Showing 131 - 140 of 522 annotations tagged with the keyword "Ordinary Life"

Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

On February 16, 2003, readers of The New York Times Magazine came upon Harriet McBryde Johnson's cover story, "Unspeakable Conversations," and a remarkable image of her gazing directly at those readers from her power wheelchair.  Her story memorably recounts her uncompromising, yet civil disagreements with Utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer about nothing less than the value of her life.  That narrative essay is one of eleven stories published in Too Late to Die Young.

They make the case that philosophers and others have incorrectly imagined Johnson's life, and the lives of others with chronic and disabling conditions, as burdensome and not worth living.  Born with a degenerative neuromuscular disease, Johnson grew up in a family that appreciated her; she practiced law in her native Charleston, South Carolina, and became nationally known for her disability activism.  Still, she encountered a world filled with people who feared her condition.  Fear, she found, led them to assume that disability inevitably brings suffering and to use that assumption to justify acts that would prevent her birth.

Her stories, conversationally and often humorously, ask readers to question why they burden some people with calls to justify their lives or to assure the world that they experience pleasure.  Each story recounts an episode that reveals the pleasures Johnson experienced as an active agent in the world.  She ran for a county office, represented her state at a Democratic National Convention, stood her ground for free speech and against Secret Service tactics when President Reagan spoke at her law school, protested Labor Day Week-end telethons, traveled to Cuba to cover a disability conference for a magazine, advocated for clients in employment discrimination cases, and made many, many friends.

Feeling exhilarated rather than confined by her wheelchair, she bears witness, perhaps unexpectedly, to another pleasure:  "the simple delight of movement."  She writes of maneuvering around Charleston, "I zoom through chaotic swarms of tourists, zip around the raggedy sidewalks . . . loop around every inconveniently placed garbage can, with maximum speed and also with style and grace" (252).  But her stories also describe her wheelchair stumbling over incompatible surfaces, one of which sends her to an emergency room far from home.  This episode also brings moments of grace, this time with the ER staff.  After learning who she is, they Google her on-line profiles and writings.  Delighting in their patient with unpredictable needs, they place print-outs of her electronic portfolio in her chart.

View full annotation

Summary:

This collection of stories offers a sidelong view of medicine from the perspective of a thoughtful, experienced doctor of internal medicine at a teaching institution (UCSF) in an urban setting that brings a wide variety of types of patients to his door.  In a context of evident respect and admiration for even the quirkiest of them, Watts admits to the kinds of personal responses most have been trained to hide-laughter, anger, bewilderment, frustration, empathetic sorrow.  The cases he recounts include several whose inexplicabilities ultimately require action based as much on intuition as on science.  He includes several stories of illness among his own family and friends, and makes it clear in others how his professional decisions affect his home life and his own state of mind.  

View full annotation

Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Triggered in part by a trip to the Galápagos Islands, the author interweaves two parallel narratives: Darwin's "journey toward evolution" along with the related work of Alfred Russel Wallace; and the author's own journey through life, partially disabled and dependent on the specially fitted shoes that help him to walk.  Together these two narratives develop "all I have come to understand about chance and change, fear and transformation, variation and cultural context, ideas about the body that question the definition and existence of difference in all of our lives" (xvii).

Born with an unnamed congenital condition in which his fibulae are absent along with other lower limb "abnormalities," Fries underwent five major reconstructive surgeries as a child, but after those, what helped him most were special shoes that were fitted to his special body, assisting him to walk.  As an adult, however, he begins to experience back pain and knee problems.  The memoir relates, both in flashback, and in the present day, Fries's quest for a proper pair of shoes that will help him avoid yet another surgery -- the shoes he has been wearing are 20 years old and no longer do the job.  We meet Dr. Mendotti, who treated him like a peculiar specimen and offered a pharmacologic way out of his pain; shoemaker Eneslow, in a dingy Union Square office, whose shoes not only fit Fries well, but were festive in appearance -- "I felt both normal and special" (17); other practitioners of orthotics who try but fail to construct shoes that relieve Fries's pain, and finally, the gifted, patient orthoticist, Tom Coburn, who persists until he is able to provide shoes that work.  The shoes have been adapted for Fries's body, just as man has constructed adaptations that allow him to live in a variety of climates and circumstances.  Conversely, Fries, convinced he "can adapt to the circumstances in which my body places me (169)," draws from Darwin, whom he quotes: "individual differences are highly important for us, as they afford materials for natural selection to accumulate" (169).
 
Darwinian connections are invoked throughout the narrative.  The peculiar configuration of Fries's feet and shoes help him to ascend a series of mountain ladders while his partner, Ian -- who usually has to assist Fries with such physical maneuvers -- suddenly becomes fearful of the height and exposure;  back problems might have developed even without his congenital abnormalities because evolution of the capacity to walk upright included the tendency toward back pain; the role of chance in natural selection and the role of chance in the physical fact of congenital conditions; the positive role that his partner Ian's attention deficit disorder (ADD) could have played in the days of hunter-gatherers and the cultural context in which ADD is now considered to be "abnormal."
 
Fries discusses his fears -- both rational and irrational -- as well as his awareness of stigma, difference, and sameness.  The context of these discussions is usually a reminiscence about vacations in far-flung countries (Thailand, the Galápagos, Bali, Alaska, the Canadian Rockies) and physically challenging domestic locales (a Colorado River raft trip, the Beehive Mountain in Acadia National Park).  He  occasionally brings into the discussion his homosexuality, especially as his physical deformity affected sexual encounters.  The relationship between Fries and Ian is woven throughout the memoir as one of understanding, mutual need and benefit.  As the memoir ends, Fries worries about the likelihood he will need a wheelchair, but is at the same time gathering confidence in his ability to ride the Easy Flyer bicycle that Ian has discovered at the local bike shop.

View full annotation

Summary:

In the Introduction the editors describe the "day of reckoning" they each experienced at one point--the sudden realization that they were "fat." Prior to this insight, they had identified fatness with negative characteristics, like being funny or undesirable; the breakthrough came when they were able to experience fatness as simply factual and not value-laden. This freed them to enjoy their lives without looking over their shoulders, so to speak, to see how other people reacted to them. Their liberating insight led to this anthology, which consists of "works of notable literary merit...that illustrate the range of ’fat’ experience." (p. xiii)

A number of the stories and poems in Who Are You Looking At? have individual entries elsewhere in this database. These include: Andre Dubus, The Fat Girl; Stephen Dunn, Power; Jack Coulehan, The Six Hundred Pound Man; J. L. Haddaway, When Fat Girls Dream; Patricia Goedicke, Weight Bearing; Rawdon Toimlinson, Fat People at the Amusement Park; Monica Wood, Disappearing; and Raymond Carver, Fat (annotated by Carol Donley and also by Felice Aull and Irene Chen).

One of the outstanding pieces in the anthology is a long story by Junot Diaz entitled "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" (42 pages). Oscar is a Dominican boy who is both fat and a nerd. He is obsessed with girls, but none will have anything to do with him, until he meets Ana who becomes his (platonic) "best friend" until her boyfriend Manny returns from the Army.

As narrated by Oscar’s sister’s boyfriend, things go from bad to worse until Oscar spends a summer in Santo Domingo and meets Yvon, an older woman whose former boyfriend, the Captain, is a cop. When Oscar pursues Yvon, he first gets beat up and later the Captain kills him, but before the end he actually makes love to Yvon. In his last letter to his sister, Oscar writes, "So this is what everybody’s always talking about! Diablo! If only I’d known. The beauty! The beauty!"

Editor's note (4/14/09): The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was published as a full-length book in 2007 and won the Pulitzer Prize.

View full annotation

The Good Priest's Son

Price, Reynolds

Last Updated: Mar-23-2009
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Mabry Kincaid, a New York art conservator is flying home on September 11, 2001, when news comes to him on the plane of the attacks on the World Trade Center.  Unable to return to his apartment in the city, he decides to visit his aging father, an Episcopal priest, in his boyhood home in North Carolina. There he meets Audrey, an African-American seminary student in her forties, who has moved in to care for his disabled father.  In the ensuing weeks Mabry is led to reflect deeply not only on the fate of the country and of his career, but on how his father's apparently final illness compels him to come to new terms with their constrained relationship. The death of the brother Mabry always believed to be the favorite has left a painful chasm between father and son, made more so by his father's own admission of favoritism.

At the same time Mabry is coming to terms with his own diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and with the grief he continues to process since his wife's death from cancer.  Audrey and her son bring a new dimension to the life of the household and a widened sense of family to the two men as they struggle to lay the past to rest and to accept the radical uncertainties of the personal and national future. One interesting subplot involves Mabry's discovery of what is reputed to be a minor, uncatalogued Van Gogh painting, covered by the work of another artist, that he has brought home for his employer, now dead, and his musings about what to do with this undocumented treasure.  The question remains open for symbolic reflection as he leaves it behind in North Carolina and returns to New York for a very different kind of life than the one he left. 

View full annotation

Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

In this candid chronicle of what many would call a prolonged depression occasioned in part by her husband's illness and death, Norris, a popular memoirist and essayist, seeks carefully to distinguish the psychological or psycho-medical category of "depression" from the spiritual state of "acedia" or, more bluntly, "sloth," in its oldest and most precise sense.  In doing so she raises important questions about widespread and often imprecise use of categories derived from clinical psychology, an imprecision that may muddy the distinction between spiritual and psychopathological experience.

"Acedia" she defines as a failure of will, signifying a need for spiritual guidance and prayer, whereas "depression" requires medical treatment.  Going beyond the confessional, Norris suggests that acedia may be an endemic condition among middle-class Americans, over-busy but spiritually slothful.  The book is loosely organized, often characteristically lyrical, and more invitational than diagnostic.  Her purpose, finally, seems to be to inspire readers to embrace simple life-giving spiritual disciplines like reading the Psalms as a stay against excessive self-preoccupation and actual depression as well as spiritual depletion.  

View full annotation

Bioethics at the Movies

Shapshay, S., ed.

Last Updated: Feb-20-2009
Annotated by:
Henderson, Schuyler

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Anthology (Essays)

Summary:

Intended to "spark a philosophical dialogue among readers and in classrooms, clarifying, refining, and challenging the ethical positions people hold on a great many bioethical topics"(1), Bioethics at the Movies contains 21 essays discussing bioethical issues, from abortion and cloning to disability narratives and end-of-life care, in relation to various films. The two dozen authors come from the United States, Spain, Australia, Israel and the United Kingdom, and the majority have their academic homes in Departments of Philosophy. For the most part, the essays use one particular film as a springboard to discuss a bioethical topic, such as terminating pregnancies (The Cider House Rules), marketing organs (Dirty Pretty Things), and memory deletion (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Two films get a pair of essays (Gattaca and Million Dollar Baby), and several authors cover more than one film. In addition to the aforementioned films, Wit, Citizen Ruth, Bicentennial Man, I, Robot, Babe, Multiplicity, Star Trek: Nemesis, Ghost in the Shell, Dad, Critical Care, Big Fish, Soylent Green, Extreme Measures, Talk to Her, and Ikiru are closely covered.

View full annotation

Indestructible

Byer, Ben

Last Updated: Feb-14-2009
Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Video

Summary:

When diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) at age 36, filmmaker Ben Byer began recording a video diary.  Episodes from his diary create the engaging, coherent narrative of "Indestructible," a documentary that intimately, but unsentimentally invites viewers to witness Byer's and his family's responses to his diagnosis.  Their first impulse is to search for a cure for this degenerative disease, "the grim reaper of neurological diseases," a physician tells him.  They also find themselves seeking ways to understand living with loss, most centrally losing the illusion of control over their lives. 

Over the course of three years Byer and family travel to six countries, including Greece, China, Tibet, and Israel.  During his journey, Byer, an irrepressible extrovert, also seeks the companionship and insights of other ALS patients and families, wishing to create a world-wide bond among people who struggle daily.   A montage of clips from family videos prefaces the film, revealing Byer in the decades before his diagnosis.  The images show a luminous child, who grows into a playful, photogenically handsome teen ager and young man, husband, father, son, and brother.  His exceptional force of personality, incandescent smile, and spontaneous sense of humor fill the screen.  These robust images contrast touchingly with the thinner, clumsier Byer who later struggles to remove a t-shirt.  But they also reveal continuities between Byer's capacity to enjoy his life during seemingly carefree days and his strength of spirit as he becomes increasingly more disabled, disappointed, and introspective.  Although even such strength can't alter his condition, it nonetheless sees him through to the next day and fresh adventure.

The family in the montage and the film emerge as Byer's source of support as well as conflict.  One of the most devastating conflicts arises from his father Steve's restless determination to find treatments to reverse or retard ALS.  After searching the Internet for remedies, Steve turns his garage into an ad hoc distribution center for an herbal concoction he encourages his son to drink.  To advance his son's place on the waiting list of a Chinese neurosurgeon who performs olfactory cell transplantation, he recruits other ALS patients for the procedure.  The results are dubious, in some cases perhaps fatal.  After these strategies fail to reverse Byer's physical decline, and place others at risk, the camera rolls during a family showdown that exposes their fears and desperation as it acknowledges their love.  This memorable scene does so in a way that's consistent with the rest of the film: by letting the camera show, not tell. 

Even the many moments when Byer's family help him with daily activities and his most reflective moments at the end of his film resist sentimentality and easy didacticism.  Byer's equally irrepressible young son John raises a fork wound thick with pasta to his father's mouth and loops his belt through his pants, setting off giggles all around.  The ordinariness and extraordinariness of these acts, the learning of selflessness, the uneasy acceptance of dependency, the inevitability of loss are told through such images or captured in fragments lifted from daily conversations.  Bathing Byer, his brother Josh matter-of-factly says, "You don't have all the time in the world":  a searing acknowledgment of Byer's decline that reminds us of all human fragility.  The closing scenes of the film unobtrusively place Byer's solitary experience in the long history of the search for meaning in human struggle.  They record his wobbly, yet victorious ascent of Masada, supported by Josh, right after we hear a rabbi recount Camus's version of the myth of Sisyphus. 

 

View full annotation

Hotel du Lac

Brookner, Anita

Last Updated: Feb-12-2009
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Pseudonymic writer of romantic novels, Edith arrives at her Swiss hotel on lac Leman. She had been sent by friends to extract her from a situation, which at first is not clear.  The month ahead looks bleak and long.

With a keen eye, she observes her fellow guests, almost all female: beautiful, slender Monica with an eating disorder masked as indulgence of her tiny dog; a deaf, lame dowager ousted from her own home by a churlish daughter-in-law; a narcissistic mother and daughter whose amiable but inane conversation slowly begins to engulf Edith. These encounters ought to be fodder for her writing and they lead Edith to contemplate her own relationships with parents, aunts, women, men, and love.

Part of the narrative is conveyed in detailed letters to “dearest David,” letters that, we later learn, are never sent. Edith and David must be lovers, but soon it emerges that he is married and intent on staying that way; their affair is secret – possibly even to David. Even later, the reader discovers that Edith was on the verge of marriage to sensible, kind, older Geoffrey. But at the last minute, she left him literally standing at the altar--to his horror and that of those friends who have since packed her off to Switzerland.

A well turned out, wealthy male guest appears on the scene, Phillip Neville. He guesses Edith’s identity and challenges her to be less romantic and more selfish. He points out the value of marriage in terms of career, social standing, and simple companionship. Then he startles her by proposing. No love exists between them, they both admit. Nevertheless, Edith is on the verge of accepting his offer and his crass, unromantic view of the world, when a tedious, banal observation changes everything. She opts for freedom in romantic solitude.

View full annotation

Annotated by:
Spiegel, Maura

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

This is the story of an adult brother and sister whose lives are indelibly marked by the deaths of their parents, killed in a car accident when the children were young.  Set in the small town in upstate NewYork where they grew up, the film centers on a visit by Terry (Mark Ruffalo) to his older sister Sammy (Laura Linney). Portraying the vicissitudes of their relationship, the film traces the effects of loss on these two compelling individuals.

The film opens uncoyly with the scene of the parents' fatal car accident. Beneath the credits we watch the church-funeral, the two small children clutching hands while a Minister addresses the assembled.  

When the story picks up, we are introduced to the lives of the now adult siblings.  Sammy is still living in their parents' home, working in a local bank branch office and raising her son Rudy, a somber eight-year old who is becoming curious about his estranged father.  Rudy, at eight, is the age Terry was when their parents died. Sammy is a reliable, loving mom, but otherwise her life appears constricted.

We find Terry, the younger brother who is now twenty-five years old, saying goodbye to a much younger girlfriend; he is leaving to borrow some money from his sister, whom he hasn't seen in two years.  Terry, endearing but irresponsible, is leading a marginal existence, broke and unemployed, no fixed address.

A long restaurant reunion scene between the siblings reveals the texture of their relationship. We see that Sammy adores and worries about Terry; he is the light of her life.  Terry conveys restless discomfort with his sister's expectations, experiencing her concern for him as a burden.  He reveals that he has been out of touch because he was in prison for a while, and that he needs to borrow money to pay for a girl's abortion.

After learning that his girlfriend has attempted suicide, Terry sends her the money and decides to stay with Sammy for a while. In small increments, Terry and his nephew Rudy warm up to one another.  Meanwhile Sammy's life takes an unexpected turn as she begins an affair with her controlling, married boss (Matthew Broderick); this begins just after an old flame of hers resurfaces with a marriage proposal.  Neither relationship provides her much nourishment. Without easy answers, the film helps us connect the dots between Sammy's unsatisfying relationships with men and her adaptation to loss and to becoming the caretaking elder sibling.  

Terry's visit goes wrong when, after a series of small irresponsible dealings with Rudy, Terry takes it upon himself to introduce the child to his estranged father, resulting in an ugly scene.  Sammy, distraught, asks her brother to leave, as he "doesn't know how to be around an eight year old."  The film ends with their farewell as they wait for Terry's bus out of town. Terry doesn't know where he is heading or when he'll be back. The scene presents a remarkable exchange of feelings as Terry comforts Sammy, telling her it's always good to know that she "is back here rooting" for him, and assuring her that "everything will be all right -comparatively."   Sammy cannot draw him into her world or her life, and every parting with him feels permanent. They find their childhood connection in this scene--and the camera follows each of them for several beats after they separate, Terry on the bus and then Sammy driving to work.  We feel them slowly absorbing the violence of severing--going back into themselves.  Have they affirmed that in fact they can count on one another or reminded themselves (and us) that nothing can be counted on?

A surprise element in the movie is the character of Father Ron, a Minister played by writer-director Kenneth Lonergan.  Sammy turns to the minister for guidance, seeking advice about her brother.  In two surprising scenes, Father Ron injects into the narrative a sweetly earnest note regarding faith and finding meaning in our lives. 

View full annotation