Showing 41 - 50 of 121 annotations contributed by Shafer, Audrey

The Vanishing Line

Grainger-Monsen, Maren

Last Updated: May-19-2007
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Video

Summary:

Maren Grainger-Monsen, a filmmaker and emergency medicine physician, chronicles her personal journey towards understanding death and dying as she explores the stories of those near death. The film uses a metaphor of the thread of life, and the three Greek Fates who control life (spinning, measuring and cutting this thread), to interweave Monsen's journey with the lives--and deaths--she encounters.

The film begins with her recollection of two experiences during her emergency medicine training: the first time she is paged to pronounce someone dead and a "crisis point"--resuscitating a patient, brought to the emergency room, who had specifically requested no resuscitation. The remainder of the film focuses on Jim Brigham, a social worker for a hospice program, whom Monsen joins for his home hospice visits and who relates the touching and memorable story of his wife's life and death.

Some of the patients Jim visits are Tex, a man dying of heart failure who had experienced a difficult, scary night; Sean, who has Lou Gehrig's disease and who needs help with paperwork and family concerns; and Anna Marie, who has lymphoma and is taken via ambulance to the hospital for comfort measures. Monsen notes how comfortable Jim is discussing death issues and how compassionate and caring he is with a recent widow in the midst of her "grief work." By contrast, Monsen admits to feelings of helplessness, vulnerability, even terror. She wishes her medical education had not been so devoid of teaching regarding death and dying.

Monsen comments on the wavering line between life and death, and whether the "medical machine" prolongs life or death. She visits a young boy left with severe brain damage following a near-drowning incident and "successful" resuscitation 5 years previously. The boy requires constant care, but his father notes that his son is "doing pretty good."

By the end of the film, Monsen has learned "how to sit with someone . . . while death walks into the room." Death no longer equates with failure. She concludes with her overvoice, "I wonder what it will be like to be a doctor who doesn't see death as the enemy."

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Fieldwork

Hicok, Bob

Last Updated: May-18-2007
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Summary:

Hicok begins the poem with a statement and jocular rhetorical question that set the tone and pace: "There are two kinds of people and five hundred / seventy-one thousand, three hundred / ninety-six species of beetle but who's / counting?" Immediately we wonder what are the two types of people and who would take the trouble to write out a species count while also joking about it.

The engagement with the poem continues as we learn about the narrator's platonic friend, an entomologist, freshly returned from the Amazon with a bottled beetle and a raging fever. The narrator, alarmed at her delusional state, rushes her to the hospital ("driving / in a way that proved you can be / in two places at the same time") and good medical care. After several days she has regained enough strength to say one word--jar--which refers to the jar containing her beetle specimen. The narrator restores the jar to her, she recovers and returns to the life she loves, a life in the treetops of the Amazon jungle.

Through the course of the poem, the poet plays with all manner of philosophy and religion. The beetle's body is likened to Michelangelo's image of the finger of God reaching towards Adam. The poet plays with numbers as well, rearranging the numbers of types of people and beetles (and throwing in the number of "delicatessens where you can get a fried- / tuna sandwich on waffles"). This lightness is a disarming way to shed light on the heart of the poem--the narrator's deep caring for the scientist and the scientist's deep caring for her work of discovery.

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Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

Paul Edgecombe (Tom Hanks) is in charge of death row in a 1935 Louisiana penitentiary. The cell block is nicknamed "The Green Mile?due to its green linoleum floor--the path that an inmate must walk from his cell to the room with the electric chair. Paul, a decent, moral man, treats each prisoner with respect. His life changes, however, with the admission of John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), a huge African-American man convicted of the rape and murder of two young sisters. Despite his powerful build, Coffey is gentle--and possesses a miraculous, mysterious power to heal.

Coffey heals Paul's bladder infection, resurrects a dead mouse, Mr. Jingles, that is the treasure of another inmate, "Del,?and cures the warden's wife of her inoperable brain cancer. Each healing requires direct contact between Coffey and the "patient,?and is accompanied by much electric and mystical effects. Coffey takes the infection, brokenness, disease into his body and is able to expel it, though it exhausts him.

Coffey's powers extend to visions and he directly feels the pain of others. He transmits his visions of the death of the two girls to Paul--who realizes that Coffey is innocent (indeed he had been trying to "heal?the children when he was apprehended) and that another inmate on the green mile is guilty of the crime. Paul, counseled by his supportive wife (Bonnie Hunt), asks Coffey what to do. Coffey, exhausted from suffering the knowledge of the evil of the world and cognizant of his lowly position as a poor black man, asks to have the execution proceed. His only request is to watch a "flicker show.?Paul arranges for him to see a Fred Astaire movie.

The executions are graphically depicted. One is particularly gruesome because of the evilness of the whiny, rookie guard, Percy, who deliberately causes a prisoner (Del) to suffer in the extreme. After giving the orders for Coffey's execution and watching him die, Paul quits his job.

The story is framed by Paul as an old man in a nursing home. Paul "tells?his story to another elderly "inmate?as an explanation for why he was overcome when watching the Fred Astaire movie in the common room. Paul reveals that he is far older than thought possible--as is Mr. Jingles who is still alive six decades later. Paul and the mouse were "infected with life?when touched by Coffey.

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An Uncertain Grace

Salgado, Sebastiao

Last Updated: May-17-2007
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Photography

Genre: Photography

Summary:

This powerful book of black and white photographs contains four sections labeled: I. The End of Manual Labor, 1986-, II. Diverse Images 1974-87, III. Famine in the Sahel, 1984-85, and IV. Latin America, 1977-84. In addition, photographs accompany the prose-poetry opening essay, "Salgado, 17 Times," by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano and the concluding essay, "The Lyric Documentarian," by former New York Times picture editor Fred Ritchin. This oversize book concludes with a list of captions for the photographs and a detailed two-page biography of Salgado. Essentially the photographs cover Salgado’s impressive work from 1974-89.

Every image is of a person or people. Many are suffering, many are starving, grieving, keening, dying, displaced. Many are children. Many are laboring under impossibly harsh conditions such as the teeming, mud-coated manual laborers of the Brazilian Serra Pelada gold mine. An Ethiopian father anoints the corpse of his famine starved, skin and bone child with oil. An old man, squinting in the sun, leans over to touch the arm of an equally thin and weak man in a Sudanese refugee camp. Rarely, the people are smiling or celebrating.

The photographs are global: Angola, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Brazil, Chad, Cuba, Ecuador, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mali, Mexico, Portugal, Sudan, Thailand, and more. As Galeano notes, "This much is certain: it would be difficult to look at these figures and remain unaffected. I cannot imagine anyone shrugging his shoulder, turning away unseeing, and sauntering off, whistling." (p. 7) [156 pp.]

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Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

In October, 1939, Josef Kavalier arrives at the New York City apartment of his cousin Sammy Klayman after an arduous escape from Prague and the Nazi invasion. Kavalier’s escape involved hiding in the casket of the oversized Golem of Prague, and was possible due to his training with Bernard Kornblum, one of the premier illusionists in Europe. Kavalier, the son of two physicians, and older brother to young Thomas, struggles to secure the freedom of his family, and to adapt to his adopted country.

His cousin, Sammy, however, is a first generation New York City Jew, the son of a psychiatric nurse at Bellevue and a fly-by-night vaudeville actor called the Mighty Molecule. Sammy was afflicted with polio as a child, with resultant spindly but usable legs--this later prevents his entry into the armed services after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Sammy, who changes his name to Sam Clay, forms a partnership with his cousin to create a new kind of comic book, The Escapist, with innovations such as the Luna Moth, a female superhero. Much of the book follows their energies in the comic book industry in mid-twentieth century New York.

Rosa Luxemburg Saks, Sammy and Joe form an unusual love triangle. Rosa is an artist who introduces the cousins to the art culture of NYC, including a visit from Salvador Dalí, whom Joe rescues from asphyxiation in a diving suit during a Greenwich Village party. Joe and Rosa’s relationship, however, is interrupted by World War II, when Joe, devastated by news of his family in Europe, enlists, only to survive again--this time from carbon monoxide poisoning in an Antarctic Kelvinator Naval station.

Meanwhile Sam and Rosa marry to raise her son. Sam, a homosexual at a time when such a designation was largely viewed as a disease and as Un-American, spends much of his life in denial of his yearnings. Nonetheless he is eventually forced to testify to a Senate Judiciary Committee in 1954 on the role of the comic book industry in the trumpeting of male-male relationships.

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Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History

Summary:

In this account of early practitioners and advocates of 'inoculation,' or the use of tiny amounts of smallpox contagion to induce a mild case of smallpox and immunity, author Carrell weaves prodigious historical research with fictionalized dialogue to create a tale of two prominent figures: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu of London and Dr. Zabdiel Boylston of Boston. Both Lady Mary and Boylston suffered scarring from smallpox, and, by living in the early 18th century, both witnessed the devastation of epidemics in terms of public health and private loss.

Both were also aware of the use of inoculation to prevent severe disease in Turkey (Lady Mary visited with her ambassador husband) and in Africa (on the advice of Cotton Mather, Boylston interviewed Africans, slave and freemen, living in Boston). Both faced formidable challenges and risked personal security to promote the use of this technique. Both proved their belief in the technique by the inoculation of their own children. And both, perhaps, met. At the behest of the Royal Society, Boylston traveled to London, witnessed numerous inoculations, and presented his Boston experience to the Society.

The book also chronicles the natural course of the disease, its various symptoms, forms and popular treatments, and the political impact of smallpox on the royal families of Europe and business interests in Boston. The medical research of various doctors is detailed. In particular, selected Newgate prisoners were offered pardon in return for participation in an experiment conducted by Mr. Maitland, who also inoculated Lady Mary's children. These experiments were used to test the safety and efficacy of inoculation prior to royal inoculation.

Ultimately, detractors of inoculation ceased their vitriolic attacks, as the risks of inoculation were proven to be far lower than exposure without such protection. The success of inoculation paved the way for Edward Jenner, often called 'the father of immunology,' to successfully use cowpox to induce smallpox immunity later in the 18th century.

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Holy the Firm

Dillard, Annie

Last Updated: Apr-23-2007
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

The narrator is a woman who lives alone in a rural area of Puget Sound. She is a writer, an observer, a spiritual thinker. "Each day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time" begins her musings about the first of three days. But on day two, a catastrophe occurs: a small plane crashes and a seven-year-old girl’s face is "burned off" as she is carried away from the explosion in her father’s arms.

The narrator had met the girl once before, at a neighbor’s farm, and had formed a connection--they looked alike and the girl playfully tormented the narrator’s cat with a dress-up game. The narrator imagines the girl in the hospital, imagines her future life as a nun with no face, and ultimately imagines a gentler future in which the girl’s face is restored, she is married and the narrator has assumed the function of the nun for her.

Throughout, the narrator wrestles with the hard questions of life: why are we here; why do horrible things happen; what is the relationship of God and the world; where is God and what is he doing? She is angry: "Do we need blind men stumbling about, and little flamefaced children, to remind us what God can--and will--do?"

A Christian, she seeks answers in her wide-ranging theology, and seems to find an inroad in the idea of "Holy the Firm"--a substance lower than salts and minerals, below the earth’s crust, in touch with "the Absolute." The narrator hence posits that "Holy the Firm" allows for an unbroken circle between God, Christ, and the created world.

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Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Dr. Pauline Chen is a transplant surgeon and hence highly trained in the surgical care of desperately ill patients. She found, however, that although she had intensive and first rate training, time and again the message she received from her mentors and peers encouraged a distance from frank discussions about dying with patients who were clearly dying. Dr. Chen successfully suppressed her urges to reflect on the meaning of illness and death. Years into her training, she finally witnessed an attending surgeon stay with a patient and the patient's wife until the patient passed away. The widow sent a thank you note to Dr. Chen for allowing a "dignified and peaceful death." (p. 101) Chen notes that observing her attending stand with the patient during death changed her profoundly: "...from that moment on, I would believe that I could do something more than cure. This narrative, then, is my acknowledgment to him." (p. 101)

Final Exam chronicles Chen's journey from medical student to attending surgeon and examines her experiences with death and serious illness - of patients, family members, friends. The memoir contains three parts: Principles, Practice, and Reappraisal - each with three chapters. The book is chronologically arranged, beginning with anatomy dissection at the start of medical school and ending with Chen as an attending arranging for hospice, thus honoring a patient's desire to die at home rather than in hospital. Chen skillfully weaves her stories around commentary on the social, cultural and philosophical issues surrounding death and the medical response to death. An introduction and epilogue bookend the text and 46 pages of extensive notes and bibliography complete the book.

Although Chen claims to have slowly and painfully awakened to the fact that patient needs extend well beyond good technical care, in fact one sees Chen emerge as a caring physician even from her initial patient contacts in medical school. Chen speaks more to her role as an Asian-American than to being a woman in a male-dominated field, but she clearly has what it takes to succeed in this extremely competitive field, including a good dose of compulsiveness and an incredible work ethic.

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Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Summary:

This strong, powerful poem of grief for the death of an infant son in an intensive care unit is written by a poet who lost two of his five children. The rhythm of the poem is jazz, pulsing and pulsating, with well-controlled rests. Some words are run together: " . . . mamaborn, sweetsonchild / gonedowntown into researchtestingwarehousebatteryacid" which evokes (among other things) the frenzied atmosphere of a neonatal intensive care unit and the seemingly inevitable rush towards death.

Much of the poem deals with the distrust of the medical community, which is emphasized by the divide of race: the white doctors and nurses in white uniforms versus the African-American patient and family. The frustration of dependence on others is painful for the father during the nightmare of his baby’s dying. However, the poet reaches a higher level of understanding about his pain and grief; he acknowledges that the baby did receive all that medicine had to offer and he recognizes the complicated responsibilities one acquires by experiencing a loss.

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The Gift

Lee, Li-Young

Last Updated: Jan-09-2007
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Summary:

The narrator, painlessly removing a splinter from his wife's hand, recalls the scene when he was a boy of seven and his father removed an "iron sliver" splinter from his palm. The father had skillfully distracted his son by telling a story in a voice reassuring and low: "a well / of dark water, a prayer."

Darker themes are alluded to--his father's hands were used not just to give love and protection, but also discipline. The narrator notes that as a boy he did not over-dramatize the scene. Rather, something precious was exchanged between father and son. In fact, it could have appeared to the onlooker that the father was "planting" (rather than removing) "a silver tear, a tiny flame" on his son's palm. The poem ends with the boy holding the removed splinter and kissing his father.

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