Lauren Bacall, 1924-2014

13 08 2014

I think I was in high school when I became enamored of Lauren Bacall. I have no idea why.

It might have been that she was starring on Broadway then, and I was into all things theater; it might have been. . . geez, really, that’s all I got.

I mean, I hadn’t seen any of her movies at that point—didn’t for years—and was hardly a film aficionado. The only other thing I can think of is that I read the book Real Women Bring Flowers, and there were a number of choice Bacall (or, perhaps, screenwriter) quotes sprinkled throughout the text.

In any case, I read her first autobiography, By Myself, and promptly decided she was a dame worth admiring. I knew she was called Betty by friends, that she held her chin low in that first scene with Bogart to keep it from quivering, almost married Sinatra, and didn’t see the physical resemblance so often pointed out to her between her first (Bogart) and second (Jason Robards) husbands.

What was admirable about any of that, or anything else that she wrote or said or did? I honestly can’t say. Maybe because she did seem honest, forthright, that she was beautiful and strong and smart and never hid any of it. She was who she was.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

To a teenager who wasn’t at all sure of herself or her place anywhere, that you could simply be seemed astonishing.

And worth admiring, then and now.





Kathleen Cranley Glass, 1942-2014

20 04 2014

Kathy was kind. She was smart, and she was tough.

But what I will remember, first, is that she was kind.

She was in charge of the Biomedical Ethics Unit at McGill during my postdoc, and while I think I spoke to her on the phone before moving to Montréal, I hadn’t met her before then. I was going to fly up to Montréal to look for an apartment, but she’d assured me that I could find a place upon arrival.

In all my years of knowing her, that might have been the only time she gave me bad advice. (Well, that and suggesting that if I liked Montréal, I’d probably like Boston, too.)

In every other way, however, Kathy was as fine a guide into bioethics and Québec as I could have hoped for. She and her husband Leon invited me over for dinner more times than I could count—in fact, I stayed with them a good chunk of the time I was looking for an apartment—and took me hiking outside of the city, and to various festivals within it.

She also tried to convince me that Montréal bagels were as good as New York bagels, but that didn’t take. (Montréal bagels are fine—and, honestly, given how pillowy so many NY bagels have become of late, certainly the better size—but a bit too sweet for my taste.)

Mostly, though, I remember the many long conversations with her in her office, first in the old building on Peel, then in her corner office in the building on the other side of the street. I’d have been in my office at the end of the day and have wandered over to hers to say goodbye, then end up staying for an hour or two as we talked about ethics and genetics and politics and music and memory.

She was generous with her time and with herself.

Again, she was kind as she worked her way through her and my thoughts, but it was through these long conversations, as well as in our various BMU meetings, seminar, and colloquia, that her tough-mindedness revealed itself. It was so easy to skip past the basics, but Kathy always returned to them, and to the basic necessity of patient and subject protection.

That was Kathy’s abiding concern: how to take care of people, be they patients at the Children’s Hospital, where she served as a clinical ethicist, or when writing about subjects in clinical trials. She and her colleagues (including Stan Shapiro and Charles Weijer) returned again and again to the necessity of clinical equipoise in research trials, especially in regards to trials of psychoactive medications.

All too often psychiatric patients would be—are—offered fewer subjects-protections than other similarly seriously ill patient-subjects: instead of testing new treatments against current ones, researchers test the investigational drug against. . . nothing. Not only will this skew the results by inflating the effects of the drug—which is bad enough—but subjects who might otherwise benefit from current treatments are denied them, and thus, suffer as a direct and entirely predictable result of their participation in the trial.

This, as Kathy would note, is a textbook definition of unethical research.

She and Stan focused on psychiatric patients, but Kathy’s research ranged widely across bioethics and included considerations of genetic and stem cell research. She worked with Bartha Knoppers at the Université de Montréal and Françoise Baylis at Dalhousie in trying to come to grips with the then-novel human embryonic stem cell research.

Bartha and Françoise can be aggressive in argumentation—I am like them in that respect—but Kathy was not one to be flattened by fast-rolling words. She was too acute a thinker.

This is what I missed, at first. Her kindness, her gentleness, was so immediately apparent, that I made the mistake I too often made: that a softness means weakness.

She was soft; she was also sharp. There was no contradiction.

That is a lesson I’m still learning.

I am so sorry that I will never be able to tell her how much she meant to me, personally and intellectually. I am a better thinker for having known her, and a better teacher for having taught alongside her. She is, and will remain, a touchstone. I will miss her for the rest of my life.

She died at home, among her family, April 12. Rest in peace, Kathy.

Thanks to Jonathan Kimmelman for tracking me down and notifying me of Kathy’s death.





Maxine Kumin, 1925-2014

8 02 2014

I skipped the reading.

I didn’t do the reading, so I skipped the reading.

I had no idea what I was missing until I had already missed it.

~~~

The TA in my first creative writing class assigned us Maxine Kumin’s The Retrieval System around the time that Kumin would be visiting campus. We weren’t required to go, so I didn’t bother. After I got around to reading the poems, I thought, Oh, too bad, but not much beyond that.

It was only in re-reading did I think, Oh no!

~~~

The Longing to Be Saved

When the barn catches fire
I am wearing the wrong negligee.
It hangs on my like a gunny sack.
I get the horses out, but they
wrench free, wheel, dash back
and three or four trips are required.
Much whinnying and rearing as well.
This happens when I travel.

At the next stopover, the children take off
their doctor and lawyer disguises
and turn back into little lambs.
They cower at windows from which flames
shout like the tattered red clot
of dimestore devil suits. They refuse
to jump into my waiting arms, although
I drilled them in this technique years ago.

Finally they come to their senses and leap
but each time, the hoop holds my mothers.
Her skin is as dry and papery
as a late onion. I take her
into my bed, an enormous baby
I do not especially want to keep.
Three nights of such disquiet
in and out of dreams as thin as acetate

until, last of all, it’s you
trapped in the blazing fortress.
I hold the rope as you slide from danger.
It’s tricky in high winds and drifting snow.
Your body swaying in space
grows heavier, older, stranger

and me in the same gunny sack
and the slamming sounds as the gutted building burns.
Now the family’s out, there’s no holding back.
I go in to get my turn.

~~~

I’ve written about her before, called on her when I needed someone durable and clear.

She was so clear about so many things. You can notice things, she said in her poems, without having to make a fuss.

You can live this life and accept these burdens and not like it and accept it anyway. You can get naked and laugh and admire the beavers even as you curse them and notice the spiders in the sink and grant them dreams. You can eat all of the wild red raspberries.

It’s all life, she wrote. It’s all just life.

~~~

I wrote a paper on her in my intermediate poetry seminar, used lines from “How It Is” (. . ./with vodka and ice, our words like living meat) to start off a grad paper on Habermas, and for the last chapter of my dissertation, drew from “After the Cleansing in Bosnia” (We saw the great brooding wings hump by./We felt the empty air rush back./We saw there was no obstacle).

Political scientists might consider poetry too elusive for explication, and it is. But it also cuts through, reveals a moment that neatly stacked paragraphs cannot. You can’t think your way past her skin is as dry and papery/as a late onion.

You can only stop, recognize. Yesss.

~~~

She was in her seventies when her horse Dexter tipped her out of her carriage, then tumbled it over her.

For the accident itself I have total amnesia. I come back to consciousness facedown, my arms and legs asprawl. My limbs are numb, I am only vaguely aware they are still attached to me. Kathy, an old carriage-driving buddy who happens to be an emergency room nurse, is kneeling beside me, keeping me absolutely immobile. It is she who saves my life.

I gasp. “I can’t breath,” and she comforts me. “Yes, you can. Just keep taking little sips of air.”

Inside the Halo

Just keep taking little sips of air. The line comes from her friend and savior, Kathy, but Kumin takes them and makes them her own.

~~~

Little sips of air. That’s how we get through. It’s all just life.





Tracey ‘Quinn’, 1965-2014

2 02 2014

She lied.

“If you text me, Terri, I’ll text you back.” I laughed as I headed for the door. “I will. If you text me, I’ll text you back.”

~~~

I first met Tracey at my second Big & National bookstore. She was a cashier, not much bigger than me, with a leprechaun tattoo and a scowl.

If you’ve ever worked retail, you know how it goes: You’re new, so nobody knows you or has much use for you. You have to show that you’re not going to make your co-workers’ lives harder, and prove that maybe there’s some point to you, after all.

Nothing personal; that’s just how it is.

I worked front desk with a bunch of people, among them C. We became friendly pretty quickly—she’s one of those people who others are drawn to—so when Tracey would lope over for some conversation, I tried to join in.

She wasn’t having it. She didn’t say anything nasty to me; she just looked at me like Who are you and Can’t you see I’m talkin’ to C.?

The Bronx accent; did I mention the accent?

C. was my in with Tracey, the signal that maybe I was okay. We talked history and World War II—Tracey read everything she could about WWII—and finally bonded over, you guessed it, cats. She and her girlfriend had a beautiful kitty Sammy, and whenever I asked about him her scowl would transform into this huge, toothy, smile, and she’d show me pictures of Sammy on her phone.

The day she put her arm around me and told me Sammy died, I cried.

She and E., her partner, got Piper, and oh did Tracey love that cat, pouring herself into that kitty. Unsurprisingly, Piper is as irascible as Tracey was.

C. has her now.

~~~

Her last name wasn’t Quinn, but it’s what she’d sometimes tell people. I didn’t know her real last name until this past summer, when she went into the hospital for another round of cancer treatment.

But, for whatever reason, she wanted to keep her name to herself, so I’ll keep her alias, for her.

~~~

When Tracey got sick, it was E. who told everyone.

E. and Tracey fit together, although you had to get past the “Really?” to see that. Tracey was almost twice as old as E., but it was E. who first hit on Tracey. And E.’s as open as Tracey was wary.

They took such care of each other, and as Tracey got sicker and sicker, E. stayed right there.

They loved each other; they were lucky to have each other.

~~~

It was fall when it was determined there was nothing more to be done. A year, maybe.

C. and I trekked out a couple of times to a neighborhood hospital in Queens, where Tracey presided over her room. This table had to be here and that table there, and the chairs just so and don’t mess with the curtains or anything.

When she wanted to move out of her bed she needed her morphine drip unplugged, so I did that. Whenever she shifted, I’d jump up. “Not so fast. Stay away from that plug, Terri. Whaddya trying to do with that plug?”

Don’t ask so many questions and don’t make any decisions for her. She knows what she wants, so just do what she says.

And give her a kiss before you go.

~~~

At her sister’s, yesterday, she held court over the chairs in front of the t.v. She was comfortable, she said. She could lean back in one chair and put her legs up on the other, and her nephew’s cat would jump up on her and they would fall asleep together.

I brought her peanut butter (Skippy’s, creamy) and C. brought her cookies and E. helped her into her over-shirt so she could “look presentable”.

Her stomach was hurting her and it hurt when she laughed but she wanted to laugh, so she did. I nagged her about her pain meds, but not too much: Tracey wanted to remember. She didn’t want to go before she was gone.

Tracey asked about Piper and C. mentioned that the cat was, ah, difficult. Tracey and E. laughed. Yeah, that’s how she is. Get a towel, Tracey said, and throw it over her. Something soft. She spied her blue robe. Like this. Take this.

Put your scent on it, E. suggested, so Tracey wrapped herself in it, rubbing her face and hands into the soft blue.

As we got up to leave, she directed me to take the robe. Fold it nice! she demanded.

I went back over to her chair. You want to move this? What about the stuff up here?

Don’t touch anything! (I’m not! I’m just pointing!) Don’t you point at anything!

I laughed. There it is, I said. Now I feel better that you yelled at me.

I hugged her, longer than I ever hugged her, and kissed her goodbye. She hugged C., then got a little time, too little time, with E.

We’ll see you soon, we said. I’d text you, I said, but you never text back.

“If you text me, Terri, I’ll text you back. I’ll text you back.”

~~~

She died in her sleep, early this morning. She was there, and then she was gone. Just as she wanted.

Tracey to the end.





Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, 1918-2013

5 12 2013

One of the best human beings of the 20th century.

He was not a saint, not a martyr.

He simply demanded to be treated as a human being, and knew how to be human.

He will be missed.

~~~

Photo from Mandela Day





One hundred years of absurdism

7 11 2013

Okay, not really: Camus didn’t begin writing out of the womb.

Still, if Sartre gave us the better line—Hell is other people—and sought to hero-ize our existence, Camus gave us the ache of meaning amidst meaningless-ness. He gave us absurdity.

I’d read The Myth of Sisyphus a couple of times when I was in my self-destructive cups, and, honestly, it didn’t do anything for me. Too much exhortation. Too much hero-izing.

But The Plague, well, that crept in. Yes, there is speechifying, but rather than inflating the speaker, it undercuts him. It is the speech of undoing, of peeling away.

I have realized that we all have the plague, and I have lost my peace. And today I am still trying to find it; still trying to understand all those others and not to be the mortal enemy of anyone. I only know that one must do what one can to cease being plague-stricken, and that’s the only way in which we can hope for some peace, or, failing that, a decent death. This, and only this, can bring relief to men and, if not save them, at least do them the least harm possible and even, sometimes, a little good.

Just so—absurdly so.





Lou Reed, 1942-2013

27 10 2013

Lou Reed, that magnificent bastard, is dead at 71,

I went through a serious Lou Reed/Velvet Underground phase in grad school, hoovering up every last cd I could find. The ardor, as always, cooled, but the affection remained.

Still, my real introduction to Lou Reed (not Lou, not Reed), was in the 1980s, when I read about him in either The Nation or Mother Jones, and when “Walk on the Wild Side” was used to pitch the Honda Spree. I get why musicians and fans might consider the sale of songs to corporations selling out (because it is), but that particular sale (along with Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” Volkswagon ad) introduced me to a fan-fucking-tastic artist.

Anyway, my first album of his was New Sensations, which is not bad, but not great. This the song that stuck with me:

Fly, baby, fly.

~~~

h/t (if you can believe it) Rod Dreher








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