Category Archives: Contemporary

How We Die in America

Evelyn “Evie” Chavoor would have been 100 this year. I don’t remember as much of her story as I should. Born in December, 1917, she attended UCLA and spent many years working for Helen Gahagan Douglas. By the time I knew Evie, she had retired but remained a force and followed politics closely. She was devastated when Edwards was outed as a philandering creep–he had been her candidate. I think she eventually backed Obama. We spent time together talking in her apartment, making trips to the grocery store, and visiting the doctor. She was one of my best friends in Washington, D.C.

I inherited her friendship from my great Aunt Isabelle, whose apartment my mother had inherited and in which I resided about ten years ago. On her 90th birthday, at a crowded party thrown by another friend in the building, she wore a sparkly plastic crown and an outfit that my mother intimated had cost thousands of dollars. She celebrated her 91st birthday in a nursing home, among four or five of us, in a shirt and slacks.

Evie had a brother who had studied law but became disillusioned when he realized that lawyers didn’t want to defend the law, but rather find ways around it. She seemed proud of him when she told this story. I think he died while she was still living in her apartment, but when I asked if she would fly out to California for the funeral, she said no. Flying is difficult when you’re hale and hearty. Once able to climb the stairs between our floors, she now took the elevator.

My great-aunt lived for many years with her mother, who mainly spoke Armenian. Evie was Assyrian and remembered Isabelle’s mother chastising her for using Turkish words. The word I associate most with Evie is “okie-doke.” And the phrase, “wellllll…I don’t know about that!” She was sharp and funny and opinionated and a general delight.

Around March of 2008, Evie went to the emergency room. Among other issues, she had a wound on her leg that wouldn’t heal. After about a week in the hospital, she was transferred to a nursing home up the street from our apartment building, where she lived for the rest of her life. For several months, I visited her almost every day. Our friendship grew so intimate that I assisted her in the bathroom. When someone you love asks for your help in there, you just provide what they need. That Fourth of July, I brought an assortment of berries–red and white–so share with her and her frenemy, Angelina, who had resided in the nursing home longer and was much more willing to engage in the provided social activities. As a result, she was happier than Evie, who always intended to return home.

My daily visits ended at some point during the summer, where we had a bit of a spat over some papers I was supposed to get her to sign. She, understandably, wanted to know what she was signing, and I tried to explain it to her, but she wouldn’t accept my explanation. This was probably because of the medication they were giving her, which caused her to mistrust me, forget what a platypus was and, one scary evening, to ask me, pleading, when her mother and father were going to arrive. I had to stop visiting her every day for my own mental health. Eventually, they readjusted her medications, which improved hers.

I’m still not sure why she was never able to return home. She wasn’t getting physically better, but home care could have met her needs and might have even been less expensive than the $18k/month nursing home. Her niece was more or less responsible for her, but she lived in California, and during her visits seemed to be unable to make any progress when it came to finding Evie alternate care. Evie refused her niece’s offer to move in with her–she wanted to go home, not across the country. If she wasn’t going to travel for her brother’s funeral, she certainly wasn’t going to travel now that she could barely walk. At one point I created a list of local home health care agencies. It’s possible her niece looked at it.

One of the last times I spoke with Evie, my mom was visiting her. I remember my mom saying I wouldn’t want to see her like this. I think I told Evie I loved her.

Eight years ago, I was waiting on the banks of Lake Michigan for the fireworks to begin. Upon waking, I had learned it would be over 100 in Chicago that day. Anything over 75 in the summer being disgusting, I spent the morning hooking up a window air-conditioner. It was a convenient way to avoid working on my graduate thesis. As I waited in the sticky night, my cellphone rang. It was my mother. “You know how Evie loved America…” Evie had died on the Fourth of July. I don’t remember if she was alone.

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Filed under Contemporary

Idle Banner Thoughts

A few weeks ago I was driving around town when I saw a banner hanging over an intersection:

“Firefighter’s Association Annual Pancake Breakfast”

I remember attending these as a child, with their mediocre–if plentiful–pancakes, opportunities to sit in fire engines, and probably stickers and balloons. My understanding is that this is a common event around the United States. How did this get started? I understand that part of the purpose is to build awareness about fire safety within a given community, starting with young children, and perhaps raise funds for the organization. Free food is a tried and true method of ensuring attendance at most events.

But what’s the (historical?) connection between pancakes and firefighters?

A breakfast puzzle…

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Exotic Rage

Peacocks inspire in me an uncharacteristic callousness. It’s their growing ubiquity, their casual destructiveness, and the mere fact that they are of the avian persuasion.

I am not a bird person. Modern dinosaurs, especially larger ones, make me uneasy. Although if I’m honest, the frantic sound of a hummingbird speeding past my ear inspires a similar terror. That Daphne du Maurier story had an impact, just as the goose that bit me when I was a toddler did: birds, if they organized around a shared realization, could wipe. Us. Out. Just think about all their pointy bits! And, get this: they can fly.

But back to peacocks. Many Americans might consider these Indian natives to be gorgeous, and sighting them a rare treat. These same people would consider me lucky to live in an area that boasts so many “wild” ones. Step out the door on any given morning and you’re likely as not to encounter a flock, milling about the streets or snacking on lawn bugs…or people’s gardens.

Not being florally inclined, it’s more their shit that gets to me, as it gets to everywhere. Plops of excrement litter the porch, the lawn, the driveway, the street, our shoes. Outdoor furniture becomes unusable.

And their numbers are only growing. A city ordinance makes it illegal to render these birds road kill. They squawk at all hours and reproduce with impunity. When you hear stomping on the roof, guess who?

peacock

Evil Incarnate

My parents were visiting a few months ago with their dog, and one day they let him chase a male bird off the lawn. The sound of terror that enormous bird made as he took flight, barely escaping the dog’s eager jaws, filled me with a surprising amount of glee. Surprising because I’m more of a “live and let live” type when it comes to fellow creatures.

Not so peafowl. (Nor ants that deign to enter the house and make a meal of my leftover naan–a related story for another day.) Peafowl’s creeping invasion of the neighborhood–the entire geographic region, really–and their entitled attitude has turned this vegetarian animal rights proponent into an urban hunting advocate. I wrote two theses on animal-human relationships, and will always argue for the inclusion of other species in any cultural relativist ideological framework. But when it comes to coexisting with peacocks, Let’s cull the fuckers, I think more often than I’m comfortable with.

I suppose this means I’m only human, and not immune to our culture’s propensity to draw stark lines between ourselves and other animals. How long until these iridescent dinosaurs’ protected status allows them to completely take over?

It’s us or them.

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Filed under Animals, Contemporary, Why Can't I Eat My Dog?

Wait! Before we eat…

Amateur food photography is nothing new. What else can be said about the now mundane practice of pausing before a meal to document it so the image can be shared and admired? Perhaps nothing, but I’m going to share the following experience, anyway.

About a month ago, I treated myself to a day at the Huntington Library. After wandering the gardens and visiting the Reformation exhibit, I decided to have some lunch in their upscale cafeteria. I took my tray outside to what I’ll call the veranda, because I like that word, and sat happily alone amidst people of various ages. That day there was a high school group visiting, probably a private school judging by their uniforms. The girls wore sweaters and skirts. (What’s with private school uniforms and skirts? Beyond the scope of this post…)

So there I sat, eating a passably tasty veggie wrap and enjoying the fresh air and the murmured conversation that filled it, when into my field of vision walked a trio of private school students with their own lunch trays. They selected a table at the edge of the veranda that overlooked the gardens, set down their trays, and sat. But as soon as they had done so they were standing again, each of them taking a step or two backward with their smartphones held aloft, attempting to properly frame their respective meals. After taking satisfactory pictures, they sat and proceeded to eat.

I took out my notebook and made a sketch of the scene, along with a few notes:

Huntington lunch man 2018

Daily documentation — visual — as cultural practice. The three girls photographed their curated collections of comestibles, making the quotidian significant, adding a layer of ritual (visual documentation) to another type of ritual (meal sharing), which will in turn be ritually disseminated on social media (sharing of the visual documentation of meal sharing — nay, meal plating).

Or does the ubiquity of such a practice mean that the quotidian is just that, and layering these rituals temporally is no longer in itself significant? When so many snap pictures of their food to share them in the pursuit of technologically mediated attention, is that not simply a mundane cultural practice?

No less meaningful, but meaningful in a proscribed, ritualized way.

I suppose I mean to say that it’s no longer art.

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Filed under Art of all Kinds, Contemporary, Technology

Positivism, History, and Optimism: NPR’s 13.7 on the Endurance of Scientific Knowledge

“Religious repression and wars pass, but scientific knowledge remains.”

So goes theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser’s argument in a recent opinion piece on NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos & Culture blog. To which I thought:

Not necessarily.

Knowledge can be suppressed, corrupted, or simply lost. In one of the latter (lesser?) books of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, a character describes the problem of chronicling millennia of human history. In short, you can’t preserve everything. Choices are always made. Topics fall out of vogue. Those in power can produce countering knowledge, or bury unfavorable information. Even the most meticulous archivists, following the most stringent of professional standards, are guided by prevailing cultural assumptions about what is worth saving.

Later in the blog post, Gleiser writes:

“Kepler witnessed the state collapsing around him, and felt helpless. He couldn’t pick up a sword to fight, for he was a hero of ideas and not of bloody battles. Instead, he looked up. And so did Galileo. And what they saw, and their diligence in pursuing the truth, changed the world forever.”

How can one make such an eternal claim? For someone who lauds the scientific method and the “objective” power of observation so heartily, this is quite the leap of faith.

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Filed under Contemporary, Historical, Media, Power