Biting the Dust: Ten Things I Wish Weren't Dead or Dying

The phrase "cumulative exhaustion" floated past this week, on the breakneck pace of change in the way we live now. Damn, that rang a bell. How to characterize the way life feels these days, online and “IRL”? It feels like my brain is swelling, while my skull is shrinking. It feels like they’re speeding up a treadmill, and things I love that can’t keep up are just flying off left and right. I used to be mildly horrified when older folks would say, “I’m glad I won’t be around to see it,” when “it” was some incomprehensible predicted change. You know, lunar vacation colonies or bionic bodies or food in a pill. Now I catch myself saying it.

The “future” used to be better, actually—the World’s Fair fantasies of housecleaning robots and flying cars. But as this Wonder Years kid approaches her AARP years, she notes a pattern: The World’s Fair stuff turns out to be largely bullshit, and the real surprises are rather hellish more often than not. We got Roombas and underwhelming electric cars. But hey, we also got cell phones and social media and Internet porn and cyberbullying and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. And climate change. Didn’t see those coming, did you?

And with the Rise of the Machines comes the fall much else. Although the poor millenials get blamed for “killing” things, from conversation to cursive writing, my fellow “Boomers” are responsible for their share of casualties. Some of these things may deserve to die. (I’m looking forward to an old age in which bingo and golf are extinct.) But no single demographic seems to have administered the coup de grâce to the familiar, the simple, the good. It’s as if post-modernism met the Internet and released a mutating virus with diverse hosts.

Just for the hell of it, being an old magazine editor (see #1), I've come up with a Top 10 List, off the top of my head, of things that matter terribly to me and have languished on my (quite recent) watch. What’s in your Top 10?

James Jarche, Science & Society1. Magazines. I always loved them, dreamed of writing and editing them, and studied journalism to make my dream come a little bit true, working for travel and health "books" and, once, getting a cover story for The American Spectator. (See #10, below.) Many magazines, of course, hang on, and digital "content" abounds. But opening a magazine freshly arrived through the mail slot is a joy that’s so last century.

2. Newspapers, the New York Times in particular. The Gray Lady was the air I breathed as a New Yorker. I reluctantly gave up the dead-tree Times when their erratic delivery service seemed to acknowledge its irrelevance, and I ditched the online edition when it morphed into a weird, elitist liberal echo chamber with near-zero Metro coverage. Now, with the tabloids reduced to tatters, there virtually is no Metro coverage. Some real journalism hangs on, under economic and political siege, but only just.

Ally Brosh, "Hyperbole and a Half"3. Blogs. If you’re reading this, I’ll bet you don’t have much company. There was a brief interlude, after the Internet but before social media, when it seemed as if citizen journalists, with a gloriously low bar to entry, would repopulate the media landscape, forming engaged communities and letting a thousand flowers bloom. Bloggers still blog, but any post bigger than a caption risks being “TLDR.” The firehose of social media, instead of watering blogs, has drowned them, with a numbing stream of pictures, GIFs, and memes. “Long form” posts now carry sheepish warnings: “Two-minute read.”

4. My beloved Catholic Church. Two waves of horror: the predator priests, and the preening demons in the hierarchy who covered them up or outdid them in corruption. It is my theology that the Church cannot die, but (at least in the West) it is withering and will rebloom, probably after my lifetime, looking very different. For this Caucasian mutt of dilute Irish-German extraction, the demise of the mid-century model of American Catholicism is quite literally the death of my culture.


5. Catholic education, its decline not wholly related to #4 above. Catholic "teaching" makes headlines when it zaps a third rail in the culture wars, but no one has "taught" it for decades. And now, after the long dark age of catechesis, they are literally turning out the lights in Catholic schools. Or at least they're doing so in the great cities where they served and formed generations of poor and working-class youth, for a host of despicably shoddy excuses. Colleges are doing alright, but only by burying their Catholic identity in the Zeitgeist. Where is the next generation of Catholics being formed? Oh, they're not. Among millenials, baptisms and weddings have slipped away as essential touchpoints; now even funerals are being made over into DIY secular "rituals." Jesus wept.

6. Television. Ah, TV: as simple as flipping a dial, a cultural force as unifying and ubiquitous as the air through which it traveled. Now it's just one more complicated private domain. We finally got a “smart” TV and now we struggle and argue and pay extra for this and that. Some of it is marvelous, but much of the best we can’t afford. I signed up for one cool-sounding “channel” only to find we couldn’t watch it on the only “platform” we use—an actual television set. The boob tube got smarter, we didn’t.

7. Food. I call it the “guilt list”: Is tuna killing the dolphins? Is red meat killing us? Are cage-free chickens really happier? Are carbs really the problem, or is it fat? I can’t afford organic, so that decision’s off the table, but everything else is a supermarket-aisle moral struggle. I worked the “healthy food” beat as an editor and writer for years, and even I can’t keep up. And of course, there’s the biggest struggle of all: being able to afford anything but pasta and the Dollar Menu. 

8. Travel. Even if some day I could “see the world,” it’s not the world I dreamed of seeing. “Globalized” destinations, including my own city, are blurring together, and not just thanks to McDonalds and Starbucks. Whether from entitled mobs of affluent tourists from rising economies or tragic encampments of migrant refugees from gutted ones (or both—see: Paris), so many legendary sites are culturally altered and reeling under the strain. (Selfish perspective, I know, but a moot point, since I can’t afford to go and fight the crowds anyway.)  Heck, even Notre Dame didn't wait for me.

9. Health care. My pediatrician made house calls with a shiny black bag. Back then, when we were boldly heading to the moon, it wasn't routine to go bankrupt from cancer (you just died from it). Now we have "health care networks," and insurers who decide what they can do for us. Ours offers “telemedicine,” wherein I can set up a webcam and, presumably, cough at my screen to a stranger. Most people I know, even those with insurance, live in terror of major illness or injury as the harbinger of economic catastrophe, and “GoFundMe” is the new normal for cancer care. How did we get here? (Oh, and still no cure for lots of cancers.)

10. Conservatism. Ah, the Right, dashing hearthrob of my youth. "We had brains then," to paraphrase Nora Desmond. I worked for National Review in college, revered Bill Buckley and James Burnham, was drawn to the intellectual rigor, feisty good humor and moral robustness of the Right—both the badass libertarians and the erudite cultural traditionalists. The so-called “Right” today? Need I say more? The bragging, ignorant pustule in the White House and his minions, fueled by the screeching blond harpies on Fox News, are killing conservatism and sowing the ground with salt for at least a generation. As I say to my agonizing liberal friends, if you think it’s hard to be a “progressive” these days, try holding your head up as a conservative.

So there you go, ten dust-biters without even trying too hard. I didn’t even get to global warming, the transformation of Brooklyn to Dubai, or the shitty hollowed-out job market that is sucking our kids’ souls. Or late-term abortion, the last fragile stumbling block to the deadened conscience of the West, now trampled under the onslaught of the culture of death.

And do not get me started on “gender.” Or Tinder. Or Fiverr. 



Before the parade passes by

That's the Crazy Stable—at right, behind a Cambodian temple procession that passed by yesterday on a beautiful spring afternoon.

The folks from Watt Samakki on the next block had a festival going on, and I was unloading groceries as they came up the block, chanting, beating drums, and ringing bells. A masked reveler blew me kisses.

The fabulous little parade jolted me with nostalgia for the surreal kaleidoscope of cultures that glimmered around us 32 years ago. We moved to "Caribbean Flatbush," but actually, to a borderland where almost anything seemed possible. Our first next-door neighbors were from Trinidad on the left, Haiti on the right; the unofficial block "mayor" was a feisty Jewish bagel-baker who scoffed at white flight, as had at least a half-dozen other aging white homeowners.

Back then, emissaries from all over the globe would sweep by unpredictably. I once looked out the window to see a man dressed from head to foot in a shaman-like costume made of straw, dancing fiercely all alone and chanting in Kréyol. For several summers, a wild and glorious ra-ra band roamed the edges of Prospect Park on Sunday nights, making sonorous chaos. Also in summer would come a truck from Alabama, full of watermelons. It would stop on the corner and shy black men with deep Southern accents would emerge, selling the lot in an hour as word spread and neighbors hurried over on foot.

And that was only the block! Over in the Parade Grounds, the football (I mean football) players converged for their "beautiful game" daily, from Africa, South America, South Asia, playing their music afterwards on the sidelines to accompany epic picnics. Down on Church Avenue, Haitian ladies laid out herbs and spices on the sidewalk where everyone, even Russians from Brighton Beach, came to scour the bargain stores. Once, I waited at the check-out behind a Cambodian man who pushed forward a few dollar boxes of ramen with hands that appeared to have been crippled from torture.

From killing fields to playing fields, came our neighbor monks. So many others came, too, most recently a wave of house-proud Bangladeshi contractors. But every year, there are more white faces among the newcomers. Blessed with affluence, they tend to fix up a rambling wooden house impeccably in record time; so far, none of these old piles has fallen to the wrecking ball, unlike fast-changing precincts to the east of us convulsed by tear-downs. But this real-estate feeding frenzy has turned it all into a tense zero-sum game: Gentrification. Displacement. Air rights. Air BnB. "Privilege." "Pioneering." A whole vocabulary for being adversaries instead of neighbors; decades-old conversations with a sharp new edge. Our poor house, in the condition we found it, would now mark it for the wrecking ball. Brooklyn no longer has much room for those of modest means, unless you got in years ago and hung on. It offers no mercy to teachers, or artists, or home health aides, or our children, of any color, in its high-rise future. (Unless they are "in finance," apparently. Those "in finance" must be the ones who now populate the air by right.)

Luxury was not a word you would have associated with our block back in the day. Raw possibility, yes, and most of all, people, amazing people. Immigrants, mostly (those monstrous threats, we are warned) who brought us hot meals, carried trash to our dumpster, and assured us, "It's a good house, but it takes time." Their celebrations bubbled up in our lives like an underground stream, not curated by some museum but just happening on the street. We weren't invited, we weren't excluded. We waved. They waved back.

It seems like only yesterday.

Posted on Sunday, April 14, 2019 at 04:18PM by Registered CommenterBrenda from Brooklyn | CommentsPost a Comment

Dignity in diapers

Alfie Evans/Daily Mirror

Ah, "death with dignity."

For a long time, that was the "compassionate" crack in my armor in defense of life: end-of-life care, because I have seen it done so badly, over and over. Once, visiting my mother in hospital, I watched in horror as the staff roughly inserted an enteral feeding tube into an ancient, unconscious lady in the next bed; she lay curled in a fetal position, repeating, "Mama." I found myself nodding that we needed "death with dignity," since human dignity is my deepest value.

But some writer—I wish I could remember who—pointed out that human dignity is based on: being human. Not being alert, peaceful, or without pain, or able to toilet oneself, or being cognizant of one's surroundings. Just being...human.

Vanessa Redgrave, "Evening" (2007)Our dignity does not lay upon us like a garment, with our worth stripped away by externalities. I want to die like a luminous Vanessa Redgrave character, fading gracefully and quickly. With dignity. Without tubes. But my dignity is impressed upon me by my Creator; if I do wind up helpless and burdensome, or even in agony, He has given us His own Son as a template that I can never (in the words of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman) "be thrown away." His Son's earthly body, my church, stipulates that no one need degrade my dignity with "extraordinary means" to keep me alive—but neither may they dictate that my "dignity" be preserved by hustling me (or even helping me push myself) over the edge of death.

Fra Angelico, "Christ Crowned with Thorns"To care for those stripped of the world's signifiers of "dignity," whether intellectual capacity, sanity, continence, teeth, hygiene, material possessions, freedom, clothing, any of it, is to see (on His explicit instructions) the face of my Redeemer. To lose my world-approved dignity in any of those domains is to become one with Him in suffering. I saw this mutually conferred dignity many times at Calvary Hospice, where the staff tenderly fed and bathed and turned patients with cancer in their final weeks, sparing them brutal "interventions" but never, ever deliberately hastening death. Each, caregiver and patient, being Christ to the other.

How easy it is to rhapsodize over our sublime human dignity while gazing at a Rembrandt, or watching Misty Copeland dance, or hearing Martin Luther King orate.  How easy to treasure life when you hold a thriving baby or sit at the knee of a spry, healthy grandparent. It's even easy to marvel at the dignity of the frail, if they're heroic enough, a Mother Teresa here and a Stephen Hawking there. But how difficult it is, when life fades, or arrives broken, or leaks uncontrollably from various orifices.

Francesco Bassano, "Parable of the Good Samaritan" (detail)Bodily fluids, in fact, seem to be one of the breaking points in the world's definition of human dignity. For many of us, it's the ultimate taboo of vulnerability. For that reason, perhaps, this loss of control has become for me a stubborn sign that the crucified Christ is present, his side pouring forth its "water."  I have my own private heroes' gallery of human dignity:

  • the gregarious owner of a guest farm in Pennsylvania whose lower jaw was lost to cancer, who communicated in cheerful notes and wore gauze pads sewn by his wife to absorb his saliva.
  • The beloved art teacher at my daughter's high school who survived bladder cancer and made hilariously candid references to his "pee bag." (What an example to a classful of girls at the age when a blackhead seems like a catastrophe!)
  • My cousin Rik, who returned to teaching periodonty after a spinal-cord injury deprived him of control of the lower half of his body at mid-life.

And I experienced it most vividly in caring for my Uncle Don in his very old age. (That's him, with a strawberry milkshake.) His care at the very end of life was exhausting and yes, to the "system" it was damned expensive. Yet he was radiant with joy, and delighted in receiving my ministrations. He did not need to be Vanessa Redgrave, fading elegantly. He was luminous in his own way. Can we see the light in others, that light of life that is the deepest dignity, from conception to something like natural death? Or can we only get an itchy trigger finger to put that light out forever, "for their own good"?

Posted on Thursday, April 26, 2018 at 12:42PM by Registered CommenterBrenda from Brooklyn | CommentsPost a Comment

At land's end, a field of stars

There's a new movie out, called "I'll Push You." It's an inspiring story of two friends who travel the legendary pilgrimage route in the north of Spain, the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. I won't be seeing it.

Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, Getty ImagesAs my 60th birthday loomed in the distance, I entertained crazy dreams of doing the Camino. I watched "The Way," a beautiful movie about lost souls drawn to the rough countryside, walking all day for at least a month to arrive at the cathedral of St. James, where the apostle is supposedly buried. I've made pilgrimages to the tomb of St. Peter in Rome, the Holy Shroud in Turin, and the cathedral at Canterbury; I've done a bike century and the Avon Three-Day walk for breast cancer. The Camino beckoned as the ultimate journey, mostly in bold defiance of getting older. Just put one foot in front of the other. Wear a scallop shell—the pilgrim's ancient badge—and stay in hostels. Eat tapas, pray, love.

Photo: Turismo AsturiasBut I didn't get in shape and save up money and go walk the Camino. I didn't really do anything special. Had a nice birthday dinner with my family in Brooklyn. No epic walk, no epiphanies in a distant land on ancient stones. 

But someone else walked a Camino of their own, and it was my privilege to walk some of the way alongside them.

My BFF, as the kids say in their texting. My Best Friend Forever. We met in freshman year of high school. She thought I was a prig. I thought she was a brat. We were both right. I loosened up, under her transgressive tutelage. She reined it in, under my watchful eye. We grew up.

We got married, maid and matron of honor for one another.

We had daughters, godmothers each to the other's.

We spoke just about every day for 45 years, our shared lives a room furnished with instant access to a thousand memories, created once we both entered it. Like the Holodeck on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," we could conjure up and frolic in any scene with a private shorthand.

Most of all, we ate together, and laughed together, and loved each other. A terrible thing, apparently, that laughter-for-two: It almost got us kicked out of places. Except comedy clubs, they loved us there. At chemo, the nurses said they looked forward to our coming, because the laughing would start.

And I guess chemo was our Camino. Hers, mostly, but I went along for the ride. Because we always got together once a week, so why not hang out together?

No tapas, though, just soup at Panera and, when she was too weak for that, the hospital panini we came to revile (and a snack pack of nuts from the cafeteria that we raucously dubbed our Nut Sack).

No ancient cathedral with swinging censer, but the beautiful little chapel on the hospital grounds. Then not even that; they moved chemo to an "infusion center" in a bland office park on Northern Boulevard in Glen Cove. Our Camino was now a stretch of mini-malls and parking lots, waiting rooms and treatment bays.

No pilgrim staff, but an endless succession of IV poles, monitors, tubes and needles.

No scallop-shell badge, but a port under her delicate skin below the clavicle. Four ports, actually; they kept getting infected, and once the surgeon screwed up and it moved.

No "Compostela," the age-old Latin certificate for completing the Camino, but a cupcake and card and jubilation from the nurses when she finished the first five months of weekly treatments. When cancer returned less than a year later, and chemo started again, there would be no finishing the regimen. Chemo was the new normal, and all its attendant miseries.

No rustic Spanish inns (those along the Camino helped originate the concept of "hospital"). But one whole summer in a hospital bed as cancer struggled, and failed, to take her away from us a year ago.

After that, there were days she needed a wheelchair. Last summer, pushing 60, I was crushed to discover that I could no longer push hers, at least not uphill. (And that's why I won't be seeing that inspiring movie.)

But every road ends. Two weeks ago, my friend reached the end of hers. It took three years. She walked the last bit without me, but her greatest champion, her beloved husband, walked her right to the end.

From "The Way," 2010Beyond the town and the cathedral of Saint James, many pilgrims walk further, to the westernmost coast of Spain, to a place called Finisterre—literally, Land's End. Overhead, the Milky Way is said to seem close, as if pointing out over the Atlantic. Compostela, in fact, means "field of stars." There, many pilgrims leave a souvenir of their travels, or burn the shoes they walked there in.

My friend has gone beyond Land's End. I know what she leaves behind, what we'd both burn: a bonfire of walkers, wheelchairs, tubing, pills, gauze and needles. But she also leaves us behind, we who revolved around her like planets around a sun. What's left at Land's End is a field of stars overhead. A glorious thing, but it's no daily, delicious phone call.

So, you look back and you see the road you walked, and it's where you meant to go all along. As if sent to me by Providence, I just found a poet who says in a TED talk that this place, Finisterre, is where the conversation happens. The conversation is precisely what is missing from me now, missing like an arm or a leg. So I'll keep talking. And listening for the stars to laugh.


Posted on Thursday, October 19, 2017 at 04:00PM by Registered CommenterBrenda from Brooklyn | CommentsPost a Comment

Invincible centurion

I know the word for "hundred-year-old person" is "centenarian," not centurion. But so my dad seems to me: a leader and a special kind of warrior, a fighter against darkness, sadness, and despair. He would have been 100 years old today, but he died of leukemia at 69, just two years into our marriage. Yet for the next three decades, he has exemplified what Camus declared: "In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer."

Daddy, center, with twin older siblings Vivian (Don) and ValeskaI have written often of my dad, a briliant handyman and sort of patron saint of the Crazy Stable, which he never saw. He was born to a pianist and an artist on Manhattan's Upper West Side on this day in 1917. A plump and mischievous little boy grew into a handsome and somewhat aimless young man, a championship swimmer who shrugged off college and drifted among jobs in various fields, including resorts and retail.

Private Becker, 240th MP BattalionLike so many other young men of his "Greatest Generation," World War II gave his life sudden purpose. As an Army MP, he made sharpshooter, and conscientiously guarded his president, FDR, at Hyde Park, then served in Reconstruction Japan. There, stationed approximately midway between Hiroshima and Nagasaki, could he have been exposed to radiation that would shorten his life by decades compared to his father and siblings, who all lived to be nearly 100? We'll never know. He brought home a kimono and a handful of Japanese coins, which I have to this day, and a GI phrasebook he memorized for life. He taught me to say arigato and to stand at attention and "at ease," and to properly fold an American flag.

After the war, he got a business degree on the GI Bill, and married the love of his live after an epic 15-year courtship. His sunny nature and chivalry carried my mother above the dark, tormented undercurrents of her nature and her past. Through her (and Fulton Sheen), he came to the Catholic Church as an adult convert, his personality drawn to and reflected in Christ's. Quentin Roland Becker was baptised in St. Paul's Church in Manhattan and became Richard Quentin Becker; old friends and my mother called him "Quen," while business associates called him "Dick." He settled down in the insurance industry, became a dad.

And as a dad, he shared with me so many things he loved: Gardening. Classical music. Science. Nature walks. But most of all, he taught me how to be happy. Or rather, how to choose to be happy--by turning outward, helping others, laughing gently at oneself. By "lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness."

I wonder what he would be like at 100. No, actually, I don't. However diminished in body or mind, he would be invincible summer. Today, on his hundredth birthday, my garden--having bloomed in glorious warmth--was socked with heavy, wet snow. Every tender bloom that had opened has prevailed, and now the sun is out again. These photos are my gift to him.

Miniature narcissus, battered but unbowed. My dad planted spring bulbs all around our childhood home in Little Neck; every spring, their resurgence seemed like a miracle for which he was personally responsible.

Up in the Poconos, Daddy would get out his folding army shovel and a garbage bag and dig out a mountain laurel in the woods, to nurture into bloom back in the city. Up in Maine, I rescued "Baby Groot" here as a tiny sapling from under another white spruce, and he's growing like a weed.


Crocus around my garden owl, which is actually a memorial mini-garden to our owlish gray cat Cocobop. Daddy was an epic rescuer, with needy stray cats and kittens drawn to him as if by magic.

Decades before foraging became fashionable, Daddy, ever a Boy Scout, taught me which weeds in a vacant lot were edible, like butter-and-eggs, pepper grass, and (above) onion grass, and I would dutifully nibble them. This always horrified my mother, who preferred her produce from a nice clean supermarket.

Sleeping lilac buds.

Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. --Memorial acclamation, Roman Rite of the Mass

Posted on Friday, March 10, 2017 at 03:57PM by Registered CommenterBrenda from Brooklyn in , , , | CommentsPost a Comment
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