU I think of this episode. Even if ghosts and spirits don't exist, how can we know whether some remote corner of a patient's consciousness feels this sense of being trapped, tethered to ventilators and tubes?

If a family makes a decision to release their loved one and permit the life-giving gift of organ donation, I think of how painful it must be to leave the bedside for the last time. I've heard the sobbing of parents and siblings as I've waited to bring a brain-dead person to the O.R. for organ removal. I've watched a woman tearfully thank the doctors and nurses on her way out of the ICU for the last time as she leaves her sister in our care. I've looked down at someone younger than myself, thinking, "Your life was just starting," and felt sick and sad. Yet the automatic drill sergeant in my mind kicks right in: Not now. No time for feelings now. You have a job to do. Make sure all the families waiting for new beginnings today have the best, most well-cared-for organs you can help this patient provide. But I feel sick, I want to say. I want to cry. No. No sick. No cry. You do what you have to do and cry later. So that's what I do.

Anyone who wonders why an anesthesiologist would be needed for organ donation by a brain-dead person clearly has no grasp of what an anesthesiologist's job is. An anesthesiologist's job is to keep a patient's organs well-perfused and well-oxygenated. Usually this is synonymous with keeping a patient alive under anesthesia. In this special case, it means keeping the patient's heart and lung functions stable so that the donated organs can continue to give life in another or several others. I won't lie and say this type of case feels just like any other, even like just another cardiac case. It doesn't. It's strange. The patient is dead in the ways that matter most to his or her loved ones but alive in ways that will matter to others. Dead but not completely dead. I am taking care of a living shell of someone. A body that is dying and that eventually will come to a full stop.

For the anesthesiologist that moment comes when surgeons cross-clamp the aorta (and, if the heart is being removed, cut the heart out). After that, we can just walk out of the room. For the transplant surgeons it's just the beginning; after about four hours of harvesting they must rendez-vous with the organs and recipients at their respective medical centers and keep operating for eight or ten more hours, this time to put the harvested organs into hopeful people who have been waiting for this new start. For us, though, it's time to turn off the machine and leave the patient behind: the only time we ever leave a patient unattended in the room. This always feels eerie and wrong, but after all, what is there to do, when there is no beating heart left, no circulation, no breathing? And at some point, there is an almost-palpable change in the energy in the room. The person does indeed become a shell, with none of the vibe given off by a living individual.

Afterward all sorts of thoughts swirl around. What if that had been my loved one? Or me? What would I have wanted done, or done differently? I had ice cream last week. I hugged the person I love most in the world last night. This person will never do either again. I want to see Florence again before I depart the universe. I want to make croissants from scratch. I want to hear my son play the Bach Double Violin concerto, which he's starting to work on. I want to laugh really hard at a play with my daughter. What else should be on my bucket list? The thoughts just keep coming, when there's time and space for them, and Mr. Mental Drill Sergeant no longer needs to keep me task-oriented.

Organ removal is even more humbling, I think, than cardiac surgery. It's a concrete reminder of our own fragility and our tenuous hold on life. Lately I've been researching my children's ancestry on their father's side as well as mine, and as I go back and back and back many generations, and see birth dates and death dates and marriages - all huge events when we go through them, but mere drops in the ocean of time when you see them listed over the years - I can't help but think of how paradoxical it is that we are so small and insignificant, yet so dear and so meaningful. I also realize that what we pass on in terms of ideas and good actions is so much more important that what we pass on chromosomally. Our lives are so brief, then death comes for us all. There's no avoiding it. This moment is all we have.

Time to go and make the most of it.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


images by Reuters, Doug Kanter, Shannon Stapleton, and Joe Raedle

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Moving Beyond Mammy: Why I Strongly Disagree With Some Criticisms of The Help

I read Kathryn Stockett's novel The Help two years ago, when it first became a literary sensation. I loved and was astounded by it; it quickly became one of my favorite books of all time, among novels like Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer, Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting, Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, Mark Salzman's Lying Awake, and now also Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants. It was unexpectedly very personal for me. I grew up in a society where the privileged have help, the help wear uniforms and eat in the kitchen and call their employers their "masters," and in some families the kids are taught "not to get too friendly with the help." I was lucky, though, and had someone like Constantine (portrayed by Cicely Tyson in the photo above): a woman I bonded with who's like a second mom to me, who's now been in our family for forty years and whom I love with all my heart, and who I know loves me with all of hers. Because of her I learned that love transcends a lot of barriers people can try to erect in various situations.

My brief mention of The Help in a blog post from when I first read it in 2009 summarizes the major themes that made me like it so much: "story and story-telling, truth and lies, having a voice and keeping silence and secrets, writing and how it transforms both writer and reader, and the true meaning of dignity and of significance." It's also, one of my friends adds, about "the power you get over your own story when you break the secrets and silence." She and I read it as READERS, I might even venture to say students of literature - but not as scholars of history. For this reason, critics who have blasted both the book and the movie for (supposedly) failing to be true to the historical times in which the novel is set, and for not focusing on Black History and the sufferings endured by Blacks in the South in the 1960's, have irritated me profoundly. The book was not written to be a documentary about the Civil Rights Movement. It was written to be the story of the intertwining lives of three very different, complex, and compelling women. Novels are about CHARACTERS and novel writing is and should be entirely focused on who those characters are and how those identities drive what happens to them.

No one should presume to tell an author, "Your character should have done this" or "done that." Only the author knows her characters well enough to know why those characters do what they do; she then opens up their lives to us in moments, and we can get to know those characters, but not with the intimacy and authority to be able to dictate what their actions should have been. Any such criticisms are projections by readers, which may be out of keeping with the characters' identities and completely untrue to the world of the book. And that, right there, is the problem: people with an axe to grind couldn't accept a CREATED world, the world of the novel, but rather wanted it to be the world as THEY would have it or depict it.

I read the Open Statement to Fans of The Help by Ida E. Jones, National Director of the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH) and a review by journalist and University of Georgia professor Valerie Boyd, who wrote Wrapped in Rainbows: the Life of Zora Neale Hurston. I sincerely respect the fact that they know much more than most of us about African American history, and I appreciated being educated on perspectives that might not have occurred or been familiar to me, but I couldn't agree with many of the statements they made. Some of them annoyed me because they missed the point, and because by being so ready to criticize the work - perhaps even before reading the book or seeing the film, like some of their commenters, and perhaps because it was not written by a Black woman? - these critics willfully obviated the possibility of appreciating its many gifts.

The ABWH statement asserts, "Portraying the most dangerous racists in the 1960's Mississippi as a group of attractive, well-dressed society women, while ignoring the reign of terror perpetuated by the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, limits racial injustice to individual acts of meanness." What a short-sighted attitude. Stockett clearly did not set out to portray "the most dangerous" racists or write another Mississippi Burning. It's unfair to paint her as intentionally "ignoring" the more violent aspects of the 1960's simply because her novel is about the moments behind closed doors, about diaries and journaling, about words on pieces of paper. I thought that was the very beauty of her novel - that it's about these non-spotlighted things. Does EVERY author who chooses to write about Black women have to have a scene in her novel with a burning cross? Is that a requirement? I thought the special thing about this book WAS its focus on the tiniest moments - it's about the little things that aren't so little. The WHOLE POINT of it is that racism isn't just in KKK violence but ALSO, and perhaps even more insidiously, in the fake smiles of the well-dressed hypocrites and the not-so-hidden sneers of day-to-day interactions.

I also COMPLETELY disagree with the description of any of the characters as "asexual, loyal, contented caretakers of whites." There are no Mammies in Stockett's book - just real-seeming, complex women with courage and heart. Each African-American woman in the book had an identity and a personality. There aren't well-developed male characters, but I think it's because another big POINT of this book is the power and impact of WOMEN's relationships with each other - the focus was, rightly, on Skeeter, Abilene, and Minny.

Many object to the fact that a Black male in the book is an abusive alcoholic. This, too, I find immature: the need for only positive portrayals when a given negative element is important to the story. Do people really think just because African Americans suffered for years, and continue to suffer in many ways still, that there were no wife-beaters among them, as there were among Caucasians, back in the 60's? Do all writers have to walk on egg shells and give terrible traits only to white people in their novels? This kind of reverse racism demonstrates some pretty stunted growth. The literature of my own culture suffers from similar post-colonial tensions. Poor us, it cries; look how the Spaniards raped and enslaved and colonized our people, and after them, the British and the Americans. We have to highlight how evil the white people were, and how long-suffering and noble we are. Give me a break. We have to tell the stories as the stories are - that's what writers DO.

At some point, the literature of a people has to move beyond the need to be perpetually and repeatedly social justice literature. Literature should ultimately be about story first and foremost - story and character. I don't think a story about any group is necessarily obligated to speak for "The Experience" of that group; a writer has to be true to the characters she creates, and those characters may NOT be at all representative in the way historical scholars would understand "representative," whatever that means. I thought the women in The Help were all worth "getting to know" for all their different strengths and faults - a sign of good writing and a story worth reading. In the end I always approach novels as being about the novel's characters, NOT about Black people in Mississippi or Native Americans in New Mexico or Haitians in Haiti. In this particular book, the message of having the courage to tell one's story, to use writing as a way of asserting voice, to paint oppressors of any kind as ultimately ridiculous, and to work together in friendship for justice despite danger, comprised such a valuable STORY that I find politicizing it really unnecessary and unhelpful. The characters are strong, courageous, humorous, imperfect, loyal to EACH OTHER, and different from one another. What's so Mammy about that?

There were many other points made in the aforementioned pieces and the comments they generated that inspired only incredulity and disagreement in me. Boyd's soap-boxy review The Help: a feel-good movie for white people can't even leave the anti-white venom out of its title. If a white person wrote something entitled "A Feel-Good Movie for Black People" there would be a public outcry. I am neither a white person nor a Black person and I certainly did NOT feel good about the pain I read about and saw on the screen, but like one African-American woman journalist who left a comment, I felt very good about the love I saw between women friends and the way the women "ultimately save themselves by telling their stories." Boyd's sweeping generalizations and judgments - that Black people would never confide in white people, that no white person would be remarkable enough to earn Black women's trust, that Skeeter was ONLY motivated by ambition as a writer and not by genuine compassion for the Black women working as domestics in her town, that this novel should have encapsulated the experiences of all maids working in Jackson in the 1960's AND been a portrayal of the larger Civil Rights Movement AND (unrealistically) shown a white woman breaking some kind of mold to confront her only circle of friends with their behavioral ugliness - reveal the bigoted stereotypes and narrow view of white people in her own mind. She's supposed to be this accomplished journalist and scholar - yet she can't rise above what one commenter aptly described as "petty grandstanding."

I honestly think a lot of people out there are just plain SORE that a white woman would DARE tell stories from Black women's point of view AND do such an amazing, vivid, compassionate job. Sour grapes, I say. They need to move beyond judging something for what they WANT it to depict and judge it instead by what the author actually set out to do - get into the small moments, the pouring of tea in kitchens and changing of diapers in the nursery, explore the daily moments and relationships in the lives of three characters: Skeeter, Abilene, and Minny. This is what novels do. They are not Civil Rights documentaries. Stockett didn't want to write a novel about the lynching of innocent, persecuted Black men; she wanted to write about courageous, funny, gifted, strong, inspiring women and their friendships, obstacles, trials and choices. I think her incredible writing and her portrayal of these characters has honored women of all races, and she should be praised and thanked for it.

But please don't be like the intellectually lazy commenters under Boyd's review who don't feel like thinking for themselves and have decided instead, based simply on her tirade or other negative hype, to hate The Help already and not bother to read the book or see the movie. Have a little cultural integrity and responsibility and experience the work for yourself, then decide. It deserves that much, if only because it has us all thinking and talking.


Addendum 8/18/11: for an articulate, balanced, scholarly critical essay on what The Help could have done better, with a concrete and appropriate LITERARY example, check out this wonderful NPR piece by W. Ralph Eubanks: "Eudora Welty's Jackson: The Help in Context." He gracefully avoids undermining his own credibility by not lapsing into shrill, knee-jerk invective and thus successfully invites readers to open their minds and think critically - presumably the desired effect of any good critic.

8/29/11: Another thoughtful critical piece that makes an excellent point.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

To Bare Or Not To Bare

Topless sunbathing is widely accepted in France, where we've spent a lovely vacation visiting my husband's family. Our recent day trip to a beach on the northern coast sparked interesting conversations between my daughter and me and between my husband and me.

On one hand, I think the relative absence of Puritanical sexual repression in Europe, as compared to the United States, has provided some advantages. People are accustomed to seeing bare breasts on billboards and other media from a young age. Breasts therefore need not be objects of shock value or secret, horny fascination. Women are allowed to be comfortable with their own bodies - as they should be - and men allowed to be comfortable with women's bodies in multiple ways without having to be so obsessively titillated by the one aspect of them, their sexuality.

On the other hand, I value modesty. I think there's something to be said for being feminine and even sexy without needing to bare all, for keeping private parts private (and thus in some way sacred, and meant for reverent care) and preserving the meaning of intimacy. My husband pointed out, though, that two-piece bathing suits are already immodest; what's the big deal with doing away with the top piece? (He is, of course, half European.) My young daughter, on the cusp of womanhood, sounds torn between two cultures; she was a little shocked at how easily modesty was abandoned here in France, but also admired young women for their confidence in their bodies regardless of body type.

Not long after our trip to the beach I read the current National Geographic article about child brides in India and Yemen. So much in that article dredged up a lot of anger in me - at how girls and women are still seen around the world as possessions or goods for use, whose worth is directly associated with the integrity of their hymens, whose appearance or even presence is often blamed for what is really the uncontrolled lasciviousness and misogyny of the males around them. Are men all over the world really so incapable of controlling their basest tendencies? Really? Can't the rape just STOP already? What is WRONG with people?

In my mind the jury's still out on topless sunbathing. Where it's commonplace and culturally comfortable, there doesn't appear to be a down side, and there may even be many positives. Women's efforts at extreme modesty elsewhere don't seem to quell the animal frenzy that leads to their victimization by stupid, irresponsible, and worthless men. Perhaps if the whole world would just relax about the human body we could all just step back, appreciate it, and take good care of it.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Why I Hate Birth Plans

Recently on a physicians' forum I came across a tragic story about a home birth gone bad. The doctors on the forum were mercilessly critical of the individuals involved, but I couldn't disagree with them. Their tone may have crossed the line from anger over the tragedy into disrespect or even cruelty, but I can't say I blame them entirely - there's a part of every conscientious physician that does get enraged over what's perceived to be preventable catastrophe, and sometimes venting the outrage in private (which this forum was supposed to be), among others who understand, can release some of the tension raised by the story.

There seems to be a wide chasm between expectant women who distrust or perhaps even hate doctors and doctors who see themselves as the protectors of human safety and life and who thus sometimes see such mothers-to-be as close-minded, willfully uninformed, and even selfish. From the physician's point of view, a) "natural" isn't synonymous with "safer;" b) pregnancy causes physiologic changes that can sometimes pose real dangers to mother and infant - DANGERS, not just inconveniences or discomfort; and c) a rigid "plan" for birth is nonsensical in light of the possibility of unplanned concerns necessitating prompt and sometimes life-saving intervention.

Don't get me wrong; I firmly believe in women's right to express PREFERENCES and to have those preferences respected as closely as possible when safety allows. Of COURSE I would never insist on placing an epidural in a woman who preferred to give birth without one. But I resent the kind of pseudo-feminist culture that creates guilt or a sense of "failure" in women who feel they would like an epidural to relieve childbirth pain. I've heard it so many times; a tearful woman saying "I'm a failure" because natural childbirth became medically assisted childbirth. No woman should ever feel BAD about bringing a new life into the world. That, and the social signals that engender it, I definitely resent.

And despite the title of this post, I don't actually hate birth plans. I had one myself. I scrapped it in the end and decided to just trust in the process, and take things a step at a time, and actually have face-to-face conversations with my caregivers, but I did draft one. A birth plan that is meant to clarify preferences is a good thing. A birth plan, written or spoken or just held in one's mind, that is meant to be a binding contract for a physician, come hell or high water, is stupid and ultimately, in my opinion, wrong. The priority should be the baby's and mother's SAFETY, not the parents' "birth experience." If the so-called birth "plan" interferes with safety, it has to go, and any parent who insists on adhering to it under such circumstances doesn't deserve to be a parent. What I hate about certain birth plans is the unspoken attitude or culture behind them that seems to declare that nothing is more important than the mother's "birth experience." This is irresponsible and wrong.

So when a screaming doula verbally abused an obstetrician colleague of mine recently for going to stimulate a baby who was cyanotic and was making no respiratory effort - and when I say screaming, I mean I was three doors down attending to someone else and I could hear her yelling at my colleague at the top of her lungs - I felt the same anger that the physicians on the forum were feeling over the home birth disaster. My colleague was doing her JOB, protecting the baby's life and ensuring the mother's safety, according to standards that have been carefully studied, and here was this medically untrained woman interfering with this physician's care and potentially threatening the life of the child by screaming at the doctor that clamping the cord and stimulating the baby were against the parents' wishes. The baby's safety didn't seem to matter; it was all about the parents' wishes. THAT kind of ignorant, selfish "care" is completely inexcusable, yet in certain circles is glorified and touted as advocacy of women's rights and empowerment of mothers. There's nothing empowering about medical ignorance, stubbornness, or selfish adherence to a dream of a birth experience contributing to a child's death.

Here's what I would want all expectant mothers to know about giving birth at our hospital. Pregnancy may be natural, but it can also be dangerous. If you show up at our door, we're going to bend over backward to protect you and your baby, but we're going to do so according to the high standards of safety to which we've been trained to adhere. Please tell us what you prefer, by all means - we do want to create as wonderful a birth experience for everyone as we can - but we also have to put safety above EVERYTHING. We would be bad doctors, and morally culpable people, if we did any less.

See also this well-articulated critique by an ob/gyn:

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Anesthesia v. The Joint Commission, Part II

Yesterday's post mentioned that the leaders of this country's most important anesthesia organizations had sent a letter protesting several inane mandates that were being imposed or about to be imposed on anesthesia providers by the JCAHO.

This letter, requesting written confirmation that we anesthesiologists and anesthetists could keep our current, safe practices rather than switching to the suggested idiotic, less safe practices, was sent last December.

Now...let the back-pedaling begin!

JCAHO's response arrived at the American Society of Anesthesiologists' desk just about a month ago, and our anesthesia group has been abuzz about it this week.

The highlights:

"Dear Anesthesia Providers:

...Your letter points out that if specially designed processes are followed to accomplish [the task of pre-labeling syringes], labeling a syringe first and later filling that syringe can be accomplished in a consistently safe manner. [REALLY?! YOU DON'T SAY...?! Is that why we've managed to do this for the last several DECADES?! Imagine that!]

...After discussions with the Joint Commission staff, it was decided that it is beyond the scope of this NPSG [National Patient Safety Goals] to detail all of the various safe and unsafe processes in which a syringe could be filled and labeled. The Joint Commission decided to leave the current NPSG as is, which requires all filled syringes to be labeled, and to remove from the FAQ the prohibition against prelabeling...

As a follow-up to the previous discussion, one exception does exist to the requirement that all syringes be labeled...As long as there is no break in the process, labeling is not required during the administration of spinal and epidural anesthetics and analgesics. [Why THANK you! But we already KNEW that, because to require something so USELESS and intrusive would be completely STUPID.]

...The issue of anesthesia professionals (or anyone for that matter) carrying a medication is left to the individual health care organization."

Thank you, JCAHO, for taking our concerns seriously and realizing the idiocy and lack of groundedness-in-reality of so many of your requirements. Keep up the good work. Maybe if you keep paying attention to what you described in your response as "a number of concerns" voiced by many medical practitioners from many different fields, you can make up for your deficiencies in clinical knowledge and practical imagination with responsiveness to those who actually live and work in the real world every single day.

[Photo source here.]

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Anesthesia v. The Joint Commission

The following was written by a colleague who wishes to remain anonymous but whose permission I have to reprint it here. I think it expresses what a lot of people are thinking but can only admit in private.

Dear JCAHO (Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, a.k.a. "Jay-Co" to clinicians talking about you or, most commonly, complaining about you):

Over the years I have dealt with your incessant nitpicking by reminding myself that the regulation of institutions responsible for human lives is, in principle, a GOOD THING. I believe in safeguards. I believe in holding organizations to high safety standards. I believe accountability is important.

But over the years I have also wondered how it is that the bureaucrats that come to survey our hospitals can be so unimaginably clueless about the practicalities of patient care. Yes, perhaps they have had clinical experience in the past, are highly qualified (according to you), and have an alphabet soup of degrees after their names that purportedly validate their authority. Yet why do they seem unable to belie the stereotype of the out-of-touch, small-minded bean counter who has absolutely no idea how the real world of caring for patients really works?

You've already received a missive about this from representatives of all the major anesthesia organizations in the U.S., but I feel that their diplomacy diminished the forcefulness their words could have had.

I've gritted my teeth and had to accept the locked anesthesia cart you mandated in the obstetric O.R. despite the fact that if a pregnant woman were hemorrhaging TO DEATH and needed a true STAT C-section, the delay caused by having to retrieve the key to open the cart might actually KILL her AND her baby.

I've rolled my eyes at the various little rules you add each year, with the determination and scrupulousness of people whose mission in life is to add at least ONE new rule each year come hell or high water, even if on occasion one of your commands might, for example, be to get rid of the very form you made us adopt the LAST time you came.

But I cannot, cannot, CANNOT wrap my mind around the completely ASININE prohibition against pre-labeling my medication syringes and against the transport of medicines on my person for the sake of patient safety / emergencies, and the criticism of anesthesia practitioners for not labeling the STERILE syringes of a spinal kit when there is absolutely no discontinuity in the opening of the kit, drawing up of the medication, and injection of the medication into a SHARP OBJECT STABBED INTO SOMEONE's BACK which needs to be done as swiftly as possible once the patient's cerebrospinal fluid is observed leaking out of his or her spinal canal.

You would rather, as I understand it, INTERRUPT a procedure for the sake of a literally USELESS step, CONTAMINATE a sterile kit with a nonsterile label, and risk the injurious complication of arachnoiditis from the ink on a labeling pen, than have a spinal anesthetic performed cleanly, efficiently, and above all, SAFELY.

You would rather I draw medication up into an UNLABELED syringe, leaving it unrecognizable for a few seconds or its contents potentially forgotten, than allow me the opportunity to SAFEGUARD the drawing-up process by making sure my label and my medication vial MATCH. Pre-labeling, by the way, is an EVIDENCE-BASED safety practice, unlike your nonsensical and over-intrusive prohibition.

Most egregiously, you would rather a patient CODE AND DIE during transport than have me carrying with me the very interventions that might save that patient's life. And for what? For the sake of making sure pharmaceuticals are locked away, locked away, locked away? Who is protected by this kind of imbecilic medical tyranny?

The above satirical cartoon sums up in a few seconds why you appear to be almost universally despised by the medical community. Arguably no one is more obsessed with patient safety than an anesthesiologist, and we certainly know intimately the day-to-day practices that safeguard it. Perhaps, then, YOU should take a few mandates from US. You might subsequently find your recommendations and regulations actually having some lasting positive impact and earning something with which you might be unfamiliar: respect.


An anesthesiologist somewhere in the U.S. who cares deeply about patients and their safety.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

How I Spent "Judgment Day" 2011

If you knew, or thought you knew, when the world was going to end, would you change the way you live your life?

Would you spend your life savings and forego career plans? Would you take one last trip to see some places you'd always wanted to see?

I never believed in preacher Harold Camping's prediction that the Rapture would occur today. Even if Jesus himself hadn't said plainly that no one can know the day or the hour, Camping's calculations would still have held no merit, based as they were on a) a literal interpretation of the Bible and b) a calendar that failed to take Dionysus Exiguus into account. But I did follow some of the media coverage around this phenomenon with interest. It generated questions like, "What makes people willing to take such risky actions for the sake of one fallible man's ideas?" and "What would you change about your life if you knew it was ending - SOON?"

I was pleased to realize that the answer to the latter was "not much." I'd still go to work and do my job - but keep it part-time, or make it even MORE part-time. I'd still spend as much time enjoying my family's company as I could. And if today had really been our last day, I would have been truly happy to have spent it as we did today.

My husband and I had a long, relaxing lunch outdoors. The weather was perfect - sunny, breezy, dry, in the 70's. The food was delicious. Later in the day we went to a fair two towns over. I love small town fairs; they evoke simpler times, happy families, and friendly communities with something to celebrate. The best thing about this particular fair was the presence of a book tent, where my husband and I spent contented hours browsing through tables laden with used books while the kids enjoyed the games and rides outside. Back home I concocted some Thai-spiced burgers for a late dinner, and they were yummy. It was a day full of all the things I enjoy and the people I love most. If the world had actually ended, I would have counted myself blessed to have known such lovely moments.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Blog Anniversary - It Kinda Snuck Up On Me!

I can't believe this blog has been around for four years!

I know it's been much quieter lately, but that's been working for me. Not that there's anything too extraordinary going on in the rest of my life right now - other than the usual extraordinariness of my ordinary life. One day I am running to the emergency room to help with a potential difficult airway, anesthetizing a patient for abdominal surgery, or putting epidurals in expectant moms; the next day I have a cake decorating class, or a post office errand, or a movie night with spouse and kids. Life's got stresses, life's got joys, and I'm finding that this kind of balanced, un-remarkable existence is just what the doctor ordered (so to speak!).

It seems fitting, then, that I should celebrate with...

Berry-Basil Guacamole. An ordinary treat with an extraordinary twist.

This is my latest obsession. I had some at my in-laws' and fell head-over-heels for it. I really enjoy this kind of food adventure: take something rather ordinary (mashed avocado), and make it a little special with the unexpected ingredient, a not-your-usual combination of flavors. The strawberry-basil combo is, I must admit, kinda old news; it's been done a lot, as a salad, an ice cream, and even a cupcake. But I still consider it somewhat special.

Let me know if you develop (or have) a good version. Mine is just what you see above: avocados, strawberries, fresh basil, a little diced cherry tomato and onion, and whatever sprinkling of seasoning and citrus juice happens to be on hand and palatable at the moment. Best with my other latest obsession: Tostitos brand Artisan Recipe roasted-garlic-and-black-bean whole grain tortilla chips.

Happy Berry-Basil Blogiversary!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

On Advocating For Patients

The following is based on an actual conversation from an evening on call. Some details have been changed.

Situation: Emergency surgery for a patient whose vital signs were unstable and whose mental status was deteriorating.

Doctor: "I have some quick questions before we enter the operating room, and I'll also need signed consent for the anesthesia."

Family Member #1: "Oh, I'm his health care proxy. I can sign that."

Doctor: "All right. Can you tell me about his medical history?"

Family Member #2: "You mean why we're here?"

Doctor: "No, I know that part, but I was hoping you could tell me about his major medical problems. Does..."

Family Member #1: "Oh, I don't know any of that. I'm just the health care proxy."

What does the average person understand to be the role of a health care proxy?
What should that role consist of?
Can people really advocate for others whose situation they either are in denial about or don't understand fully?

Family Member #1: "My brother knows some of that stuff, though."

Doctor: "I was reading through some old records. He has high blood pressure?"

Family Member #2: "Oh, no, he doesn't have that."

Family Member #1: "No. Not that."

Doctor: glances at listed hypertension medication in the record

Family Member #1: "He's actually really healthy."

Doctor (puzzled, glancing once again at list of medical issues from previous hospitalizations): "Oh? I thought I saw..."

Family Member #2: "Yeah, he's healthy."


Family Member #2: "He just has a little congestive heart failure and some emphysema."


The physician ran down a list of specific questions, asking about recent hospitalizations, heart symptoms, frequency of inhaler use, mental status changes, and other medical information felt to be germane to the patient's care. In this situation, however, time was short - surgery needed to be performed as soon as possible. Not only was the information not readily available, but also the sources of information were largely unreliable. Such circumstances can have a significant impact on patient care. The doctor here is responsible for efficient and thorough information gathering and the performance of a proper focused physical exam, but time and available sources can be very limited in situations like these.

Plea: Please know your own medical history, and if advocating for another, know that person's issues as well as his or her medical management preferences. The best care is provided when clinicians have the best information available, especially during emergencies, and sometimes loved ones / proxies / advocates are our only source.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Another Pet Peeve: the Finger-Pointing

People blame anesthesia personnel for EVERYTHING. You name it, they blame us for it. They call us by the umbrella name "Anesthesia" and if there's a problem, it's always "Anesthesia's" fault.

Got into the room late? Blame Anesthesia. (Even though the anesthetist's been sitting at the bedside for twenty minutes waiting for the surgeon or the nurses to be ready.)

Patient craving ice cream when she woke up? Must be Anesthesia's fault.

No more coffee in the break room? It's because of Anesthesia.

Think I'm exaggerating? Spend a day in any O.R. in the country and count how many times someone says, "It's because of Anesthesia."

Why? Because it's easy to point the finger at the people / work / department you understand the least. The practice of anesthesia is poorly understood by people outside the specialty, so it makes the perfect scapegoat for EVERYTHING.

I recently heard about a conversation that exemplifies exactly what I'm talking about. My chief was explaining to some of the O.R. nurses what happened to a patient who experienced a known but uncommon complication from one of the materials used by the surgeon during the procedure.

"Yeah," my chief said, "X event happened after the surgeon put in Substance Y for that part of Operation Z."

One of the nurses replied, "Really? How did you [anesthesia] guys cause that?!"

The attitude is so ingrained people can't even detect the nonsensical nature of their own illogical utterances. *Sigh*

The practice of anesthesia looks easy but if people were to try it for a day I think they'd come away pretty spent. When the endpoint is a smooth course, with "nothing unusual happening," the expertise, planning, and careful execution are easy to take for granted. For the record: we prevent or correct many more problems than we cause. When you hear someone say, "It's because of Anesthesia," think twice. You're probably not getting the whole picture.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Sometimes It's Easier Not to Write

I've been neglecting this blog because I've had some recurrent feelings of annoyance lately, and I like to keep my unsolicited invective to a minimum. After all, when I see whiny complaints or bitter criticisms on other blogs sometimes all I want to do is roll my eyes and say, "Who died and made you queen?"

Still, I can't deny that I have some of those thoughts and feelings too. I got a lot of heat when I disclosed the behind-the-scenes frustration that sometimes gets vented "around the water cooler" about certain less conscientious members of the anesthesia and/or nursing staff at my workplace. Lately the same people have exhibited the same lack of professionalism, not around calling in "sick," but avoiding work while at work (disappearing between cases, not checking in with the person in charge before leaving, refusing to see a patient on rounds twenty minutes prior to the appointed departure time because "it's almost time to go," etc.). And the same loud, obnoxious people who have often pontificated about things they don't know enough to pontificate about have continued to be loud and obnoxious and under-informed.

Then there are the surgeons with narcissistic priorities. Some examples:

Dr. Narcissus: "Can you bring the patient to the recovery room without extubating him, please, so we can get the next case in faster?"
Our team: "No, that's not the safest way to conclude the anesthetic for this patient."
Dr. Narcissus: "What difference does it make, extubating there versus extubating in the O.R. with me having to wait around for turn-over?"
Us: "Extubation is safest in the controlled environment of the O.R. We'd still have to watch over and extubate the patient in recovery. It wouldn't save any time and we'd have less available anesthesia equipment outside the O.R."
Dr. Narcissus: "Bring it with you."
Us: "Huh? You don't seem to be understanding the relevant issues..."


Me: "I did something a little different for the anesthetic based on some studies in the British Journal of Anesthesia."
Dr. Contemptuus (looking at patient in recovery room and not understanding that he's actually doing better than expected): "Well, I don't think the patient read that study."
Me: "His pain score is already less than expected considering you cut him open from stem to stern."
Dr. Contemptuus: (shrugs)
Patient: (chatting comfortably with family, laughing, and telling jokes)


Me (through the nurse-in-charge): "I'm sorry, tell Dr. P I have to delay his case because I have a hemorrhaging pregnant woman who needs an immediate C-section to attend to."
Dr. Puerilus: "I'm going to call the administration." He proceeds to do so AND to call my chief at home to LIE and say I asked him to come immediately to help with the C-section (only because the surgeon actually wanted to avoid the delay of his own, NON-emergency case).
Chief (to me, on the phone): "Hey, Dr. P said you really need me there. I'm on my way."
Me: "I don't. I never said that. In fact, I never actually spoke to him because I had to run up to O.B."
Chief: "Oh. You mean he made that up?"
Me: "Yup."
Pencil-pushing administrative nurse calling me to ask about delay of Dr. P's case: "I guess I shouldn't be distracting you with this while -"
Me: "While our patient's about to bleed to death and lose her child? NO, I guess you shouldn't."
Pencil pusher: "Well, he's just wondering when-"
Me: "We'll be able to start Dr. P's case once THIS LIFE-THREATENING EMERGENCY is stable."


It's not the clinical medicine that's the most stressful part of this job, though that can be demanding enough. It's the short-sighted PEOPLE.

I've cut back my hours and elected to spend more time enjoying life with my family. Life requires balance, and medicine tips the scales pretty forcefully. So we try as a family to keep the equilibrium. I recently took my daughter to her first Shakespeare play (The Merchant of Venice, with F. Murray Abraham as Shylock), a feminist theater festival highlighting women's rights abuses across cultures, and a wonderful performance of The Fantasticks in New York. My husband and I have had lunch a couple of times, been to the movies, spent some lovely quiet time talking. My son and I have had some time to ourselves. I wouldn't trade any of this to make more money; it's just not worth it. My family's love keeps me going and helps me remember why I need to keep looking past the little frustrations at work and focus on taking really good care of patients and those who love them.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Life in Medicine: A Reality Check

This was posted on a discussion forum for physicians. It's a draft of an e-mail from an anesthesiologist to a medical school applicant who has not been accepted to medical school and has subsequently written to him/her for advice. I've changed the name of the student in question to just "Student."

Many physicians on the forum commented, "I'll sign it too" or "Put it up for all of us to sign" or "You could almost certainly get every doc [here] to sign this" or "It's the truth. She should know the whole story."

The e-mail draft is reposted here by kind permission of its author. I think it's extremely thought-provoking and worth reflecting on, especially by any students contemplating applying or reapplying to medical school.


Sorry to hear things didn't go as well as you would have liked this cycle. It is a difficult process and I too had a tough time getting into school. That being said the road is long, hard, filled with debt and financial uncertainty. The federal government and a series of large multi-billion dollar companies provide their CEO's 10's of million dollar bonuses on taking payments and distributing a small fraction of them for your services. This is typically deemed as "efficiency in medicine" but Ii can't exactly see any efficiency out of a $22.2 million dollar bonus to the CEO of AETNA. Everyone says "I can work hard" or "I can get through it", but when it comes down to it you get 8 years into it and you start to see for the first time and question why nurses are running the show at the majority of hospitals, why the lawyers are so "involved" at work, and how no one with an MD after their name ever gets educated about expense, cost, and reimbursement.

The interesting thing about medicine is that by the time you see what it really is you are already committed to it. The paperwork, insurance, and contract negotiations don't show up until you are already in your 30's. Insurance companies establish a team of individuals dedicated to finding reasons not to reimburse your services, fortunately residency and academic medicine protects you from a lot of this, but that soon changes. By this point most people find themselves >$100k in debt and feel that there isn't any other job they are qualified to do which provides some significant barriers to exiting. As a physician you are expected to be the first one in the door, the last one out it, and the ultimate individual responsible yet a body of administrators / insurance companies tell you what drugs you can and can't give as well as what studies you can perform.

To this a lot of people say "but I want to be a doctor and help people" but which type of people do you want to help? When some entitled patient walks in your door and complains about a $20 copay do you want to help them? Is your time not worth $20 after a decade of your life, $200k in medical school, $50-100k into college, and 3-7years of earning less than a first year nurse (out of a 2 year school) while you were in residency? How about when you are anesthetizing a 60yr old HIV positive heroine addict with no veins who thrashes when you attempt to put an IV in? Most people want to run away from that one, but someone has to help her and you happen to be the person on call.

Truth be told, [Student], there are lots of great jobs out there. Jobs where you can come out of college and earn a decent living with less sacrifice of your time, effort, and finances. Dental school is an excellent option. Dentists make anywhere from 150-300k/yr as a 3 day/wk General Practicioner (+/-call). The training involved is 4 years of dental school and 1 year of residency. Endontists make $500-700k/yr working 4 days a wk with 4 years of dental school and 2 years of residency (no call). Now why do they make more pulling/drilling teeth than you do prolonguing lives? You can thank the federal government for medicaid/medicare and the hippocratic oath for your moral imperative. There is nothing like a patient walking into the ER with a tattoo on their arm (tattoos are expensive ranging from $300-800 typically) complaining that they want a prescription for motrin because they can't pay for a bottle at the store (medicaid covers prescriptions written even for diapers). A dentist seeing the same financial complaint for a dental extraction would tell the patient to reschedule.

For a physician to make anywhere near 300k they would have to enter a top-competitve residency at a minimum of 4 years length with what is typically a significant call burden. The only specialties avoiding this are radiation oncology, dermatology, and radiology which have a lessened call burden. The time sacrifice also has social implications as a woman, most people don't like hearing this, but most physicians don't have more than 2 kids. By the time they have time to have children they are typically approaching advanced maternal age (AMA is age 35, residency typically ends at age 30 if no breaks were taken) and the risks start to outweigh the benefits.

Now do I hate medicine? No, actually I am fairly satisfied with my job. I get to take people who just met me then poison them with drugs to slip them into a coma so that they don't feel the lacerations, saws, and needles that we poke into them to raise their overall quality of life. Not only do i spare them the trauma of the experience, I off set my poisons with other drugs to keep the patient alive, well resuscitated, and from going off the physiological deep end. The job itself is amazing, unfortunately it is surrounded with lawyers, politicians, and white haired physicians pronouncing a "follow what i've said not what i've done" mantra while lining their pockets. This is then wrapped around the recent scandals of states equating an anesthesiologist to a CRNA, because 4.5 years of school is just as good as 12. I am actually quite fortunate to have no debt outside of what I plan on marrying into, but have friends with easily $500-600k in debt with the juice running (rates are currently 6.8% on loans). If i could spend all day in the OR and not have to hear administrators tell me about "hospital compliance training" or "annual compensation reviews" or "drug shortages" it would be heaven.

[Student], from what I know about you there were top grades at a good school but your boards were a little weak. You should look at this as a blessing and really review why you are drawn into this and investigate alternatives if you find those reasons wanting. One universal constant in medicine is that people applying to medical school and subsequent people applying to residency don't know a thing about what they are getting into. The only exceptions possibly family of a physician who is open about the experience. Be careful of blind leaps.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Celebrate Poetry Month!

It's National Poetry Month. I'd like to open the celebration with my favorite recitation. Ladies and Gentlemen, "Litany" by Billy Collins, recited by a three-year-old boy.

Poetry Month Challenge: learn a poem (or two, or three) by heart and recite it (them) to someone you love. If on Facebook: upload a favorite poem or stanza each day as part of a Poetry Month album. Celebrate the mystery, beauty, and power of well-wrought language!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Of Gods and Men

Fifteen years ago today, seven French Trappist monks were abducted from their monastery, Notre-Dame de l'Atlas, in Tibhirine, Algeria. An Islamist group, the GIA (Groupe Islamique Armé), claimed responsibility for the kidnappings and demanded that several GIA members be released from prison in exchange for the monk's release.

Two months later the monks' heads were found on a roadside; their decapitated bodies have never been found. The circumstances of their deaths remain unclear. While the GIA had earlier claimed that the monks had been executed, there is a troubling alternate theory that the monks were killed by gunfire from Algerian army helicopters during a botched raid and that their bodies were then decapitated to implicate the GIA in a shameful cover-up.

Xavier Beauvois's film Des hommes et des dieux (Of Gods and Men), which won the Grand Prix at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival and which I finally had the chance to see (after much anticipation!) this week, focuses not on the monks' deaths but on their lives. (See the American trailer here and the slightly different European trailer here.) I think it ranks with Roland Joffé's The Mission (1986), John Dulgan's Romero (1989), and Franco Zeffirelli's miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (1977) as one of the most beautiful faith-infused films ever made.

Its pace is slow, deliberate - like the Gregorian chant that marks the rhythm of the monks lives - and this is one of the film's virtues. No high-speed chases here, no breathy love scenes - how refreshing! The beauty and dignity of a few individuals' humble lives instead calls viewers to slow down, to pay attention, to focus, to notice, to cherish the ordinary and discover in it the extraordinary. One cannot appreciate this film without entering into the monastic spirit of contemplation portrayed in it.

Between scenes in which the monks go to chapel to sing the liturgical hours - vespers, compline, lauds, terce - we catch glimpses of their daily lives, lives imbued with a sense of the sacred even during the most humble tasks. One brother mops the floor and tends the garden; another, a physician by training, sees villagers in the monastery clinic; the abbott, Christian, played by Lambert Wilson (known in the U.S. for his role as The Merovingean in The Matrix), studies the Koran, visits with villagers, and tries to do right by his community. The peaceable and mutually supportive nature of the monks' relationship with the Muslim villagers is made clear in several scenes.

There are touching moments scattered throughout the film like small wildflowers in an open field. A young girl from the village and the old doctor monk have a frank conversation about being in love, dispelling the stereotype of the inexperienced or repressed celibate who knows little of such matters. The abbott opens the door to the cell of a monk who has fallen asleep snoring over his book and folds the sleeping monk's glasses for him. The monks gather with each other after a stressful moment while the doctor sutures one of them and the oldest gently rubs the youngest on the shoulders, trying to de-stress him in a paternal gesture of protectiveness.

The monks are saintly but imperfect. While washing some dishes one of them says to the other, "F- you!" after taking a humorously-uttered statement the wrong way. The brothers sometimes overhear each other's prayers in their cells, and some of their prayers are wracked with doubt and fear. The abbott makes an executive decision without input from the others, and they call him on it. Later the community comes together on more than one occasion to discuss whether they should leave Algeria, and the villagers they have come to love, in light of the rising violence and danger in the region. There are no easy answers for them, and each day brings tests of faith, small and large, with which to wrestle. In one of the most powerful moments in the film, the abbott, Christian, finds himself face to face with terrorists who have invaded the monastery. His exemplary courage, calm, and respectfulness under pressure were inspiring beyond words.

Like a meditative chant that lingers in the mind and keeps coming back hours and days later, Of Gods and Men is a film that permeates and stays with you. It's like that gentle whisper in which the prophet Elijah finds the presence of God outside the cave in Mt. Horeb. The Divine is not in the clamor of the tempestuous, earth-shattering wind, or in the earthquake, or in the fire, but rather in the stillness, in the quiet voice found in peace and silence.

Some reviews:
NPR (1) and NPR (2)

Click here to read Christan de Chergé's testament, written over a year before his death.

Click here for an interview with Henri Quinson, who left Wall Street to enter a Trappist monastery in rural France and who was the monastic advisor for Of Gods and Men.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

March 24, 1980 - REMEMBER

OSCAR ROMERO was assassinated 31 years ago today for speaking out against human rights violations in his country. He is a saint, de facto if not de jure (yet).

Photo source.

"The common good will not be attained by excluding people."

"Peace is not the product of terror or fear. Peace is not the silence of cemeteries. Peace is not the silent result of violent repression. Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all. Peace is dynamism. Peace is generosity."

Click here to read an article about President Obama's visit to Romero's tomb this year.

Start at 2:25 below to skip the potty-mouth part and get to the truth-telling (From the Sojourner article Jon Stewart: How Oscar Romero Got Disappeared by Right Wingers...for the Second Time):

Monday, March 14, 2011

On Suffering

Here's something that has never made sense to me regarding suffering: asking, "Why?"

If the earth were uninhabited, its tectonic plates would move all the same. Earthquakes and tsunamis would happen all over the desolate world, hurting no one. We suffer because we live on a planet on which the shifting and fracturing of the upper mantle are a natural and inevitable occurrence. We suffer because accidents and illnesses happen. We suffer because stupidity, self-interest, insanity, or power-lust cause people to harm one another or themselves. We suffer, finally, because we cherish those who feel the effects of these natural occurrences, accidents, and evils, and because love makes loss almost unbearable.

We happen to live here and we have the capacity to care, about ourselves and/or others. Of course we suffer. That capacity to care is also what enables us to experience wonder and joy.

I suppose it's only natural that we seek to avoid suffering. That is, it's understandable to want to avoid it. But I also believe we are morally obligated not to turn a blind eye to it, and the reason I'm bringing this up is a Facebook thread I read yesterday that really, really bothered me. These are the statements that I found irritating:

Person A: "I have not been able to bring myself to look at images from Japan yet."

Person B: "There are some of us who can truly feel deep compassion without the visuals."

Person C: "I refuse to. I don't need to be traumatised by that flood of images (can we call it disaster-porn?) in order to pray for the people of Japan."

Person H: "I think I used up my year's quota of natural disaster media coverage in the Queensland floods."

Person L: "I am in tragedy overload and cannot bear to watch it. It's not entertainment and it turns my stomach when people talk about it as if it is."

I understand some of the points made in the above statements (and others I didn't bother to quote), but what turns my stomach is the image of a bunch of safe, comfortable Americans / British people / Europeans WHINING from their comfy homes about how "tough" it is to look at others' pain and suffering. THEY WON'T EVEN LOOK, they REFUSE TO SEE the faces of their brothers and sisters suffering across the world - and thus, to my mind, in a way deny or refuse to affirm the reality of that suffering. It made me think of a kid plugging her ears and willfully refusing to hear the sobbing of another kid - I don't see you; I don't hear you; therefore I won't see or hear or feel your pain or have to take any responsibility for it.

I understand that sensationalism is negative and disrespectful in itself, but I felt like saying (and please consider that I was feeling very upset about the posts at the time), "Y'all are a bunch of wusses. Suck it up and LOOK! It's not happening to YOU! The >10,000 people who suffered and died under the debris deserve better than to have a bunch of comfy foreigners hiding their eyes and 'praying for them.' Solidarity is the highest form of compassion, and sometimes allowing ourselves to experience a little secondary trauma is the right thing to do. So many people spend their energy avoiding the REALITY of suffering that they can't even confront it vicariously. SAD."

I did not stick my nose into the discussion for reasons too complicated to elaborate here, but I was so deeply bothered by the way the majority of respondents felt justified in their insistence on looking away. It's so easy to claim, I feel for people anyway even if I don't know exactly what they've been through. I can pray for them without having to understand the details of their their pain. I guess I feel it's disingenuous. Don't we have an obligation to do more than "feel for" others? Shouldn't we seek to know and understand in order for our compassion - from the root, to suffer with - to have integrity? How can we feel we have the right to just erase someone else's misery from our minds by refusing to see it? Isn't that selfish, and cowardly?

I'm not saying my point of view is necessarily right. I'm still working it out, and trying to figure out why I had such a strong reaction to this thread. Someone there shared a lovely blog post that offered a beautiful alternative to disaster-porn mentality, and I appreciated that, but I also knew that it didn't convey the experience of those who witnessed or were directly affected by the disasters, and I still couldn't shake the bothered feeling I had when I thought about people willfully refusing to see their suffering.

I'm venting it here because I am trying to make sense of my own jumbled thoughts and feelings. I suppose it's normal when the unthinkable happens to wrestle with all sorts of ideas and emotions. There are never any simple answers when it comes to human suffering, are there?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Diaries at the Morgan

Christine Nelson , Drue Heinz Curator of Literary and Historical Manuscripts at The Morgan Library and Museum, has done a lovely job with the current exhibit, The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives. From the exhibit's companion blog:

"Where does a diary end and, say, a sketchbook or scrapbook begin? And what do we call a string of digital updates in which we reveal a little bit each day (or each hour, or each week) about what's on our minds? Or a public blog that tracks our periodic observations? All these forms of self-documentation have something in common with the traditional diary, with its focus on what I thought, felt, read, ate, spent, observed, or did today (and the next day, and the next)."

I've been wanting to see this exhibit since the day Prof. Michael Leddy mentioned it on his wonderful blog Orange Crate Art. I had the chance to go to the Pierpont Morgan Library with my kids today, and it was everything I'd hoped. The exhibit is housed in one room, sparsely adorned with only selected quotations from a few of the diaries displayed on the walls. The diaries themselves are presented neatly in cases with informative captions highlighting interesting facts about the authors or the writings themselves.

The diaries are presented in groupings such as "war diaries," "spiritual diaries," encrypted diaries, and diaries about works in progress, etc. with each diary open to a page of interest that gives the viewer just enough of a voyeuristic glimpse into the author's mind to be both intriguing and satisfying. John Steinbeck wrote famously on May 31, 1938, "Here is the diary of a book and it will be interesting to see how it all works out." The book was The Grapes of Wrath. We also saw the musings of Hawthorne as he was working out The Scarlet Letter, E.B. White on The Trumpet of the Swan, and diary drafts of Kingsley Amis's poems.

There were also observations of an American teenage actress in London (discussing how the British boys couldn't hold a candle to the ones back home), a chess diary by Ruskin, and diaries by Pepys (of course!), Thoreau, Einstein, Charles Seliger (whose penmanship strains the eye), Tennessee Williams (whose penmanship, by contrast, is large and loopy and a little multidirectional), John Tudor (from the period of the American Revolution), Bob Dylan (from much later!), Arthur Sullivan, and Sir Walter Scott. Charlotte Brontë's need to vent her frustration into a diary became kindling for her fiction writing, and I couldn't help smiling at one acerbic comment about "another who seems a rosy sugarplum but I know her to be colored chalk."

I was especially taken by the very first volumes we encountered when we entered the room: a small notebook dating from the Renaissance with erasable pages coated with gesso, and the 19th-century hand-sewn diaries of Elizabeth Eastman Morgan, who lived in Western Massachusetts and wrote about her household chores (sausage- and candle-making, butter-churning, pickling, spinning wool, etc.) and the signs that marked the change of seasons (the peeping of frogs in April, the appearance of whortleberries in August). Her diary is featured in the companion online exhibit and podcasts, which are captivating in and of themselves and well worth an afternoon of browsing, especially for people who are unable to visit the Morgan before May 22 this year.

A special bonus was the chance to see Pierpont Morgan's restored 1906 library . Walking into the East Room reminded my kids and me of the scene in Disney's Beauty and the Beast when the Beast gives Belle the gift of a library, and she opens her eyes and sees a vast collection of books lining the walls from floor to ceiling. On display in the library's beautifully appointed rooms are some gorgeous illuminated manuscripts, a 15th-century block book, exquisitely detailed Babylonian cylinder seals, and music scores by Chopin, Liszt, and Mozart. The library website also offers, incidentally, a Music Manuscripts Online project, providing access to digitized versions of more than forty music manuscripts from the Morgan's holdings.

This was a wonderful exhibit. We bloggers are diarists of a sort, and collections like these churn up those delicious questions about why we do what we do and how we tell the stories of our lives. It's a lot of fun to see how some illustrious people have done just that over the centuries, setting down fragments of their minds for themselves and readers to see and contemplate again and again.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Reflections on Happy Coupledom

This Van Eyck portrait, traditionally known as the Arnolfini Wedding, is sometimes held up as an early (1434) example of marriage being portrayed in art as an actual partnership rather than a mere contract or event. If that's so, I wish the man didn't look so miserable! Some people call this "The Shotgun Wedding," but more likely the style of the woman's dress, not pregnancy, accounts for the exaggerated size of her abdomen in the painting.

I love the convex mirror painted on the wall behind the couple and occupying such a central focal point in the overall composition. The mirror is decorated with ten scenes from the life of Christ and shows the presence of witnesses in the room - the minister and perhaps the artist.

When I think of the institution of marriage as it has evolved in Europe and the Americas over the centuries, with some even feeling today that it is obsolete, all I can think is how thankful I feel for my almost-fifteen years of happy marriage. I look at other happily married couples and have two other thoughts: 1) It's so great to see people who are so comfortable, truly comfortable, with themselves and each other and 2) I hope my kids are lucky enough to find healthy relationships like these.

I know that luck or blessing or whatever you want to call it is only part of the favorable set-up. There's also diligence, and patience, and good character, and the capacity to see and want and choose good character in others.

As my children get older and begin to be interested in more grown-up experiences and relationships, I often wonder: how can we guide our children to make choices that will bring them relationships like these, the kind that will give them peace, joy, and lasting love?

Modeling a healthy and mutually respectful relationship is crucial, and I'm contented that my children seem to see marriage as a beautiful and valuable bond, one to welcome if a compatible partner and the desire to build a life with that partner transpire. We also tell them that being in love is important but that love is not enough; common values and the commitment to support each other through shared victories and problems, to build a life side by side with hard work, are essential and go beyond the bonds of friendship and romantic love into a more sacred love, the intimate love of family. The kind of love that is an active process and a daily decision, not merely a feeling or an experience.

Over the years I've nurtured both indirect and direct ways of trying to pass on some guidance and wisdom, as much as I have, to my kids. When we watch movies together, for instance, I always make a point to comment on the relationships in them - what makes them work or not work, why certain ones look promising and other don't, who's a jerk and who isn't. Two films we've watched on DVD recently stand out in my mind as having moments that exemplify relationships with promise: Little Women and Amazing Grace. In both, we saw couples who were able to see and appreciate the truth about one another and were not afraid to confront each other honestly with that truth, even if it was hard. Along the same lines, both films showed couples who were at ease talking and opening up to each other, listening well, and valuing each other's thoughts.

If I were to add one more characteristic to look for in an intimate partner besides those already mentioned - respect, diligence, thoughtfulness, patience, integrity, supportiveness, appreciation, and the ability to talk and listen comfortably and truthfully - I would advise my children also to seek partners who are happy with and in themselves. This kind of happiness requires self-knowledge, security, a healthy spirit, humility, and responsibility and can be found in individuals who don't look to others to provide happiness for them and don't blame others when happiness eludes them.

I think my kids are getting the idea, and I'm glad. I'm also glad, though, to see that when a Facebook questionnaire asked my teenage daughter, "Is it possible to be single and happy?" her answer was, "Of course. I am."

This, I think, already sets her on the right track.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Black Swan

Photo: Polina Semionova as the Black Swan conspiring with the evil Von Rothbart to seduce Prince Siegfried

I finally got around to seeing the much-hyped Aronofsky film Black Swan today. I want to see it again. I just don't know if my nerves can take it.

It was about as creepy as I expected it to be from the trailer. The sex scenes, which I wasn't too thrilled about sitting through, were also about as explicit and gratuitous as I expected (quite). The dancing was predictably strong from Natalie Portman's double (ABT's Sarah Lane) and, to a trained dancer's eye, noticeably flawed but nonetheless respectable from Portman herself. Portman's acting, though, was spot on. She deserved her Golden Globe.

First, a quick review. Black Swan is about a young dancer who desperately wants the lead role in Swan Lake, one of the most demanding roles in the classical dance repertoire. The ballerina must be able to play Odette, an innocent young girl transformed by the wicked magician Von Rothbart into the Swan Queen - the epitome of purity, vulnerability, fragility, sweetness, and helplessness - and Odile, her alter-ego and doppelganger, Von Rothbart's daughter, who embodies cunning, uninhibited sexuality, confidence, invincibility, and heartlessness. The sworn love of Prince Siegfried would have broken Von Rothbart's spell over Odette, but because Siegfried is seduced by Odile into promising his love to her instead, his original vow to Odette is nullified, and Odette's only escape from the imprisonment of being the Swan Queen is to leap to her death.

Audiences have been willing to watch this drama unfold over and over again for more than a century. I think it's because we recognize the two sides, light and dark, in ourselves. We empathize with Odette's sorrow and love; it breaks our heart. But with Odile we enjoy being impervious to such weakness; we relish being able to live freely, skirt danger, gratify our passions. In Black Swan, Portman's character, Nina, is seen as perfect for the "white swan," Odette, but her director is frustrated by the inhibitions - which he clearly feels are sexual - that prevent her from embracing the role of the "black swan," Odile.

The fascinating visual and thematic elements in Black Swan are some of the same themes that make the ballet Swan Lake itself such a crowd-pleaser year in, year out, generation after generation: the struggle between good and evil, light and darkness, and the close-to-home truth that sometimes that struggle is within, with darkness that lurks in every soul. We all have the Black Swan inside us, and sometimes, evil wins over good. That's just reality.

And there's that - reality. What is reality? Can we lose our grip on it, as Nina does progressively throughout the film? Where is the border between creative imagination and the psychotic unraveling that took a hold of Nina and intensified with every passing scene in Black Swan? For artists especially, there's this question: can you create a character or a world with such verisimilitude that you recreate reality, and what price can you, do you, pay for that? Anyone who's over-identified with another, or been involved in an artistic production that dredges up darkness, knows how dangerous that darkness can be when we get close to it, when life and art intertwine and reflect or imitate each other. The darkness can hurt. It might even be able to kill.

As can the quest for perfection. There's a clear message in the ballet Swan Lake that transformation involves, must involve, suffering and sacrifice. It's hard to separate that message out from the real-world process of becoming a dancer. Like the shoes in the familiar beating-of-the-pointe-shoes ritual glimpsed through this movie, dancers have their bodies and spirits smashed time and again against a variety of very hard surfaces - the demand for perfect technique, the absolute requirement to have perfect (read: thinnest) bodies, relentless competition to be the best.

The physical mirror dancers have to gaze into each day is as ruthless as the obsession with body image it engenders, and like other symbols for the search for self and identity - masks, portraits, faces - mirrors figure prominently in this film, as do (predictably) black and white color schemes and decor. There's also plenty of mutilating behavior - directed at self and others - reflecting the merciless hurting of the body and mind to which some dancers subject themselves. Art promotes plenty of obsession in general, but dance in particular seems to foment it to an extreme degree - not just over the art itself, either - and Black Swan holds up a magnifying glass that chillingly exaggerates and distorts this tendency into a dangerous current that sweeps its hapless protagonist into a transformation that threatens ultimately to destroy her.

While many bloggers and reviewers found this film cliché-ridden, I found it compelling as well as disturbing. Very dark, but definitely worth seeing. One of its best (and, I think, unsung) features, which I noticed from the very first moment, is its film score by Clint Mansell. It opens with the famously lugubrious oboe passage that open's Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake - already I was sucked in - but in subsequent scenes Mansell takes Tchaikovsky's ballet and reworks it into a suspenseful soundtrack that retains just enough recognizability to make it spine-tingling and spooky. If you know the ballet score well, you know you're hearing bits of Swan Lake, but it's the scary version - it's very effective. I think this impressed me almost more than anything else about this film. I guess a ballet-loving oboe student WOULD notice something like that, right?

Bottom line: I was expecting a psychological thriller with some decent ballet and some disturbing unanswered questions, and I wasn't disappointed.