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Amazing Change

Carroll, Robert

Last Updated: Jun-04-2010
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)

Summary:

In his preface to Amazing Change, Robert Carroll speaks directly about the power of poetry to heal. At a time of great personal loss, he says, "I began writing as a way of dealing with the inchoate, yet overwhelming, feelings I was experiencing... hopefully, to facilitate a healing process for myself." The poems collected in Amazing Change, which bears the subtitle "Poetry of Healing and Transformation: The Wisdom That Illness, Death and Dying Provide," reveal the depth and power of that healing process. They show the reader that poetic healing not only engages a person in self-discovery, but also in sharing that discovery with others. Wholeness is a community project.

While Amazing Change deals with serious subjects, many of the poems approach the subjects with humor and a light touch of irony. This is particularly true in "Dr. Bob's Psychomedical Poetics--Infomercial 1" (pp. 78-80) and "Dr. Bob's Psychomedical Poetics--Infomercial 2" (pp. 109-111). "Spiritual Soup" (p. 93) is another example of the value of humor in the good life, along with other core ingredients like marriage, prayer, hospitality, blues, hope, and pot luck.

Among the finest poems in this collection is "Kaddesh for My Father" (pp. 47-53). Written in filial homage to the poet's father, in artistic homage to Allen Ginsberg, and in spiritual homage to the Judaic tradition, "Kaddesh for My Father" seamlessly integrates personal detail and anecdote about his father with ritualized expressions of prayer and emotion.  In this and many other poems, Carroll employs poetic form and/or historical exemplars to enhance the meaning of his work, but never allows them to constrain or dilute his personal vision.

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Dying for Beginners

Clary, Patrick

Last Updated: Jun-04-2010
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)

Summary:

Patrick Clary's Dying for Beginners is a collection of vibrant poems about living (as well as dying); about family, friends, music, loss, war and love. The book's title is evocative of the countercultural insight that dying is an essential part of living.  We only become fully human by coming to grips with our own mortality.  This engagement with mortality emerges from love and humor, as well as from suffering and loss.  Clary's poems speak to what he has discovered about himself, as a beginner to his fellow beginners.

The poet's route to discovery traverses Death Valley, where, during a spiritual retreat and vision quest, he has this epiphany: "Suddenly, I find all my wounds are turning into blessings" (p. 1). This inversion of categories is not an exotic, one-off event, but becomes a new way of looking at the world, a perspective in which life events, carefully observed and described, blossom with deeper meanings that can only be expressed by metaphor or paradox. For example, in "Days I Don't Remember," Clary reflects, "And all my roads are turning into rivers" (p. 27). Or, in "Meditation on the Pays d'Oc," he observes, "Instead of dying, I cough up a butterfly, watch it / dry its wings in the sun..." (p. 74). Or the essential quietism of "That silence moving through our lives was me" (p. 33).

The poet had his first lessons in dying when he worked as a medic during the Vietnam War, In "Orientation at Bien Hoa," he discovers, "Yes, gentlemen / This little war here / Exists only / For one reason: / To give you all the pleasure / You can handle" (p. 10).  He also learns how easy it is to kill with an M 16 rifle, which can "Put eighteen holes in / Whatever you point it at / Inside of two seconds" (p. 11). Meanwhile, the human tragedy of Vietnam takes place all around him.  

Clary reflects on the limits of his calling in "Three Variations", where he observes his own hands, "professionally / Tender on demand, but still uneasy / At your easy tenderness" (p. 35). The words "professionally tender on demand" evoke his work in palliative medicine, although the same words could-and should-apply to medical practice in general.  But Clary recognizes that the human capacity for compassion is not inexhaustible. There will always be a tension between the work that needs to be done ("another pair of hands in the emergency room," p. 63) and our limited reserves of kindness and empathy.

The book ends with a humorous and moving short prose narrative ("Origins of the Earwax Patrol," pp. 83-86) about caring for terminally ill patients.

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Annotated by:
Henderson, Schuyler

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Theater

Genre: Theater

Summary:

This annotation is based upon the version presented at The Mint Theatre in New York City in 2010, translated and directed by Gus Kaikkonnen.  It featured Thomas M. Hammond as Dr Knock and Patrick Husted as Dr Parpalaid, with Chris Mixon, Scott Barrow, and Patti Perkins in supporting roles.

A middle-aged but recently licensed physician, one Dr Knock, has arrived in rural France to take over a practice purchased from the genial old country doctor, Dr Paraplaid.  Much to Dr Knock's surprise, he discovers that Dr Paraplaid has done very little over the past three decades, seeing only a few patients a week and enjoying much of the time playing pool, riding around in his jalopy, and admiring the countryside.  Feeling slightly cheated, Dr Knock realizes that the practice he has purchased at some expense amounts to very little at all. He is, however, an ambitious man.  He did not become a licensed physician in the eager flush of late adolescence but as a man of the world, or rather, a man of the entreprenurial modern world where opportunities are seized and technology is transformative.  

Once Dr Paraplaid has gone, Dr Knock promptly sets about employing the town crier to advertise his practice so that the entire valley knows he is there.  He meets up with the local school teacher and the pharmacist, enlisting them as allies.  With everybody he encounters, he smilingly and then sharply insists that unlike Dr Paraplaid, he will not go by "Monsieur" but by "Doctor".  And when he actually opens the office, he begins by offering free consultations.  Of course, he always seems to find something wrong, elaborately explaining the aches, pains, and illnesses he discovers (or induces), but the free consultations, like free "samples" are designed to create grateful customers.  Invariably, they learn that the cost of the treatment is commensurate with the exact maximum amount they could pay.  And thus, Dr Knock takes a placid, lazy practice and builds up an expanding medical business. 

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Autism and Representation

Osteen, M., ed.

Last Updated: Jun-02-2010
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Anthology (Essays)

Summary:

The book's chapters derive from a conference entitled "Representing Autism: Writing, Cognition, Disability" held in 2005. Contributors are scholars of English, communication studies, psychology, and other disciplines; some are on the autism spectrum themselves or are parents of autistic people. The book attempts to address what editor Mark Osteen in his introduction cites as a deficit in the field of disability studies, namely that the field has ignored cognitive disabilities. Osteen notes that autism is a spectrum not only among people but within individuals: "any given autistic person's abilities will occupy different locations on [the spectrum] at different times" (7) but a severely autistic person is not merely "different." The editor also addresses the question of self- representation, arguing that "we must strive to speak not for but with those unable or unwilling to communicate through orthodox modes" (7).

The book is divided into four sections: Clinical Constructions, Autistry, Autist Biography, and Popular Representations. Clinical Constructions includes a chapter on Virginia Axline's work with the boy, Dibs (see Dibs: In Search of Self in this database), a child who is now thought to have been autistic; and a chapter on how Bruno Bettelheim convinced the world of science and the public that autism was caused by parental behavior, especially that of mothers ("refrigerator mothers") and that he knew how to cure it. The essayists show how these two psychologists constructed a persona of omnipotence that enabled them to appear to "save" autistic children. Chapter 3 reviews the history of autism as a named condition and contextualizes it.

Chapters in the section on Autistry discuss the mental world of people with autism. Patrick McDonagh (chapter 4) postulates that "the capacity to perceive autism in the 1940s may be connected to the proliferation of modern, and modernist, notions of the self" (102) -- for example, isolation and alienation, and "the removal of referential and conventionally communicative functions from language" (111) that appear in the works of Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce. Subsequent chapters apply theories of information processing (chapter 5), metaphor and metonymy (chapter 6), and narrative (chapter 8) to an understanding of the mental world of autistic individuals, and chapter 7 discusses poetry written by autistics.

The section on Autist Biography concerns memoirs written by parents of autistic children. Deborah Cumberland contrasts the memoirs of several mothers with one written by a father (chapter 9) and Sheryl Stevenson (chapter 10) writes about the rhetorical strategies that mothers use "to negotiate contradictions of motherhood that are exacerbated by autism and their own privileged abilities" (199).

The essays in the section, Popular Representations, concern several films and Mark Haddon's novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (see annotation). Anthony Baker presents an "autistic formula" used in films and notes that the plots hinge on the way a central character who is not autistic uses the "special powers" of the autistic character, thereby robbing the latter of agency (Chapter 12). Stuart Murray is also critical of how films portray autistic people (Chapter 13). Phil Schwarz, father of a child with Asperger's and an Asperger's adult himself writes about four films ( Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn GouldSmoke Signals, Breaking the Code, The Secret of Roan Inish) he uses to raise the consciousness of autistic peers and to promote self-esteem in the face of society's attitudes toward autistic individuals (Chapter 14).

The authors of chapters 15 and 16 come to different conclusions about the novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. Gyasi Burks-Abbott, "a 34 year-old African-American male on the autism spectrum" (303), criticizes the novel for perpetuating stereotypes and for "relegat[ing] the autistic to otherworldliness while establishing a non-autistic author like himself as the necessary medium between autistic and non-autistic reality" (295). James Berger, on the other hand, argues that Haddon uses the protagonist Christopher to "explore questions about language and social relations" (fn1, 286) and observes that Haddon understands human neurological features as a continuum.

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Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Literature

Genre: Anthology (Mixed Genres)

Summary:

In 2008, editor and physician Paul Gross launched a new online publication, "Pulse--voices from the heart of medicine" (published by the Department of Family and Social Medicine, Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center). This anthology contains every poem and first-person narrative published during Pulse's first year, arranged in five sections corresponding to publication date and not to theme: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, and Spring.  Paul Gross, in his introduction, states "After more than a decade of practice as a family doctor, I came to appreciate that the science I'd learned in medical school, though powerful and useful, was also incomplete . . . . it contained much truth about illness and healing, but not the whole truth" (xvii).  Like many other caregivers, Gross discovered "that writing and sharing my healthcare stories with others was therapeutic" (xviii).  He looked to "Sun Magazine" as an example of how first person narratives, both prose and poems, could turn "hurts and triumphs into something potentially beautiful, funny or moving" (xviii). 

The poems and prose that arrive every Friday online to Pulse's thousands of subscribers (and the selections in this anthology) are carefully screened by the editors according to these guidelines: the stories have to be first-person, and they have to be true, recounting the writer's own experience.  Submissions are accepted from any person involved in healthcare.  The language used must be "clear, simple language.  No medical jargon. No arcane literary devices" (xx).  Gross and his editors decided that Pulse would not be a medical journal nor a literary magazine--its purpose fell outside the perimeters of both genres--and so Pulse, and this anthology, offers work that is, in a refreshing and honest way, different from the slick or more polished poetry and prose that might be found elsewhere.

In reading this anthology from cover to cover, and so from season to season, I found that the poems and prose seemed to fall into several categories: Personal musings, in which authors relate healthcare experiences that engender intimate and revealing narratives about their own lives--among the best of these are "Well Baby Check," p.3; "Finding Innisfree," p. 31; "First Patient," p. 39; "Losing Tyrek," p. 45; "Carmen's Story," p. 62; and "Chemo? No Thanks," p. 106.  Other pieces are commentaries on the other side of healthcare, the one that cries out for reform and affects both patients and caregivers.  Among the best of these are "Redesigning the Practice of Medicine," p. 9; "A Brush with the Beast," p. 22; "Rx," p. 60; "Halloween Horrors," p. 69; and "Brain Cutting," p. 136.

Other pieces are humorous ("Aunt Helen Sees a Ghost," p. 6) or political ("My War Story," p. 11), and many poems and prose pieces speak of patient encounters or about being a patient, some more anecdotal, relating a specific incident that affected the author ("Once," p. 41) and others multi-layered, some relating medical student or intern experiences ("Jeannie," p. 48; "A View from Nepal," p. 87; "Ripped from the Headlights," p. 90; "Snowscape," p. 97; "First Night Call," p. 100; and "Wounded Messenger," p. 114.)  The "category" I found most interesting and most unique are the selections I will call "confessions."  These writings--demonstrating openess and bravery on the part of the authors--tell of regrets, mistakes, sorrows, wrong calls and other mishaps that occur, daily, in the practice of healthcare.  In these, the most human face of caregiving is revealed.  Although most of the pieces in this anthology contain elements of "confession," the most specifically revealing include "Mothers and Meaning," p. 14; "Physician's Exasperation," p. 44; "Confidential," p. 53; "My Patient, My Friend," p. 73; and "Apologies," p. 104.

Editor's note: Coincidentally, a recent relevant paper on confessional writing by physicians expounds further on this topic:"Bless Me Reader for I Have Sinned: physicians and confessional writing" by Delese Wear and Therese Jones (Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Vo. 53, No.2, Spring 2010, pp. 215-30).

 

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Summary:

This is a collection of four stories and a novella with pervasive themes of death, loss, grieving, mourning, and anger; the characters live in rural parts of the upper midwest, and there is much unhappiness in their lives.

In "Catch and Release," we accompany Danny, a talented fishing guide "not quite thirty," as he floats down a stream he knows well. He and his siblings have divided his father's ashes, his portion now in a thermos. His father died suddenly, absurdly on a bathroom floor. Although Danny knows nature well (and loves it), he is angry and heartsick. Nor is religion a comfort. Bit by bit he scatters the ashes, but there is no healing ritual.

In "Bloodsport" a young man murders is wife and then kills himself. The town funeral director feels this is "utterly incomprehensible" but provides his professional services to the family and all who  come to the service and burial. He knew the young woman, Elena, and found her attractive; now he embalms her. Twenty years later he feels a "sense of shame" that men "let her down badly."

"Hunter's Moon" presents Harold, a casket salesman. Retired, he goes on long walks, trying to make sense of is life and loves. He likes naming things. His first wife left him for another woman. His daughter (pregnant and drunk) was killed by a train. His second wife left him. His third wife died of cancer. He abuses antidepressants and liquor. Sitting on his front porch, he slumps over. All night a dog keeps watch over, we assume, his dead body.

In "Matineé de Septembre" we find a reworking of Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice." In both stories, a literary figure escapes ordinary time, falling in love with a young person of the opposite sex, and falling into decadent gestures in the hope of recapturing youth. Both efforts end in failure and death. In Mann's story, the person is an older man of much literary accomplishment. In Lynch's retelling, the person is a professor and "poet of note," although not really of international fame. Actually she's a woman of inherited wealth, a wealthy snob, a narcissist, a survivor of a "perfectly bargained marriage." Her one child was stillborn. A dozen hints at her headaches suggest that she is doomed, and she dies in the last paragraph, without (as in the Mann story) the notice of the literary world.

After these grim tales comes the satiric (and also grim) novella, "Apparition." We follow one Adrian Littlefield (the last name is symbolic) who was a strait-laced pastor, then (after his wife left him) a self-help author who urged post-divorce people to live it up. The satire is trenchant. Adrian's big book is "Good Riddance." A church fundraiser with gambling allows "otherwise devout people to wallow in sin for a worthy cause." Adrian has girlfriends and one-nighters. He's an expensive speaker. Fortunately one Mary De Dona provides him with gratuitous sex, and he is saved. Now 50+, he visits the empty house where his wife once lived, learning little; his tour guide, one "Gloria" is in her 70s, married for 58 years, with grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He wishes he could have had such a life and feels "a wave of sadness." 

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The Odds of Recovery

Friedrich, Su

Last Updated: Jun-01-2010
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

This is an imaginative documentary film by director-producer Su Friedrich, of her experiences with health problems, physicians, the health-care system, and how these affected her relationship with her female partner over a period of more than two decades. The narrator-subject takes us through her numerous surgeries, hormonal (prolactin) imbalance, and her growing disenchantment with the traditional health-care system.

She films herself: getting dressed into the "humiliating" paper garb prior to being examined by her physician; in exchanges with her various physicians; reading from medical texts and self-help books as she tries to understand her condition(s); taking t'ai chi classes and preparing herbal potions; gardening and doing needle work. As the film ends, she is grappling with the prospect of menopause, but she feels that she has taken charge of her body and of her own care, that she tends herself as she tends her garden.

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The Family

Bak, Samuel

Last Updated: May-24-2010
Annotated by:
Bertman, Sandra

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Oil on canvas

Summary:

A number of expressionless faces blindfolded, bandaged, many eyeless, some with hats of the 1930s, glasses, masks, bullet-ridden helmets, comprise three fourths of the canvas.  Anything but a group portrait, these totally disconnected faces staring straight ahead are all on different planes. None are connecting with another. Remnants of crematorium smoke stacks and a burned city are the only visible detail in the upper fourth of the canvas, from which a series of tired male refugees, painted in a much smaller scale, appear to be walking down into the portrait.

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Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

Driving-school instructor Marco (Marcello Mastroianni) feels unwell, especially in the mornings; his stomach swells, and he develops emotional lability. His wife, the hairdresser Irène (Catherine Deneuve), is sympathetic – but only to a point--and insists he seek help.

The woman doctor – a suave smoker--diagnoses pregnancy, and refers him to a specialist. At first skeptical, the specialist is soon convinced that a man can  indeed have a baby, and the two doctors make news holding scientific conferences on the world’s first pregnant man, “the most important event since man walked on the moon.”

Meanwhile Marco becomes a sensation – his gestational condition spawns a new line of clothing, new trends in masculine behaviour, and lucrative celebrity endorsements. Irène is concerned about her business and slightly irritated by the attention given her husband, as the advent of a baby deflects her plans.

Suddenly the bubble bursts. Marco turns out not to be pregnant after all. The special attention vanishes overnight, but the couple has grown closer and greets the private news that Irène is expecting with great joy.

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Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

In 1818, the newly trained physician, John Keats (1795-1821) (Ben Wishaw) is living with his well-off friend, Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), and they are trying to devote themselves to the art of writing. Keats cannot abide the idea of having to practice medicine. 

The uneducated, fashion-conscious Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), notices Keats, moved by the care that he bestows on his dying brother. She offers a gift of a beautifully embroidered pillow, which soon finds it way into the lad’s coffin.

Affected by the young man’s death and the mystery of poetry, Fanny flings herself at Keats, undeterred by Brown’s open disapproval of her lack of class, education and bearing. Flattering his work, she asks Keats for lessons in literature and then reveals herself to a reasonable judge of poetry. In spite of himself Keats is drawn to her and declares his love.

But the poet’s health is fragile. Funds are raised to send him to Italy, and Keats announces that he must go, because his friends have decided. He seems to know that he will die. Fanny is brave and hopeful. Chastened, Charles Brown comes to Fanny’s home to announce the death of Keats in Rome.

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