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This collection of 20 essays continues and expands upon the theme--how we living care for our dead and incorporate them into memory--that Thomas Lynch, a poet and undertaker, introduced in his first book, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade (see this database).
In this new book, Lynch writes rambling pieces that begin with some observation about his funereal trade then blaze off into musings about religion ("The Dead Priest"), love and divorce ("The Blindness of Love," "Y2Cat"), poetry ("Reno," "Notes on 'A Note on the Rapture to His True Love'"), and the interplay of mortality and morality ("Wombs," "The Bang & Whimper and the Boom"). In his first book, Lynch wrote scathingly of abortion and mercy killing, and here he continues his thought provoking considerations of both.
In what might be the most interesting and radical essay in this collection, "Wombs," Lynch walks a precarious line between pro-life and pro-choice rhetoric; ultimately, he asserts a woman's right to abhor decisions about her body that "leave her out." At the same time, he asks if the reproductive choices available to women, "when considered for men," might not seem "irresponsible, overly indulgent, and selfish." What if, he writes, men could declare (without stating their reasons) their interest in their unborn children "null and void, ceased and aborted?" Lynch, who spends most of his time in the contemplation of the deceased, seems to find in death a spark of life; then he fans it into flame with language.
A 199-page collection of twelve essays by undertaker and poet Thomas Lynch, superficially about his mortuary trade, but actually about much more--life and death; the process of mourning; how we human beings pass though our common lives with grace or desperation; how the graveside ritual serves memory, family, and society. In the preface, Lynch says that early on he came to understand that the undertaking trade he would inherit from his father had little to do with what was done to the dead, but everything to do with how the living responded to the deaths of loved ones, neighbors, and friends.
Particularly outstanding essays include "The Undertaking," in which Lynch divulges the practical and emotional secrets of his trade as he buries Milo, a man who owned a Laundromat; "Crapper," a humorous, rollicking essay that demonstrates our modern society's inability to deal either with the thought of dying or the actual dead body; "The Gulfatorium," a flight of fancy about building a graveyard in a golf course, but really about the nature of suffering and the afterlife; "Mary & Wilbur," about neighbors, about our fear of death and our impulse to memorialize; "Uncle Eddie, Inc.," about an uncle's "clean-up service" that sanitized rooms after messy suicides and about the natural order of life and death and the moral implications of our manipulation of that order through assisted suicide, abortion, and genetic manipulation. My personal favorite is the final essay, "Tract," in which Lynch says how he wants his own death and burial to be managed, how he, a witness to our final rituals, wants to be witnessed.
Peppered with a plethora of black and white stills, this book is a compilation of a physician's film reviews and reflections on how movies have mirrored the changes in medical care and in society's attitudes towards doctors and medicine over the last sixty years. Ten chapters blend a chronological approach with a thematic perspective: Hollywood Goes to Medical School; The Kindly Savior:
From Doctor Bull to Doc Hollywood; Benevolent Institutions; The Temple of Science; "Where are All the Women Doctors?"; Blacks, the Invisible Doctors; The Dark Side of Doctors; The Institutions Turn Evil; The Temple of Healing; More Good Movie Doctors and Other Personal Favorites.
The appendices (my favorite) briefly note recurring medical themes and stereotypes ("You have two months to live," "Boil the Water!"). Formatted as a filmography, the appendices reference the chapter number in which the film is discussed, the sources of the photographs, and a limited index.
American Beauty, a story about Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), his family, and his neighbors, is both comic and tragic. In addition to a loveless marriage, an unhappy teen-age daughter, and an unimaginative, routine job, Lester is worried about aging. Nothing has turned out as expected. From the outside, all seems ideal: the white-framed house, the well-tended red roses, and the white picket fence. As illustrated by meal time settings, a highly-charged cold war atmosphere prevails inside the house. Lester and his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening), a realtor, cannot stand each other and their daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), has no desire to be with either of them.
From the onset, Lester’s narrating voice tells us that he will be dead in a year. He has no illusions about the repressive nature of his life and decides, unilaterally, that abrupt changes are in order. His scripted family role is cast aside as he quits his job, lusts after his daughter’s sexy friend, Angela (Mena Suvari), and smokes an illegal substance with Ricky (Wes Bentley), a teen-ager who has moved in next door.
Uncharacteristic of his customary, go-along behavior, the new, rebellious Lester throws a plate of asparagus against the wall during dinner, drinks beer while lounging on the expensive off-limits couch, works as a cook and waiter at a local fast food restaurant, and begins a body building program so as to impress and seduce Angela. Meanwhile, Carolyn has an affair with a competing realtor and Jane falls in love with Ricky.
Two gay men, who are thoughtful and kind, live on one side of the Burnhams; on the other side, Ricky lives with another version of disturbed parents: an abused and deeply depressed mother and a retired, Marine father (Chris Cooper) who bullies his son, is expressively homophobic, and collects guns and Nazi era memorabilia.
The lives of these characters, many of them familiar to viewers, gain in intensity as various threads cross to produce an unresolvable knot.
Death’s power to erode and silence human speech has catalyzed a rich and varied flood of writing, some of which is collected in this book. Each of its four sections is devoted to one of the ways in which we speak and write in the context of death: eulogies, letters, elegies, and epitaphs. Culled from a chronological range stretching roughly from Roman antiquity to the present, these texts represent the famous, the anonymous, and all manner of people in between: as subjects of praise, mourning, and remembrance; as writers of speeches, letters, and poems about the dead; and as recipients of condolence letters.
In 1929, a Danish physician identifies a new strain of smallpox that is capable of infecting and killing even those individuals who have previously been vaccinated against the disease. Before this incurable plague reaches them, the citizens of Vaden, a prosperous town renowned for their fanatical love of children, unanimously agree to barricade the city from the rest of the world.
Only once during this time when Vaden has quarantined all of Denmark does the town make an exception. A traveling European circus is allowed into the city because the mayor cannot bring himself to refuse its sick children. Unbeknownst to the villagers, a dwarf clown who is the featured performer of the circus has just died from the virulent strain of smallpox, but not before introducing it to Vaden. A 12 year old member of the circus successfully impersonates the dead clown. One night, the imposter with his wooden flute leads the children out of Vaden through a gate in the wall.
When Ruth's unfaithful and unappreciative husband Bobbo calls her a she-devil, she decides to appropriate that identity with a vengeance and take a different spot in the power relations of the world. She wants revenge, power, money, and "to be loved and not love in return"(49). Specifically, Ruth wants to bring about the downfall of her husband's lover, Mary Fisher, a pretty, blonde romance novelist who lives in a tower by the sea and lacks for neither love nor money nor power.
Ruth commences her elaborate revenge by burning down her own home and dumping her surly children with Mary and Bobbo. She continues on a literally shape-shifting quest in which she changes identities; gains skill, power, and money; and explores and critiques key sites of power and powerlessness in contemporary society, including the church, the law, the geriatric institution, the family home, and (above all) the bedroom.
By the end of the novel, Ruth achieves all four of her goals in abundance. Her success, however, raises complex ethical questions, not only because she uses the same strategies of manipulation and cruelty of which she was a victim, but also because of the painful physical reconstruction of her body that is the tool of her victory.
Raina is 17, living alternately on the streets with a boyfriend addicted to hard drugs and at home with an abusive mother, also an addict. She has been victimized by a succession of her mother's live-in boyfriends and lost a young brother to an accidental overdose: he swallowed some of his mother's pills while the mother slept and seven-year-old Raina was watching him.
Margaret Johnson is 45, Raina's teacher at an underfunded, overcrowded public school where Raina's life of squalor is more typical than not. Her own story is told in chapters that alternate with Raina's story and with the texts of autobiographical compositions Raina gives her but refuses to discuss. Only when Raina finds herself pregnant, shortly after her boyfriend has been killed in a drug-related accident, does she take Ms. Johnson up on her repeated offers of help.
She lives at the teacher's home for awhile, runs away to her own home, unused to kind treatment and afraid she'll disappoint the teacher and be thrown out, goes to a shelter, has her baby, and finally returns, having nowhere to go. Ms. Johnson, with some hesitation, takes her and the baby in and the three begin to work out a life together, knowing it will involve difficult change, but willing to bet on love against the odds.
Gottlieb, nearing thirty years old, discovered her childhood diaries in a closet in her parents' home as she searched for some chemistry notes to aid in her quest to attend medical school. This book is "based on diaries" she wrote when she was diagnosed with and underwent treatment for anorexia nervosa. It is the writing of a precocious, strong-willed preteen who enjoys chess, being unique, writing, and getting straight A's in school, yet who is lonely and desperate to fit in and be popular.
Lori is eleven years old, lives in Beverly Hills, California with her fashion-conscious, loves-to-shop mother, her somewhat distant stockbroker father, her older brother David who now is into music and friends and not-Lori, and her best friend Chrissy, a pet parakeet. Lori's diary entries are filled with astute observations of adults (teachers, parents, relatives, medical personnel, even a television star she meets, Jaclyn Smith) and classmates.
She is wry and witty. An early entry gives an English essay she rewrote to get an "A". These "power paragraphs" are generously and hilariously sprinkled with "proper transitions" such as "to begin with", "moreover", and "on the other hand" that her teacher insists are necessary for readability. This essay provides telling insights about Lori's perceptions of her family, particularly (note transition word) her mother's superficiality.
Lori is surrounded by messages of the glories of thinness for women. Every female she encounters, from peer to adult, is on a diet, counts calories, avoids desserts and gossips about how other women and girls look. The culture is not only anti-obesity, but pro-superthinness. Hence it is logical that Lori, angry about being taken from school to go on a family trip to Washington, D.C., begins her rebellion and search for control by skipping meals and dieting.
She gets the attention she craves from her parents. Her schoolmates ask her for diet advice and admire her weight loss. Self-denial, obsession with calories (that she believes can even be gained by breathing), and secret exercising lead to an alarming weight loss in this already skinny kid.
Her mother takes her to the pediatrician, who prescribes whole milk which Lori refuses. He refers her to a psychiatrist, who eventually hospitalizes her for behavior modification, observation, and a possible feeding tube. At the hospital, Lori meets medical students, nurses and fellow patients, but becomes progressively more depressed, dehydrated and lonely. She attempts to run away and makes a suicide gesture. Finally, she sees herself for what she has become--an emaciated stick figure.
The author, a Canadian physician-historian-educator, blows the dust off the shelves of medical history with this fascinating text designed for medical students, educators, and those with an interest in history of medicine. Duffin begins this survey of the history of Western medicine with a glimpse at a pedagogical tool designed to spark the interest of even the most tunnel visioned medical students: a game of heroes and villains. In the game, students choose a figure from a cast of characters selected from a gallery of names in the history of medicine.
Using primary and secondary sources, the students decide whether the figures were villains or heroes. The winner of the game is the student who first recognizes that whether a person is a villain or hero depends on how you look at it. This philosophy imbues the entire book, as this treatise is not a tired litany of dates, names and discoveries, but rather a cultural history of the various times in which medical events occurred.
The book is organized by topics which roughly follow a medical school curriculum: anatomy, physiology, pathology, pharmacology, health care delivery systems, epidemiology, hematology, physical diagnosis and technology, surgery, obstetrics and gynecology, psychiatry, pediatrics, and family medicine. The last chapter, entitled "Sleuthing and Science: How to Research a Question in Medical History," gives guidance to formulating a research question and searching for source material. Fifty-five black and white illustrations are sprinkled throughout the book, as well as 16 tables.
Direct quotes from historical figures, such as Galen and Laennec, as well as excerpts from writings of eyewitnesses of events, anecdotes and suggestions for discussion, appear in boxes within the chapters. Many of the chapters contain discussion about the formation of professional societies. Each chapter ends with several pages of suggested readings and the third appendix delineates educational objectives for the book and individual chapters. The other two appendices list the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and tools for further study, including titles of library catalogues, and resources in print and on-line.
Although the book is a survey covering multiple eras and topics, each chapter contains choice tidbits of detail. For instance, the chapter on obstetrics and gynecology includes the story and photograph of Dr. James Miranda Barry, the mid-nineteenth century physician, surgeon and British military officer, who was discovered to be a woman at the time of her death. The impact of the stethoscope on the practice of medicine is explored in depth in the chapter, "Technology and Disease: The Stethoscope and Physical Diagnosis."