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How to Learn Everything: The MasterClass Diaries

How to Learn Everything: The MasterClass Diaries

Irina Dumitrescu | Longreads | August 2020 | 5,406 words (21 minutes)

When I was a teenager I read James Thurber’s Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I fell in love with this story of a meek, middle-aged Connecticut man whose daydreams afford him temporary escape from a dreary shopping trip with his overbearing wife. Maybe it was because I was an incorrigible daydreamer too. Or maybe I read in his fantasies of being a fearless Navy commander, a world-famous surgeon, or a brandy-swilling bomber pilot a sense of my own opportunities in life, at that point still wide open if you left my gender out of it. Unlike Walter Mitty, I could still learn anything, be anyone.

With time I found a calling, studied for a doctorate in medieval literature, published a book only a handful of people would read, and gained a longed-for professorship. But new desires arose. I discovered I want to write books for more than five readers, and that doing so is remarkably hard. I started to feel afraid of being trapped in one role for the rest of my life. That sense of endless possibility I once had was slipping away.

One day, when MasterClass sends its millionth paid ad into my Facebook feed, I decide this is the answer to the Walter Mitty lurking inside me. MasterClass seems to offer everything: from writing seminars with over a dozen famous authors to celebrity-driven inspiration to take my hobbies further. Clearly, all I was missing were the right teachers, filmed professionally and beamed into my living room. I may not become a surgeon or a pilot, but what if the renaissance woman I’d hoped to be is just a $200 subscription away?

* * *

It’s October 2019, and I begin with Malcolm Gladwell. The funny thing about these courses is that you have a relationship with the teachers already — or at least with their reputation. Gladwell has a host of detractors. He’s been reproached for oversimplification and vast generalization, for illogical arguments and a lack of critical thinking. A book reviewer once wondered why Gladwell didn’t “hold a tenured professorship at the University of the Bleedin’ Obvious.” But nobody questions Gladwell’s ability to write. He is the small-town Canadian boy who made it to the New Yorker on the strength of catchy ideas, brilliantly told. I have been reading his books, sometimes despite myself, for years.

Gladwell teaches his class in a cozy space that looks like a cross between a bar and an apartment. A chess set on a low table behind him suggests something intellectually challenging could happen, but no worries, strong drinks will be served. Ever the model pupil, I open a fresh notebook and write down every other sentence Malcolm says, intent on letting no insight or bon mot slip my attention. I spend so much of my life teaching that it feels like a treat to be a student again, waiting to be filled up with wisdom. It helps that Gladwell is wry and quietly charming, his self-effacing good humor belying a deep seriousness about the calling of writing. More importantly for me, he offers a lot of practical advice — nitty-gritty tips for conducting interviews, structuring articles, and building characters.

I may not become a surgeon or a pilot, but what if the renaissance woman I’d hoped to be is just a $200 subscription away?

Having so much concrete information about how he goes about his work makes me feel confident that I could do it too. Suddenly, this all seems possible. I will become a fantastic writer! I will publish features in the New Yorker and give entertaining talks to sold-out auditoriums! David Remnick will invite me to dinner and I’ll have everyone in stitches with my anecdotes! Pass the butter!

Most exhilarating for me is Gladwell’s approach to imperfection. “What you find interesting is not perfection,” he explains. An imperfect moment in an essay irritates readers just a little, like “red pepper,” but keeps them thinking and talking about it. Gladwell appears generous, providing his audience with surprises and space to draw their own connections. But he’s also happy to make promises he won’t keep, or to force an unwieldy argument together with writing. His way of working is wildly unlike my good-girl academic mindset, but it seems suited to getting things done. “The task of a successful writer,” he says while arguing for bad first drafts, “is to lower the bar.”

Of course, it is one thing for your writing buddy to tell you to embrace your imperfections and slam out a crappy draft, and another for Malcolm Gladwell to do it. Success creates its own truth. This is the MasterClass formula: once a person is famous enough they acquire a charismatic glow. Their counsel is prudent, their past decisions are justified, and their jokes are funnier, too.

* * *

Gladwell’s MasterClass leaves me energized. Writing seems more manageable now, simply a matter of the right tools and attitude. I decide to work on one of my weak areas. Due to a series of curious life choices, I trained to become a scholar and teacher but wound up spending much of my workday carrying out managerial tasks. MasterClass is ready to help me, however, with a course by Anna Wintour on “Creativity and Leadership.” There is a cheekiness to offering advice on how to deal with employees when a hit movie has been made about your notoriously demanding — if not outright callous — management style. Then again, maybe I could use a bit of that Wintour ruthlessness, or what might be called “decisiveness” if she were a man.

The course introduction confirms my suspicion that its appeal is as much about offering a glimpse of the woman behind the mysterious sunglasses as it is about learning how to deliver negative feedback. Sitting in a discreetly lavish apartment, and wearing a stunning green dress with bulky statement jewelry, Wintour describes her vertiginous rise to the top — from somewhere remarkably close to the top. She learned the ropes from her father, Charles Wintour, editor of the Evening Standard in London at the time. (She leaves out the part where he arranged her first job at Biba, a trendy fashion store.) Much of the course revolves around Wintour’s comfort with risky decisions, even if they are wrong. She deals with her mistakes by owning, acknowledging, then moving briskly past them. It sounds like excellent advice for people cushioned by money and an astounding network of connections. By the time Wintour says, “act like no one’s telling you ‘no,’” I want to ask her if anyone ever did.


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The most depressing thing about Wintour’s advice is that it is not wrong. “Own your decisions,” she says, “and own who you are, without apologizing.” It’s just that most people do have to apologize at some point in their lives. (If they are Canadian, like me, they will apologize to complete strangers simply for disturbing the air in their general vicinity.) I want to see a visionary describe how they wrestled with mistakes that had real consequences. Wintour’s suggestion to give direct feedback does give me the courage to have a frank conversation with an employee, and we are both better off for it. But I wonder how her life lessons could possibly translate to someone else’s reality.

The name MasterClass also increasingly bothers me. I remember when I first saw the term (as the two-word “master class”) on a poster in graduate school. A musician friend explained that a visiting eminence would work with one of the students on stage, correcting and training them right in front of an audience. It sounded horrifying, but my friend said it was an honor to be chosen for this kind of specialized attention.

Was there a more sinister urge that made “master class” such good branding for a course? I suspect that the name appeals to people because it promises not just expertise, but power.

Over the years, I began to see all kinds of things called master classes, not just intensive live workshops for people who already had a thorough grounding in their field but online introductions to topics like social media marketing and meditation. Why couldn’t people just take classes, I wondered, especially when they knew nothing about the topic? Were they worried about feeling like a child again, afraid of admitting their own ignorance? Was there a more sinister urge that made “master class” such good branding for a course? I suspect that the name appeals to people because it promises not just expertise, but power.

* * *

It seems easy to turn into a success story when you start out young and privileged. I want to watch a self-starter, someone who had to figure out how to practice their craft on their own. Enter Werner Herzog, who materializes on a dark, empty film set, wearing a green Bavarian-style jacket with elbow patches. Herzog begins with his childhood: the bombing of Munich, his escape with his mother to the mountains, living with no running water and only occasional electricity. “I did not see films until I was eleven,” he says, “in fact, I was not even aware that cinema even existed until I was eleven.” I know there is some legend-polishing here, especially when he mentions the bombing again in the second video, but it’s a more appealing myth than the well-connected London girl who becomes editor of Vogue in her thirties.

Herzog has the air of a professor who has cultivated his eccentric persona for so long that he can now let it do most of the work. His voice alone, at once hypnotic and foreboding, brings me back to evenings in grad school when my German boyfriend did his best to introduce me to the highlights of the Herzog film corpus. Lessons of Darkness, Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man — we watched these masterpieces on his laptop in bed. I usually fell asleep after about 20 minutes, occasionally waking up just enough to be confused by a burning oil field or a screaming Klaus Kinski. Still, that boyfriend became my husband, so I have a soft spot for old Werner. I don’t need him to make sense or teach me anything practical. I’m not going to make a movie. I’m just hoping to absorb some of the unflinching resolve of a man who once ate his own shoe after losing a bet.

Although the course is aimed at budding filmmakers, much of Herzog’s advice applies to making art in general. It helps that he speaks in enigmatic aphorisms: “you have to know, you have to know, that you are the one who can move a ship over a mountain.” It also helps that he cares very little about the standard ways of doing things or about the rules of a particular medium. Herzog’s advice is to search for inspiration in a wide range of music and books, to gather nuggets that can be reshaped into a snippet of dialogue or an unusual camera angle. I love this, probably because it confirms so many of my own beliefs. “Read, read, read, read, read, read, read!” he intones, and laments all the prestigious film-school students he meets who do not read and are doomed, as he puts it, to be “mediocre at very best.” Could I make my own students watch this? Could I show them Herzog reading the opening of the Poetic Edda out loud, explaining how its laconic description of the creation of the world and the birth of the gods helps him edit his scenes?

There is a gossipy appeal to watching famous people play an avuncular version of themselves, but I’m not sure what I can really learn from them.

My semester is shifting from intense to overwhelming, so I watch much of the course while folding laundry or cutting vegetables for dinner, chuckling at reliably absurd Herzogisms. My notebook and pen are always close by, but my notes wind up as cryptic as his movies. What is the iguana? The Swiss chocolate? Why have I written down “20 milking cows”? Something penetrates my distraction, though: the intensity of Herzog’s belief in his own films, and by extension, in the power of great art. Although I teach literature for a living, I rarely hear my fellow scholars talk about why creative work matters. And seldom does anyone venture a judgement about the quality of a book or a poem. It seems like it would be overstepping our boundaries to call something “excellent,” or “middling,” or even “bad.” We are deft at dissecting novels and plays, pinning down their references and ideologies and unresolvable tensions, but not particularly good at putting things together. I realize at this point how ill-suited years in the academy have made me for making art.

My husband walks into the room at one point and watches a few minutes with me. “With Herzog you get the feeling that he absolutely does not censor himself,” he says quietly, “No self-doubt. He totally trusts his own judgement.” Mired as I am in endless discussions with my inner critic, I find something beautiful about Herzog’s assurance in the brilliance of his own work — even when it is, let’s be honest, kind of awful. A deep belief in my writing would give me the freedom both to make a mess on the page and to edit it ruthlessly. Herzog seems to be speaking directly to me when he says that “there’s something much bigger than your own quest for perfection: your own quest for inner truth.”

* * *

Three months in, the MasterClasses are beginning to frustrate me. There is a gossipy appeal to watching famous people play an avuncular version of themselves, but I’m not sure what I can really learn from them. Am I ever going to be the editor of a fashion magazine? No. Am I ever going to direct a movie in Antarctica? Actually, come to think of it, even that’s more likely than the fashion magazine. I want something within reach, I want a celebrity to teach me something I can actually try to do. I have spent untold hours watching Gordon Ramsay tell people what they’re doing wrong in the kitchen — now it’s time for him to show me how to do it right.

In order to do Gordon’s cooking class full justice, I prepare a full dinner spread and bring it to the couch on a tray. I have baked frozen miniature spring rolls and jalapeno poppers in my oven, which at this point has had a broken thermometer for about four months. For a touch of class and nutrition, I also have fresh radishes. And a cold beer. It is some sight.

The class is set in Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen, which is spacious, sunlit, all marble and polished steel, and filled with jars of fresh herbs. Through the window we catch a glimpse of a manicured lawn, a backyard pool, and behind it a gently rolling Cornish hill. This kitchen is possibly the most pornographic thing I have ever seen. I try not to think about my own kitchen, which my husband and I outfitted in a hurry when we moved into our bare apartment, as you have to in Germany. The cabinets were the cheapest available from Ikea, and we bought them second hand. We got our fridge from someone who had used it to store raw meat for his dog. All of it began falling apart immediately.

Ramsay is annoying at first. He repeats himself a lot. Everything is “unbelievable.” At one point he demonstrates how to choose good produce, picking up flawless baby vegetables from a tray in front of him and showing them to the camera. (“Unbelievable!”) I think about how I could not buy those vegetables even if I had the time to seek them out in my city. But as I let the videos roll on, I start to find him charming. I have watched Ramsay play a dour taskmaster in a series of television shows by now, but here he has the enthusiasm of a labrador retriever. He explains how to lovingly brush carrots with toothbrushes instead of peeling them (confession: I will never do this), and describes herbs as being like “a lady putting perfume on.” Then he demonstrates how to sharpen knives and I’m off to the races.

I have a decent set of knives — a remnant from my childless twenties, when I did footloose things like take the free knife-skills classes offered at Williams-Sonoma. The day after beginning Gordon’s course, I go on a hunt for my knife sharpener, which finally appears behind an entire regiment of mismatched tupperware. I spend a meditative afternoon sharpening my knives, testing each one by slicing it through a piece of paper I hold up in the air. At one point my son and husband walk into the kitchen, see me with all the knives, and quietly slink out again. I feel powerful. My knives are sharp. I can cut things again. I resolve to use my honing steel every time I cook, with the exact up-and-down movement Gordon taught me. It gives me the feeling of being a kitchen warrior.

I have come to suspect that MasterClass will put any celebrity in front of a camera for a few hours and call it a course.

Gordon’s is the one course I don’t watch in order. Instead, I pick the recipes I think I can manage given the state of my oven. I decide to attempt the poached eggs and mushrooms on brioche. To my surprise, my local discount supermarket carries brioche buns, most of which my delighted son eats before we make it to breakfast. I get up on Sunday morning, make myself a pot of coffee, review the recipe, and cook alone for an hour. The result is not perfect. I oversalt the mushroom-and-bacon mixture. My eggs come out a bit harder than I would’ve liked. It has been so long since I have poached an egg that I’ve forgotten how to do it.

But the time spent in the kitchen, learning some new techniques and remembering others, brings me back to the early days of my relationship to my husband. There was a time in our lives when we would spend an entire weekend day trying out a new recipe, or experimented with poaching eggs three different ways to see which method was best. Now we put eggs in water with a tiny mechanical device that plays “Killing Me Softly” to let us know they are soft-boiled. You could say our standards have fallen. But on this particular day, we eat so much brioche with protein on it that we are unable to move for hours. I’m not sure what makes me feel younger, trying out a new recipe or spending an entire day doing nothing afterwards.

Emboldened, I take on experiment number two: lobster ravioli. Fresh lobster would be impossible to get, but I look up a vegetarian filling with spinach, ricotta, and pine nuts. Nor can I find the correct Italian flour, so I settle for the most promising alternative. But life intervenes, and by the time I have a few hours to make fresh pasta, most of the eggs have disappeared from the fridge. I decide to make a smaller batch, with the wrong flour, just one egg, and a bit of oil and water — after all, I think, surely an Italian nonna could make do without the ideal number of eggs? The dough turns out tough, and my wrist hurts trying to soften it, which seems far from the sensuous experience Gordon is having as he expertly kneads his pasta dough in the video.

My son comes to the kitchen to see what I am doing, and I convince him to join me. He tries to knead the pasta with his little hands, helps me roll out the dough and run it through the pasta machine. Sometimes he loses interest in the work but likes staying close to me, and I find it comforting to feel this small, curious creature by my side. At one point he insists on making a dough of his own out of flour and water, which I am to fry for him. After three hours of labor, we manage to produce a grand total of ten ravioli filled with spinach and ricotta; in all the excitement I forgot to add the pine nuts. We supplement our small dinner with my son’s fry bread, cut in half and smeared with cream cheese. Making and shaping the dough has been so pleasurable that we don’t mind that we got almost every part of the recipe wrong and had very little to show for our efforts. In the weeks that come, my son and I make pasta again, screwing it up even more thoroughly, and having even more fun.

* * *

The idyll does not last long. My life is increasingly taken over by work. In January, I am part of a grant renewal application that involves a two-day inspection by a crew of visiting scholars, a process in which millions of Euros of funding are at stake. I remember that I am, in fact, expected to demonstrate mastery at my job. In my morning shower and before I fall asleep at night, I practice answers to potential questions, working out what impressive German abstract nouns I need to survive this experience. I try to cultivate an air of confidence, but worry it might be coming out more Herzog than Wintour. But the questions we get are not the ones I practiced, and by the end of the ordeal my project is booted out. I travel to my hometown to teach for a few months, and the hassle of settling in helps me put the failure out of mind. Then, a few weeks later, I learn that someone I trusted has spread a damaging lie about me. My stomach drops. I feel rage. Then I feel as though I have left my body altogether. A day later, my lower back spasms. I wind up immobile in bed.

I had planned to learn tennis with Serena Williams or do barre with Misty Copeland, but here I am in a rented house in a rented bed, moaning in pain if I turn as much as an inch. Propped up against pillows that do little more than fix my body in the least excruciating position, I have little patience for books or even television. Then MasterClass sends me one of its emails, and I can barely believe my eyes: it’s RuPaul.

I have come to suspect that MasterClass will put any celebrity in front of a camera for a few hours and call it a course. This particular class is only nominally about drag: it claims to be about “Self-Expression and Authenticity.” This is convenient, because covered with heating pads and smeared with a variety of pungent salves, I’m not in much of a position to try and look fabulous. Still, I would watch RuPaul explain the finer points of installing drywall, so I click the button to join.

By this point, I have realized that there are two kinds of teachers. Some focus on transmitting their skills. They seem to be saying to the student: “this is how to do what I do.” Others offer themselves as models to be imitated: “this is how I became who I am.” Many MasterClass instructors pretend they are selling the former while in fact delivering the latter. RuPaul doesn’t even pretend. Dressed in a carmine suit and seated against a black-and-neon set reminiscent of Studio 54, RuPaul talks about some of the most basic challenges of growing up in the world. He describes the course of his career, the role artistic inspirations played in his life, the challenges of addiction, criticism, and just plain being ignored. I take no notes — I physically can’t. But I am moved by RuPaul’s vulnerability, a refreshing change of pace after the unrelenting cockiness of the other teachers. Instead of presenting himself as magnificent from the get-go, brave and destined for greatness, he comes across as a human being who had been broken but helped along his way by kind mentors, friends, and a lot of therapy.

Here is something bracing to think about: it is hard to learn how to be yourself.

The other MasterClass teachers seemed impervious to criticism, able to brush it off with a knowing smile. But what do you do when you are not born that way, or if you have been brought up to value the opinions of others, sometimes to a fault? In one episode, RuPaul describes the unquenchable hunger of bullies to feed their fragile egos: “The only time they feel visible is when they create pain.” I reflect on how attached I still am to what people think of me, and how hard this makes it to distance myself from the hurt they cause even when I know they act out of their own self-loathing. RuPaul’s answer is to focus on finding what he calls “your natural frequency, your natural energy source.” Incapacitated, I can muster little of my usual cynicism about talk of “energies.” Besides, I like what he seems to be getting at. Maybe the secret to freedom is not to emulate the bravado of a few wildly successful people, but to tap into what feels true. According to RuPaul, doing so will draw other people with a similar energy to yours, but, “like a garden, it takes managing. You have to cultivate it.” Here is something bracing to think about: it is hard to learn how to be yourself.

I binge-watch RuPaul’s MasterClass late into the night. I am only half-focussing when a story breaks through my daze. RuPaul recalls his parents divorcing when he was seven. His father had custody on the weekends, and every weekend, little RuPaul would sit on the front porch waiting for his father to pick him up. His father never came. RuPaul looks straight into the camera and speaks softly now, to the child he somewhere still is: “Baby, that had nothing to do with you.” I think of my father, who left my life eight years ago, who is now just an hour’s drive away, and who I know I will not see. I think about the grandson he has never met. I am fuzzy on the details, but this may be when I begin weeping like a baby. Ru breaks down too as he describes his own journey to sobriety. And there we are, two people separated by a screen, crying together in the dark.

* * *

Half a year after starting my MasterClass adventure, I am a different person from the eager pupil who scribbled down every pearl of wisdom from Malcolm Gladwell’s lips. I am disappointed in other people and — in a distant way I cannot quite place — also in myself. I wish I were stronger, or easier to transform. My back still hurts. And if that were not enough, I have returned home to voluntary quarantine. Now, instead of a fun distraction from everyday life, the computer is my only point of contact with the rest of the world. I cannot bear to see more people talking on the screen, but there are not too many other places to go.

As the global pandemic unfolds, MasterClass shifts its offerings with uncanny acumen. Instead of promising me greatness, the ads in my inbox invite me to take what seem like a humbler course: gardening. The instructor, Ron Finley, is a fashion designer turned urban-gardening advocate. MasterClass pitches him as a “gangsta gardener,” and he offers fresh, zen koan-like takes along the lines of “Air is gangsta as fuck” and “When Bambi dies, or some shit… no one buries it.” At first, I ignore the ads. I have no green thumb. My rap sheet includes a long list of potted herbs, houseplants, and even cacti that I have, by some amazing level of neglect, managed to dry to death. In the past 20 years I have moved through a variety of dorm rooms, house-sits, and rental apartments in three countries. How could I grow something when I have barely put down roots myself?

As the global pandemic unfolds, MasterClass shifts its offerings with uncanny acumen. Instead of promising me greatness, the ads in my inbox invite me to take what seem like a humbler course: gardening.

The ads keep coming. One night, I have a dream about planting a garden. Then I get flashes of another version of myself: a teenager tending to the front and back yards of my family home. I had the boring chores of raking leaves and mowing the lawn, but I also grew flowers and pulled weeds and cared for a bed of strawberries. I remember now how I used to pore over seed and bulb catalogues, calculating the amount of sun each part of our yard received, imagining how I could replace our lawn with a glorious cacophony of color, if only my parents would fund the project. I never did manage to plant the garden I dreamt of. One bad spring my mother spread grass seeds all over my flower bed, and in my anger I gave up gardening altogether.

I start the course.

Finley is charismatic and funny and, wouldn’t you know it, down-to-earth. He’s not precious about gardening, a point he makes by showing how to turn a wooden dresser drawer into a makeshift planter. The course itself is not so much a master class as a basic introduction to keeping a plant alive. Finley stands behind his big wooden table and rubs different kinds of soil between his hands to show how to recognize the good, loamy kind that plants will flourish in. He gently eases seedlings out of their pots and pats them into the ground, pokes holes with his finger, and pops in sugar snap peas. Given that I haven’t touched a bag of soil in over two decades, this is what I need.

Between little jokes like “size does matter… in a garden,” Finley slips in an entire philosophy of being in the world. He describes building a relationship to plants as a way of connecting to one’s body, one’s environment, to life itself. Learning to care for plants, he says, is a way to learn to care for yourself. As he shows how to loosen the roots of a nursery plant or divide a sprouted sweet potato, Finley calls attention to the creative force deep inside all living things. “Plants want to grow, they wanna live, they wanna thrive,” he says, and I’m enchanted by the potential of survival he sees in a part of life I had wholly overlooked. I can’t remember looking at a plant and not seeing a future reproach.

In my happiest moments of creation, I have experienced this sensation of standing by as a mysterious energy unfolded itself according to a plan all its own.

Watching these videos makes me want to nurture something. I run to my kitchen and pick up a pot of fragile supermarket parsley. I pick off the dry leaves, then water it. A few days later, it has perked up. I gain courage. That weekend, I go with my family to a garden center, where we don our masks and look through fogged glasses at a bewildering variety of soils. We spend hours on our balcony, mixing soil with fertilizer, planting a cut-off wine barrel full of kitchen herbs. In other pots, we give a tiny strawberry seedling and a tomato plant a chance next to some sprouted onions from the pantry that I have learned how to divide on YouTube. In the days that follow, the three of us are stupidly happy. We go out on the balcony, stare at the plants the way parents watch sleeping newborns, call each other to witness how quickly they have grown. Then, what begins as an experiment turns into a minor obsession. Flowers and a miniature olive tree join the herbs. We plant peas and potatoes, and my son and I try germinating seeds for herbs we could not find in the store. There is no special talent here: it is an ordinary hobby, but that does not dull its wonder.

As I observe our seedlings take root and flourish, it dawns on me how little power I have over their growth. I can provide them with a fertile space to be. I nurture, prune, and guide them as necessary. I can destroy them through neglect or poor decisions. But I do not make them what they are. In my happiest moments of creation, I have experienced this sensation of standing by as a mysterious energy unfolded itself according to a plan all its own. It is what being pregnant felt like. It is also how some essays have come to me, in full bud and pressing to be written down.

More often than not, though, making things in the world feels like slamming dead clay on the ground, hoping that enough force might shape it into something beautiful. It occurs to me that what I have to learn in my little balcony garden has nothing to do with mastery. As I watch the cilantro and the basil and even the sad supermarket parsley take root, I feel that I am coming back to myself, to a part of me I had forgotten. Here it is at last: something new.

***

Irina Dumitrescu is an essayist and scholar of medieval literature.

Editor: Ben Huberman

A Genre of Myths: A Jazz Reading List

A Genre of Myths: A Jazz Reading List

Tommy Potter, Charlie Parker, and Max Roach performing. William Gottlieb/Redferns

I am a jazz devotee, the kind with shelves of jazz books and photos of John Coltrane and Charlie Parker in his home office. Because I love music so much, I want to understand where it came from, and learn about the people who made it.

What is jazz? “It can be said that the entire story of jazz is actually a story about what can urgently be passed down to someone else before a person expires,” Hanif Abdurraqib writes in his book Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes on A Tribe Called Quest. “Jazz was created by a people obsessed with their survival in a time that did not want them to survive, and so it is a genre of myths—of fantasy and dreaming, of drumming on whatever you must and making noise in any way you can, before the ability to make noise is taken from you, or until the noise is an echo in your own head that won’t rest.”

Jazz is a uniquely American creation. People all over the world play it, and no matter how many talented white musicians play it, it was created and primarily redefined by Americans of color. Jazz is music that cannot be separated from the racially divided country that produced its musicians.

“Put it this way,” Duke Ellington said. “Jazz is a good barometer of freedom… In its beginnings, the United States of America spawned certain ideals of freedom and independence through which, eventually, jazz was evolved, and the music is so free that many people say it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this country.”

Like critic Gary Giddin’s arbitrary map of post-war jazz, this list collects just a few of my favorite stories — mostly about my favorite period of jazz, from Bop to Hard bop. You’ll find a lot of worthwhile jazz reading in collections by Whitney Balliett, in the anthology Living with Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings, and in Robert Gottlieb’s Reading Jazz: A Gathering of Autobiography, Reportage, and Criticism from 1919 to Now. James Baldwin’s short story ”Sonny’s Blues” is essential jazz fiction. Of course, you could write a huge list of must-read jazz books, though these are the stories that stay with me, or that handle jazz’s big names and issues exceptionally well. I’m sure I missed many things. But as Miles Davis said, “Do not fear mistakes.”

* * *

I Thought I heard Buddy Bolden Say” (Luc Sante, The Believer, November 1, 2004)

Sante’s short essay is two things: an etymology of the term “funky,” and a profile of mythic, 19th century New Orleans cornetist Buddy Bolden, whose song “Funky Butt” turned “funk” into a musical concept. One of the many important figures who helped create what we call jazz, Bolden was a respected improvisational player in his time. Unfortunately, no recordings of Bolden survive, and reliable historical details are hazy. We know that he was institutionalized and died young. Sante conjures Bolden from the haze, painting a vivid, living portrait of a musical mystery man and his era.

He starts with a location: the site of a demolished church that doubled as a dance hall where Bolden performed. “On Saturday nights,” Sante writes, “it was rented for dances which lasted until early light, so that the deacons must have put in a hard few hours every week washing up spilled beer and airing out the joint before the pious came flocking.” As a reader I have a bias for stories of lost or nearly lost people and things, but Sante’s voice and sideways way of telling this one is what ultimately stays with me. This piece seamlessly weaves scenes with conversational exposition. And the essay’s structure does what essays can do: start in one place and end in a very different place.

Our Lady of Sorrows” Francis Davis, The Atlantic, November, 2000)

No matter how much you love Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald, no one can deny that Billie Holiday remains one of jazz’s greatest singers. Along with her stirring music and delivery, she stands as a tragic symbol, “a victim,” as critic Francis Davis writes, “of both injustice and her own vices.” In this probing piece, he illuminates her artistic achievements and enduring stature by peering behind persistent stereotypes and listeners’ projections to see who Holiday truly was as a person and a singer. “The singer nicknamed ‘Lady Day’ or just ‘Lady’ has become an all-purpose Our Lady of Sorrows,” Davis writes, “embraced by many of her black listeners (and by many women and gay men) not just as a favorite performer but as a kind of patron saint. She touches such fans where they hurt, soothing their rage even while delivering a reminder of past humiliations and the potential for more.” Davis also wonders how she became so deeply connected to the idea of sadness. Part of the answer has to do with her masterpiece about racism and lynching, “Strange Fruit.” “If the story suggests that ‘Strange Fruit’ ultimately became a way for her to release her anger,” Davis writes, “it also suggests that her anger could be unfocused, her racial indignation mixed up with resentment at her mistreatment by the men in her life, her persecution by the law, and the public’s preference for blander female singers.”

“The Charlie Christian Story” (Ralph Ellison, Saturday Review, May 17, 1958)

Although famous for his 1952 novel Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison published many essays. This one is about pioneering electric guitarist Charlie Christian, whose scorching solos made too few appearances on record but whose small body of highly stylized work transformed amplified music. By a twist of fate, Ellison grew up with Christian in Oklahoma City. Unfortunately, Ellison’s essay is not online. You can read it in his book Shadow and Act. While you’re there, read his essay on Charlie Parker, too, “On Bird, Bird-Watching, and Jazz.” Ellison was a singular voice and his ideas created a lasting portrait of racism in America. Reading this essay makes me grateful he was so influenced by jazz.

You might not know Charlie Christian’s name, but when you hear an electric guitar, be it rock or jazz or Blues, you hear Christian. “Some of the most brilliant jazzmen made no records,” Ellison writes. “So at best the musical contributions of these local, unrecorded heroes of jazz are enjoyed by a few fellow musicians and by a few dancers who admire them and afford them the meager economic return which allows them to keep playing…” Christian almost became one of those lost local musicians, but thankfully, he ended up in Benny Goodman’s band and lived long enough to get some of his genius on record.

Bird-Watcher” (David Remnick, The New Yorker, May 12, 2008)

Charlie “Bird” Parker was one of the most influential musicians in history. An indisputable genius, he also suffered greatly, died at age 34, and left a vast body of work that people are still studying decades after his death in 1955. David Remnick profiled one of those hardcore Bird fans, Phil Schaap. The obsessive, detail-oriented Schaap had hosted the Parker-themed radio show “Bird Flight” for 27 years back in 2008. It was a show that fed a jazz fan’s curiosity while also testing their patience, or as Remnick put it, blurred “the line between exhaustive and exhausting.” Remnick doesn’t question Parker’s contribution or examine his music. He focuses on the way jazz completely shaped Schaap’s life and on his approach to his radio show. (Schaap was partially raised by jazz legends, including drummer Jo Jones, with whom he watched cartoons and played records.) Why does he play countless, poorly recorded, live renditions of Parker songs? Why does he pontificate on air for hours on historical minutia and the meanings of song titles and lost recordings? Because jazz obsessives like Schaap preserve the details of a musical history that increasingly few people care about. Ultimately, Remnick recognizes that Schaap’s invaluable cultural service goes beyond jazz, that “Schaap puts his frenzied memory and his obsessive attention to the arcane in the service of something important: the struggle of memory against forgetting—not just the forgetting of sublime music but forgetting in general.” Bird was one of a kind, and Schaap is, too.

The Grandest Duke” (Geoffrey O’Brien, The New York Review of Books, October 28, 2010)

Ostensibly a review of Harvey G. Cohen’s book Duke Ellington’s America, O’Brien’s essay expands to cover the grand scope of Ellington’s entire professional creative life. One of history’s greatest composers, Ellington was not strictly an American jazz composer. He was a visionary global artist, even though he was shaped by, and in return shaped, the racially segregated America he inhabited. Stanley Crouch, a respected poet, novelist, columnist, and provocative figure in jazz literature, called Ellington “the most American of Americans.” Ellington not only managed to succeed commercially in a divided nation, he succeed without compromising his artistic freedom, his musical vision, or his identity. Like the book it reviews, O’Brien’s essay goes beyond biography to examine how Ellington managed his career, his public image, and of course, his music, across decades of American life. “Reading Cohen’s book,” writes O’Brien, “we begin in one nation and end in quite a different one… Of many artists it can be said that deep cultural currents can be read through their work; much rarer are those who, like Ellington, worked so powerfully and subtly on those currents as to transform them.”

Black, Brown, and Beige” (Claudia Roth Pierpont, The New Yorker, May 10, 2010)

Miles Davis said, “At least one day out of the year all musicians should just put their instruments down, and give thanks to Duke Ellington.” Ellington’s range is so vast that he’s worth reading about twice here. Responding to Harvey G. Cohen’s book Duke Ellington’s America, biographer Claudia Roth Pierpont takes her examination of America’s Beethoven in a more particular direction than Geoffrey O’Brien did in his review. Drawing its title from Ellington’s unfinished piece “Black, Brown, and Beige,” Pierpont’s piece focuses on what Ellington’s career reveals about race in America. “Black, Brown, and Beige” was not well received. This stung Ellington especially hard, since the work celebrated Black history, following the many strands of Black culture from Africa to the United States. For insight, she follows Ellington’s long musical life back to its beginning:

“More than half a century after the Civil War, the most famous night club in New York was a mock plantation. The bandstand was a done up as a white-columned mansion, the backdrop painted with cotton brushes and slave quarters. And the racial fantasy extended well beyond décor: whites who came to Harlem to be entertained were not to be discomfited by the presence of non-entertaining Negroes. All the performers were black—or, in the case of the chorus girls, café au lait—and all the patrons white, if not by force of law then by force of the thugs at the door. …Ironically, it was the Cotton Club that allowed Ellington to expand his talents, by employing him to arrange and compose for a variety of dancers, singers, miscellaneous acts, entr’actes, and theatrical reviews.”

“What,” Pierpont asks, “was he thinking?” Meaning: how does Ellington’s early period square with his middle and later periods? It is a legitimate question about an artist whose work and reputation tried to transcend race in a world that would never let any artist of color remain unaffected by racial dynamics.

Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. Getty Images

“At the Five Spot” (Stanley Crouch, Considering Genius, 2006)

Crouch is a respected poet, novelist, columnist, and provocative figure in jazz literature. In 2003, JazzTimes fired him as a columnist for his article “Putting the White Man in Charge,” where he correctly argues that “white musicians who can play are too frequently elevated far beyond their abilities in order to allow white writers to make themselves feel more comfortable about being in the role of evaluating an art from which they feel substantially alienated.” Crouch did fine without that magazine. He’s opinionated. Some critics claim he has too narrow a set of aesthetic guidelines for what good jazz is. But he wrote the best book on Charlie Parker, called Kansas City Lightning, and his ideas about music, race, and history are brilliantly observed, finely articulated, and thought-provoking. I like my thoughts being provoked, just like I like my music to push me. In this book Considering Genius, Crouch writes many powerful, controversial jazz essays. “At the Five Spot” covers Thelonious Monk’s 1957 stint at the iconic Five Spot club in Manhattan, painting a portrait of this singular jazz composer and stylist at what is arguably his creative peak, and what makes him a genius. Originally written in 1977, the piece appears in his book Considering Genius.

Jazz and the White Critic” (Amiri Baraka, Down Beat, 1963)

Crouch and poet and critic Baraka had a contentious relationship, but after JazzTimes fired Crouch, Baraka defended Crouch’s right to his musical opinion, especially with music. Baraka examined jazz at a time when few Black critics were publishing essays about the music. He has written timeless, influential pieces about jazz and race in America, most notably “Jazz and the White Critic.” He challenged critics to quit examining the music without examining its musicians’ lived experience, treating the music as if it emerged sui generis, as a collection of sounds, when it was, as he writes, inseparable from “the attitude that produced it.” “The major flaw in this approach to Negro music is that it strips the music too ingenuously of its social and cultural intent. It seeks to define Jazz as an art (or a folk art) that has come out of no intelligent body of socio-cultural philosophy…” He begins the essay:

Most jazz critics have been white Americans, but most important jazz musicians have not been. This might seem a simple enough reality to most people, or at least a reality which can be readily explained in terms of the social and cultural history of American society. And it is obvious why there are only two or three fingers’ worth of Negro critics or writers on jazz, say, if one understands that until relatively recently those Negroes who could become critics, who would largely have to come from the black middle class, have simply not been interested in the music. Or at least jazz, for the black middle class, has only comparatively recently lost some of its stigma (though by no means is it yet as popular among them as any vapid musical product that comes sanctioned by the taste of the white majority). Jazz was collected among the numerous skeletons the middle-class black man kept locked in the closet of his psyche, along with watermelons and gin, and whose rattling caused him no end of misery and self-hatred. As one Howard University philosophy professor said to me when I was an undergraduate, “It’s fantastic how much bad taste the blues contain!“ But it is just this “bad taste“ that this Uncle spoke of that has been the one factor that has kept the best of Negro music from slipping sterilely into the echo chambers of middle-brow American culture. And to a great extent such “bad taste“ was kept extant in the music, blues or jazz, because the Negroes who were responsible for the best of the music were always aware of their identities as black Americans and really did not, themselves, desire to become vague, featureless, Americans as is usually the case with the Negro middle class.

Post-War Jazz: An Arbitrary Map” (Gary Giddins, Village Voice, June 4, 2002)

Gary Giddins has long been one of jazz’s most passionate and incisive authors — authoritative but approachable, rigorous but not academic. You see him speaking in many jazz documentaries. He wrote the Village Voice’s his “Weather Bird” column for years. In 2002, he decided to create what he called “an overview” of jazz records during the post-swing heyday of Bop, Hard bop, free, avant-guarde, and modern jazz, so he challenged himself: He would create a map by selecting a single jazz song for each year between 1945 and 2001. Just one song. Then he’d write a paragraph about each song — for 57 songs! That was a gargantuan undertaking that exhausted me just thinking about it, and “choosing,” he wrote, “was an exercise in frustration, even heartbreak.” Why subject himself to this? “I hoped to offer a purview that balanced achievement and innovation.”

He acknowledged his subjective map’s inherent flawsone and the many ways readers would disagree with his choices. (Only one song? The year 1957 alone produced countless jazz masterpieces!) “An infinite number of maps were possible,” he said, “all of them valid.” Instead of debating him, Giddins wrote, he invited readers to make their own selections to enjoy the process of revisiting the music. “For me,” he wrote, “the key reward was in exploring hundreds of records I hadn’t revisited in years. Some records that I expected to include no longer sounded as good; others I had previously neglected now filled me with admiration.” Reading this is fun. You can dip in and out for years, reading your favorite years or your favorite artists. And although I will never subject myself to the grueling process of mapping jazz’s years myself, I do appreciate the chance to listen closely to the music. That’s why anything like this matters.

Heroine” (David Hajdu, The New Republic, December 24, 2006)

Jazz has no shortage of brilliant, tragic figures. Sometimes their destructive behavior is inseparable from their body of work. Foremost among them was singer Anita O’Day. Many listeners called her the greatest of all jazz singers, but the substances that helped her swing also ensured she never reached the top like Ella Fitzgerald. Hadju explores how O’Day’s singular delivery, her whole approach, was unfortunately related to inebriation. Or in his words, he shows us “the error in defining her by either her substance abuse or her singing alone. The two were not inextricable; they were one.” Even short pieces like this make it clear why Hajdu has long been one of America’s foremost writers. “Her music was the manifesto of her devotion to kicks at all cost,” he writes. “Ecstatic, indulgent, risky, excessive, and volatile, it was drug music, improvised in a state of simulated euphoria and imagined immunity.”

O’Day has long been an artist more difficult to accept than she is to appreciate, because of the primacy of dope in her aesthetic. We like our junkies tragic, preferably taken before their time, like O’Day’s long-gone contemporaries Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday (or, in rock and roll, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain); and in their music we want to find the evidence of mad genius run wild (Parker) or gothic decay (Holiday). We know that heroin is an evil soul-killing venom, and that is pretty much all we want to know about it. We want to hear only about heroin’s inevitable betrayal, not about its seduction. We most certainly do not want to think that music as spirited and delightful as Anita O’Day’s work in her prime could be good because of its debt to heroin.

Another great O’Day piece is Matthew C. Duersten’s “The Moon Looks Down and Laughs,” from Flaunt Magazine. It isn’t online, but you can read it in Da Capo’s Best Music Writing 2002.

When Canadian Jazz Was Good” (Chantal Braganza, Maisonneuve. May 4, 2010)

Heard of Nelson Symonds? Me neither. The guitarist’s talents attracted the attention of B.B. King and Miles Davis. During a 1965 performance, John Coltrane told Symonds’ band “This is the best organ trio I’ve ever heard.” And yet Symonds only recorded one proper studio album as a leader and a few collaborations. His ouevre is mostly what writer Chantal Braganza calls “crude recordings that get shuffled around like playing cards.” Why didn’t Symonds tour, release more albums, and have a more visible career? Why, when jazz left Montreal, did he stay? This is a fascinating story of an overlooked talent who crossed paths with giants but never joined their ranks.

Those old enough to remember often cite Symonds’ nights at the Black Bottom as among the best of his career. Out-of-town acts—Miles Davis, John Coltrane—would drop by after their gigs to see what all the fuss was about. Once, at the end of Symonds’ set, Davis pulled him aside. “What’s your story, what you playin’?” he asked. “Hey man, I do what I can,” was Symonds’ answer. “I like it,” said Davis, but it’s hard to tell if Symonds did. He was constantly self-effacing about his licks, sometimes to his own detriment. Whenever friends asked him to record albums with them, they got the same response: “Man, I gotta practice. I’m not ready.” For the most part, Symonds wasn’t interested in any aspect of the business that didn’t take place in a smoky club.

Nica’s Story: The Life and Legend of the Jazz Baroness” (David Kastin, Popular Music and Society, August 21, 2006)

This is one of those academic pieces that doesn’t read like an academic piece. Unfortunately it’s behind a paywall, but any deeply researched story about the compassion and financial support of the Jazz Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter — whose name graces many mid-century jazz titles — is worth reading. Jazz would have much less music were it not for her support, and this profile does her contribution justice. Here is the abstract: “While a coterie of bebop loyalists keep alive a caricature of Pannonica de Koenigswarter that has been woven into some of the music’s most durable myths, she has, for the most part, been relegated to the dustbin of history. A closer look at Nica’s 40‐year reign as New York’s ‘Jazz Baroness,’ however, reveals an iconic figure whose extraordinary life was played out at the nexus of gender, race, and class during a particularly transformative period in American popular culture.”

Lloyd’s Mattress

Lloyd’s Mattress

Getty / Photo illustration by Longreads

Scott Korb | Longreads | May 2020 | 18 minutes (4,490 words)

1.

Our time is nearly up, but we’ve been living in our building on East 19th Street, in New York City, for more than a decade. It’s six stories, 24 units, built in 1920. A walkup. To arrive home we walk up to the fifth floor. The stone stairs grow smoother and more slippery as you descend, because more people over the years have trod the lower steps; that is, fewer people have had to climb so high as us. On the way down one has felt inclined, landing-by-landing, to step more gingerly, to grip the bannister — until these days, when we try not to touch anything or anyone outside the apartment, or when we wipe those things down before we do. Our lives will be this way until we leave, because, again, our time is nearly up.

The roof is off limits and armed with an air-raid siren that would make the dog howl.

The paint in the stairwell, a light, creamy green, bubbles and sometimes flakes off in chunks, sometimes peels, exposing paint and plaster from decades ago. For most of the time we’ve lived here, on the wall just above the landing as you ascend between the third and fourth floors, the paint was cracked and had folded itself to form the shape of a woman, nude, from beneath the breasts to just below the hips, somehow including a navel. I suspected I was the only one in the building to see her, and I was too embarrassed to alert my wife.

Not long after we moved in, in 2009, before we were married, I painted the lower half of one wall in our kitchen a clean and deep red, which now matches several striped hand towels and the new teapot. (We’ve continued making improvements.) The same day I painted in the kitchen, I also covered a wall in the living room a bright, flat blue, though we could tell right away that was a mistake — to live in a lesser Mondrian — and I repainted the wall in white just as soon as the blue was dry. For now, there’s a pair of bright red paintings, the work of a friend, centered on that wall above the blue sleeper-sofa. We’ll soon take them down. The kitchen table we use today once belonged to a woman I briefly dated and was friends with off and on for years, though I don’t recall exactly why or when I came to own the table. (My memory is not what it once was.) I seem to remember its being offered, and then loading it into a U-Haul truck beneath her loft in SoHo the same day I helped another woman move to Inwood, in Manhattan’s northern reaches, before returning home to Brooklyn late that night. Together, that other woman and I must have carried the table up to my apartment before settling in for a few hours on my mattress. This is how we lived.

The kitchen table is an antique, and for a time, in several apartments (including this one on 19th Street), I used it as an office desk. Hanging above the table these days is a bookshelf that once belonged to a couple of radical publishers, relatives of a friend who, in 2016, organized an estate sale in the couple’s warreny West Village apartment, advertising “art, furniture, lamps, tableware, a multitude of unusual curios, loads of books (especially cookbooks).” The day we left with the bookshelf and hung it on our wall we also carried away cookbooks by Molly O’Neill and Joyce Chen. Our other kitchen bookshelf once belonged to two men whose apartment we rented on 29th Street, also on the East Side, near the hospital where our son was born. This apartment had deep blue carpeting and a balcony, a pass-through from the kitchen to where we ate, and when we lived there we also owned a guinea pig. When we arrived where we live now — with the dog who came with me, the cat who came with my wife, and before our son — we posted on Craigslist an advertisement putting the guinea pig up for adoption: “Free to a good home. Full set-up.” As it grew and ate more hay, the rodent had become too messy; my wife was allergic. So after some emails, one afternoon two girls came from the Upper West Side with their mother, who insisted we take her daughters’ twenty dollars before they carried him away with his cage, which I must have lugged down the stairs and loaded into their hatchback.

Most everything about Lloyd remained mysterious. He sometimes seemed very old and unkempt, but he also displayed occasional vigor.

Over the years, many people have come and gone from our building on 19th Street. During the pandemic, the building has more or less emptied out — some, no doubt, for good. Who knows who’ll return? And yet, throughout our tenure, mostly we’ve complained — to each other and the more durable neighbors — about the turnover, which for a spate about five years ago, involved renovations to apartments in the lower floors that turned one-bedrooms into two- and two-bedrooms into three-. More bedrooms make apartments easier to share with other college students, which has been at the root of our grumbling: Our landlord’s fostering of transience. Dorm-life. (How soon we forget.) Even so, we twice wandered into these renovations, always on the lookout in New York for a little more room, but it never made sense when we considered the deal we’ve always had: our overall space isn’t much and the bathroom’s a puzzle, but there are two bedrooms and our rent remains below what the market will bear, for now, in the neighborhood.

***

When we first moved into our building, in our early 30s, there was a mother and two boys on the third floor. On Fridays, the boys’ father would appear and the mother would be free until he dropped them off again on Sunday. The boys must now be teenagers. I have no idea what she ever did with her alone-time. There was also a world-weary writer named Tom across the hall, who kept fit at the nearby city rec center and whom we liked quite a lot to talk to briefly, and who liked our son when he was just learning to walk. Tom was encouraged to vacate by the landlord’s offer of a buy-out, and we don’t know where he’s gone, but we miss Tom. The longtime tenant in 12A — we’re triskaidekaphobic in our building — was keeping his rent-controlled place as a second home, living there less than half the year, which the eviction notice taped face-down to his door said was against the law. Over time the legal notice grew worn and folded and ragged from all us curious neighbors. Now the tenant doesn’t live there at all. At the moment, no one does.

There was John, a military vet; we don’t know what branch. He was old, but we don’t know how old. No family that we could tell. John seemed to like me, called me guy, fella, or a word like that, when we met at the front door or mailboxes. For a few years we had the business card of a social worker under a magnet on the refrigerator; she had been knocking at John’s door one day and was about to give up when I took her card and said I’d call her in an emergency. Who knows who buzzed her in. John lived in apartment 5 and rarely left and seemed not to clean. Our building’s super affixed a plastic air deodorizer atop the doorframe of the apartment that I suppose John never noticed — one indignity spared — since, unlike those of us who come from the upper floors, he had no occasion to view his apartment door from above. He also had a crooked spine, which kept him constantly looking down. We knew, because of gossip, that over the years John spent time in the Veterans Affairs hospital on 23rd Street, and one of those times he didn’t come back. His mail piled up, was bundled with a rubber band and set on a ledge in the vestibule, and eventually that disappeared, too. We removed the social worker’s card from under the magnet probably around then.

This was a few years after Superstorm Sandy, in October 2012, when the building seemed to shift on its foundation and went dark for a few days along with everything else in our neighborhood and so many others downtown. From the backyard, where the trash goes, today you can see through the seam between our building and the neighboring one. It may always have been like that, but we only noticed after the violence of the storm. For the days the lights and the boiler were out, we bathed our son, who was a year-and-a-half then, with water heated on the range, like in the old days, and made daily trips from 19th Street to a hotel on 42nd Street, where the power worked. We charged our phones and our laptops, read the news and watched the bar television, had lunches and beers, and when we got home, after the baths, my wife and I played DVDs and ate all the food we could from the thawing freezer, before it went bad. Then we had the idea to make up plates of Bolognese for John and another older, single man on the third floor named Lloyd, which, looking back, is the only time we’ve had this idea.


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Like with John, Lloyd and I got along. He’s among those people who’ve left, who may be among the dead. We never had conversations and he never gave me a nickname, but he appreciated when I stepped aside to offer my place in line at the local grocery chain, and we nodded or greeted each other on the street, when he rode by on his bike or returned home with a bag from Petland. Yet most everything about Lloyd remained mysterious. He sometimes seemed very old and unkempt, but he also displayed occasional vigor. He had good days and bad days, like any of us, yet with Lloyd the bad days always seemed to be leading somewhere worse, part of a decline, until a few days later he’d be robust again, his hair smoothed, or he’d shaved.

***

One Sunday, in an autumn that now seems very long ago, a couple perhaps a generation older than me shoved a rotten mattress around the banister at the bottom of the stairs in our building; they were headed to the back yard. This mattress was Lloyd’s. His door apparently still open, he was shuffling upstairs. I’d come home with lunch from the new LA-styled taqueria on 3rd Avenue, and meeting the couple on my way in, they were resting, debating, in silence, the best way to proceed down the steps, out to the trash.

At the foot of the stairs, I made eye contact with the woman in the couple, then eyed the mattress, deciding whether to help, recalling a moment early in our relationship when my wife and I, alone, moved a dark brown couch down the narrow staircase leading from a Brooklyn studio I had for a year. There was yelling that day and we were still young.

Lloyd’s mattress was heavily stained: evidence of injury and illness, night sweats, incontinence, maybe violence. The mattress was torn along its side. Lloyd owned dogs, and perhaps some of the evidence was of them. But I’d also seen him bleeding from his shin after a fall on our stoop. I’d seen his shoulder dislocated under a tank top. There were moans sometimes from the apartment. Once, we heard him rattle his rear window and then call out in distress. “Don’t jump!” I said from two stories above, rattling our own window cage, looking down through the fire escape. My wife sensed I was overreacting. Back then, someone called 9-1-1 and a group of us from the building assembled outside Lloyd’s apartment, whispering, until the EMTs arrived to coax him out.

Lloyd’s mattress was heavily stained: evidence of injury and illness, night sweats, incontinence, maybe violence. The mattress was torn along its side.

Moving the mattress would have taken only a few minutes. The hard work was already done by people older than me, who may or may not have been related to Lloyd. To help would have meant putting down a sack of warm tacos. To help would have meant embracing and lifting that mattress. Maybe rolling it down the back stairs into the yard, where I later saw it, spread out like a murder scene.

I did not help. Some social psychology and moral philosophy I’ve been reading lately has helped explain this away: with compassion, I’ve learned, the “tendency toward helping behavior is quite powerful, if the helpful action is ready at hand and not very costly.” Big if. Nonetheless, this moment is another thing from the hallway, like the nude, that I’ve found myself too embarrassed to tell my wife about.

Instead, I said, I’ve got the tacos.

Here is a question: How is it possible, and what does it mean, that I have been drawn to some chance cracks and drips of paint in the shape of a naked body, while at the same time disgusted, it seems, by some actual bodies in the building where I live? All this before we were all told — before it was, in some way, right — to be fearful of everyone (and someone like Lloyd, or John, to be very fearful, given their age and preconditions, of someone like me). It’s age, the passing of time and the crumbling of plaster, that formed the apparition of a young woman who lived, without aging, frozen between the third and fourth floors. Who knows how long she’d been there. It’s also age that formed the men who lived below us into who they had been, or were. (We simply don’t know. We assume.) And it must be age, too, I see, that’s made me increasingly aware and now wary of the aged, now vanishing, bodies below me in the building, to say nothing of the aging body below me in myself.

“Disgust,” says philosopher Martha Nussbaum, “is a strong aversion to aspects of the body that are seen as ‘animal reminders’ — that is, aspects of ourselves that remind us that we are mortal and animal. … The core idea in disgust is that of (potential) contamination through contact or ingestion: if I take in what is base, that debases me.” The action was ready at hand. The tacos would not have suffered one bit. My wife and son would have waited without knowing the difference. But the cost was simply too high, even then, even before the costs of touching, of being fewer than six feet apart, became the reason none of us could touch.

***

2.

Speaking of animals, I miss the dog, who died a couple years ago now. We’d never done this before with a dog: my wife held her as I looked on, our son in the vet’s waiting room, while the chemicals were released, one by one, into her ankle. We all had taken the day off, and left her behind at the office and decided we could live without ashes. Arriving home today, when the key scratches the lock (my hands have a minor tremor), I still anticipate the jangle of her licenses and vaccination tags as she bangs the wall of the hallway on her way to greet me at the door. In the days after she died we told our son to stop playing with the collar, to hang it on his wall and leave it there. The light ringing sound he produced was creating ghosts.

I remember walking her down the dark stairwell and into the wet, leafy, dark streets in the evenings after Sandy. One winter morning, in a year either before or after the storm, I situated her between me and a man who’d found his way to the landing just beyond our door for a night’s sleep; in a crouch, I roused him by the foot, holding the dog by the leash, and said it was time to go.

The cat, who is also gone, scratched at her ear a few years ago and developed an infection that turned into a large, furless mass on the side of her head. It grew and shrunk week-by-week and grossed me out. I worried about bacteria. I sprayed where she bled. The vet had told us there was little he could do given her age — just as there was little to be done for the dog and her tumor — and so for those last years, the cat rubbed the growth against our feet in the evenings to relieve some irritation, and seemed, to me, humiliated. This is how we lived.

We’ve counted ourselves among the durable neighbors, though in January we learned our lease would not be renewed. We live on the fifth floor. We’ve taught a child to walk up, have watched a dog pass on, and then ushered out the cat.

We’ve lasted while college kids moved in and out, and I resent them for being loud and being young. For sleeping around on strange mattresses belonging to strangers they met by swiping right, the way we met strangers through friends and asked their help to move a table, a whole apartment, before crashing together, and maybe seeing each other once, twice more. Maybe getting serious before later breaking up. Maybe getting serious and bringing pets together to live and die, having a kid, getting married. (That’s how we did it.) I see the apparition of youth, of sex, in the cracks in the wall; I was once her age. She’ll be here forever, I once thought, painted over and over again.

***

3.

Along with the social psychology and moral philosophy I’ve been reading lately for comfort has been a 2013 essay by Zadie Smith, “Man Versus Corpse.” Smith opens the essay with an anecdote of riding the elevator one night to relieve the babysitter and encountering a charcoal drawing titled Nude Man from the Back Carrying a Corpse on His Shoulders in a book of Italian masterpieces she’s found discarded in the lobby of her New York building. Compared with the man — “an ideal back in which every muscle is delineated. His buttocks are vigorous, monumental” — the corpse is drawn like an apparition. And despite this, Smith proceeds with a thought experiment: “I tried to identify with the corpse.”

Her effort proves difficult, and what she does first is telling of the horror of being dead — she imagines being the man: “Oh, I can very easily imagine carrying a corpse!” The scene she envisions unfolds in post-apocalyptic terms we know from poems and novels and the movies — a wasteland, a highway — until Smith unloads the body. “And it’s child’s play,” she says, “to hear a neck bone crack as I lay the corpse — a little too forcefully — on the ground.”

The larger point of Smith’s essay is to get us to see that we (including her) are living far less urgently than we would if our future as corpses was more readily apparent. We’d also construct lives more “worthy of an adult,” she says, if we weren’t so easily tricked, somehow, into believing that what happens to others — “often brown, often poor” people, people who live in “a death-dealing place” — will not also happen to us. (“We,” she writes, “seem to come from a land where people, generally speaking, live.”) For Smith, then, our problem is really two-fold: we quail at the prospect of imagining our own selves as corpses, and we’re not mindful enough of the corpses that gather in the distance to prevent them from gathering there. “It’s argued that the gap between this local care and distant indifference is a natural instinct,” she writes, echoing the philosophers and psychologists on the universal difficulty of compassion and of imagining other people. “Natural or not,” she continues, “the indifference grows, until we approach a point at which the conceptual gap between the local and the distant corpse is almost as large as the one that exists between the living and the dead.”

How is it possible, and what does it mean, that I have been drawn to some chance cracks and drips of paint in the shape of a naked body, while at the same time disgusted by some actual bodies in the building where I live?

Until now in my life there was almost no arguing with her on this point. But what of Lloyd? What of the growing thousands — disproportionately brown, poor — now all dying in this city of this one thing? What of all those other older people, seen as the most vulnerable?

What of the gap that was not at all conceptual, but real, the one that kept me from hefting a local mattress? What of the distance between the living and the living? All of us six feet apart.

To start, I must say, having walked across an abandoned Brooklyn Bridge on a weekend in April, that I’m far less confident in my own post-apocalyptic vigor and resilience than Smith seems to be in hers. Oh, I can very easily imagine carrying a corpse! She’s not disgusted at all!

But me? My cowardice when confronted with Lloyd’s mattress was almost certainly related to the traces of animal life in a living person that a brand new corpse would also bear: evidence of injury and illness, maybe violence. A dislocated shoulder. A bloodied leg. And what’s also true is that the thought that did not quite form before I registered Lloyd’s shuffles upstairs — signs of life! — was that he had, in fact, died. That he was dead. That I was witness to this couple carrying out what’s pleasantly known as bioremediation.

Before I knew it, Lloyd was first dead and then alive, a source of sorrow and then, suddenly — instantly — relief. But then there, in that mattress, with that couple, was the evidence that we were right to expect sorrow again now — a sorrow that already resided in me then, it seems.

So then, how large really is the gap between the living and the dead? There’s no question that my life is arranged around the other living beings in my life, and that thoughts of losing them grow increasingly more painful and disorienting as the circle of my concern narrows to include only those two people I most often share sacks of tacos with. The ones, these days, whose masks I wash. Indeed, Smith expands on this reality in another 2013 essay, “Joy.” “Sometimes joy multiplies itself dangerously,” she says.

“Children are the infamous example. Isn’t it bad enough that the beloved, with whom you have experienced genuine joy, will eventually be lost to you? Why add to this nightmare the child, whose loss, if it ever happened, would mean nothing less than your total annihilation?”

Here I think Smith and I are equally convinced that in this version of the apocalypse, we’d be reduced to nothing, resilient and vigorous no more. That our current plague seems mainly to let the children be has been its one source of relief.

But my own experiences watching those close to me die suggests, at the end, a kind of porousness between the two states. When beings die they’re said to slip away. My step-father did. So did the dog. And it often feels as I ease into middle age that now is when the slipping actually starts. Isn’t that the wrinkles? The hairline? The half-caf? The hemorrhoids?

Then there’s Lloyd, who, it seems, slipped away a little faster than me in the weeks we last saw each other, more obviously. Faster even than John ever did. And it must be the speed at which I watched him slip, and the further slippage he’s made evident in my unconscious between living and dying — proof that we always do both at the same time, and maybe ghosts are real — that makes his mattress so offensive to me.

Still, the truth is that no matter my fear, Lloyd’s mattress would not have contaminated or debased me. Not the way I’ve worried about every container I’ve brought in from the store through the spring, nor the tub containing margaritas I marched up from the taqueria our second week sheltered at home. Our own moment, the world’s fear — and my own — of catching now what’s been going around, disproves nothing of how I behaved back then.

To do what I did (what I did not do), that’s what’s truly mortifying. Or, mortifying — “causing death” — would seem like the right word if, in fact, my marching by with lunch, leaving those two older people with the dirty work, wasn’t just the result of a kind of magical thinking — disgust — that promises with fingers crossed to protect us from all the causes of dying.

4.

Months after meeting the couple with Lloyd’s mattress, I returned to the building one morning with ice packs from the hardware store to find an industrial black trash bag — collapsed, deflated, tied off — propping open the door to the yard. At every landing was a dusting of rubble. The landlord had begun demolition and the interior strip-out of a corner apartment on the sixth floor. This apartment could easily be transformed from a two-bed into a three-bed; this is where it’s happened before in the building, up and down this northeast corner line. This is certainly what will happen to ours, someday, now that we’ve been asked to leave.

Later that morning, a man with two-by-fours over his shoulder marched past me as I carried down the recycling. Renovations would soon begin. With bags slumped at each landing and still more rubble, the person responsible for demolition seemed to be carrying on a one-man bucket-brigade, moving four or five loads to the landing just below, then repeating this pattern all the way down. This is how I would do it, too, I thought. A bit at a time.

This renovation project must have upset the building. Sliding bags along the stone floor at each landing did some minor damage; or maybe it was the two-by-fours, carried carelessly, that left the new marks. Maybe sledgehammers and crowbars shook the inner workings of the upper floors and loosened the plaster down the stairwell. Because among the dust and rubble that spilled from the bags, I noticed, were paint chips, one the size of a dime, which had fallen from the crotch of the woman on the wall.

It’d be easy, I thought, a little Krazy Glue. It would fit like a puzzle piece. We’ve continued making improvements. But imagine that: me on my knees, stooped low in the stairwell, a tube of adhesive in my fingers, pressing the wall with my thumb. There, I’d think.

That’s unthinkable. And plus, the construction created more peeling in a new crack along her inner thigh anyway. It’d be an uphill battle. Soon she’ll be unrecognizable. Or just gone.

* * *

Scott Korb directs the MFA in Writing Program at Pacific University. His books include The Faith Between Us, Life in Year One, and Light without Fire. He lives with his wife and son in Portland, Oregon.

Editor: Sari Botton

On Vanishing

On Vanishing

Getty / Catapult

Lynn Casteel Harper | Catapult | excerpt from On Vanishing: Mortality, Dementia, and What It Means to Disappear | April 2020 | 18 minutes (4,925 words)

I have officiated only one memorial service in which I thought the dead person might come back. Dorothy was 103, and she was known for surprise reappearances. Dorothy had resided in an independent living apartment at the retirement community, and I had visited her on the few occasions when she had come to the Gardens to recover from an illness. I had learned over the course of these visits that as a teenager, she had left home to become a stage assistant to Harry Houdini—against her parents’ wishes, of course. What did a nice Methodist girl, a preacher’s daughter, want with an older man—a Vaudeville magician, no less—rumored to be a Jew, the son of a rabbi? Only after Houdini and his wife, Bess, visited Dorothy’s parents and promised to care for her as their own daughter did her parents relent.

In Houdini’s shows, Dorothy would pop out from the top of an oversized radio that Houdini had just shown the audience to be empty, kicking up one leg and then the other in Rockettestyle extension. Grabbing her at the waist, Houdini would lower her to the floor, where she would dance the Charleston. In another act, she was tied, bound feet to neck, to a pole. A curtain would fall to the floor, and voila!—she would reappear as a ballerina with butterfly wings, fluttering across the stage. At the end of each night’s performance, Dorothy stood just off stage next to Bess to witness Houdini’s finale: the Chinese Water Torture Cell. A shackled Houdini was lowered, upside down, into a tank of water from which he escaped two minutes later. Dorothy knew how he accomplished this stunt—what was often deemed his “greatest escape”—but she never broke confidence.

Dorothy was the last surviving member of Houdini’s show. Long after his death, she attended séances on Halloween, awaiting communication with the Great Houdini—which, apparently, was never forthcoming. Eighty-five years after Houdini’s death, now she, too, had died. Each time I had visited her, I had felt her end was imminent. Already a petite woman, she seemed to grow smaller and smaller, until I was sure I would find her one day simply gone. But somehow she persisted— until she died about three years into my tenure.

As I prepared for her memorial, I imagined her doing one of her famous acts at the service. Instead of an oversized radio, her legs would kick open and emerge—up one, up two—from a once-closed coffin. Back to do the Charleston one last time. Or, breaking free from the chains of death, she would pirouette through the parlor in her butterfly wings. Instead, her son, who was in his eighties and also lived at the retirement community, opted for a casketless memorial service rather than a traditional funeral, and this somewhat allayed my anxieties about the coffin popping open. While a reappearance out of thin air seemed less likely, I knew by then that anything was possible with her.

Dorothy went to her grave without ever having revealed Houdini’s secrets, true to the vow she took at seventeen. I wonder what it is like to hold the keys to illusion, to know how to unbind one’s self, to learn the mechanisms of vanishing, to feel the weight of magic’s wisdom. Had she not been so scrupulously loyal, perhaps she could have helped the rest of us solve the riddle of how to vanish well.

* * *

I came of age in the 1990s when terms like “the right to die,” “persistent vegetative state,” and “advance directive” infused public discourse, and debates raged over euthanasia. In grade school, I became vaguely aware of Nancy Cruzan, a resident of my home state of Missouri, and Terri Schiavo—women who could not articulate their end-of-life wishes, whose bodies became the site of fierce political contestation. Dr. Jack Kevorkian was solidly a household name. In defiance of the law, he had helped dozens of seriously ill patients end their lives. His visage saturated the media, even appearing on a 1993 cover of Time with the title “Doctor Death” and the question “Is he an angel of mercy or a murderer?” It was only recently, however, that I learned of Kevorkian’s first client, a fifty-four-year-old English teacher from Portland, Oregon, named Janet Adkins. Diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, she could and did articulate her wishes and decided to make herself gone before the disease got the chance.

At a press conference shortly after his wife’s death, Ron Adkins read from Janet’s suicide note: “I have decided for the following reasons to take my own life. This is a decision taken in a normal state of mind and is fully considered. I have Alzheimer’s disease and do not want to let it progress any further. I do not want to put my family or myself through the agony of this terrible disease.” One week after beating her sons at tennis, according to reports, she lay supine in the back of Kevorkian’s 1968 VW van in a parking lot in a Detroit suburb. In her arm: an IV hooked to the pathologist’s own invention, the Thanatron, which delivered heart-stopping potassium chloride into her bloodstream.

The person with dementia exists beyond my capacity to keep her in my line of sight; she remains a person despite my (or anyone else’s) limited powers of vision.

Janet Adkins’s sympathizers pointed to the horrific prospect of this dementing disease’s pathology and her calculated courage. While she could still act on her own behalf, in what she had called in her note a “normal state of mind,” Janet Adkins headed off what she imagined as agony for her future self and her family. A pianist, Janet Adkins feared losing music, reportedly telling her pastor, “I can’t remember my music. I can’t remember the scores. And I begin to see the beginning of the deterioration and I don’t want to go through with that deterioration.” Perhaps the scores might degenerate into strungout smudges of black, and she might find notes tangled, unable to fight themselves free to make melody. Perhaps her deterioration would be depleting in every way; it would be saturated with sorrow; it would require heroic fortitude. Perhaps her family would be drained in Sisyphean service to a Janet Adkins unable even to thank them. I imagine Janet Adkins wished to spare her loved ones the torment of her slow self-disappearance.

* * *

In the days leading up to Dorothy’s service, I read the tributes to her that appeared in major newspapers. I learned that she was the last of two hundred women to audition for Houdini’s show and had instantly dazzled the illusionist. After her contract with Houdini had ended, she went on to create a Latin dance called the “rumbalero” and to appear in several movies, including Flying Down to Rio with Fred Astaire. In her later years, she donated $12.5 million to build an arts center.

Reading these tributes prompted me to consider the story of my grandfather Jack, whose life—while not as glamorous as Houdini’s assistant’s—had seemed remarkable to me in its own right. A World War II veteran, Jack received the Distinguished Flying Cross for rescuing a fellow pilot by making a tricky, unauthorized landing in the Himalayas. Upon his return from the war, Jack had considered becoming a band teacher but instead pursued a career in medicine. He played jazz trombone in dive bars at night to pay for medical school. Jack was a committed and smart country doctor. He made house calls and forgave patients’ debts. He delivered babies and aided the dying. In the days before defibrillators, Jack once frayed a lamp cord, plugged it in, and shocked a patient to revive him. In retirement, he owned and helped to operate a local pharmacy. Jack was an avid hobbyist—always working in his woodshed or on his computer or on perfecting his omelets. He traveled the world as an ambassador with Rotary International. He maintained his passion for music, singing solos at church, playing the electric organ for his grandkids, and leading songs at Rotary meetings well into his eighties.

While my grandfather’s life, in many respects, had “shrunk,” he certainly was not gone to those who knew and loved him.

The Jack of all these activities—and the Jack who had the ability to narrate them and their importance to him—steadily vanished in his final years. On his eightieth birthday, eleven and a half years before his death, he could not keep score in a simple dice game we played. This singular memory helps me to date the duration of his dementia. At the time of Dorothy’s death, Jack was living in an assisted living facility that specialized in memory care. Jack would soon thereafter move to a nursing home where he lived his last two years. If not in bed, he was in his wheelchair at a table with other old war veterans in wheelchairs. He said very few words.

When I told a minister friend about my grandfather’s move to the nursing home, she reflexively responded: Oh, so he’s gone. Her words reminded me of another friend, who told me that she promised her father that if he ever gets dementia, not to worry, she will take him on a “nice walk to the edge of a cliff.” She then made a quick pushing motion—gone. It seems persons with dementia are more subject to being pronounced gone— to being pushed off the proverbial cliff—than persons with other kinds of progressive illnesses. While my grandfather’s life, in many respects, had “shrunk,” he certainly was not gone to those who knew and loved him. But I felt the push toward his erasure, and I wanted to know who or what was doing the pushing.

* * *

A couple of weeks after Dorothy’s memorial service, I attended a workshop on spirituality and dementia, where I first learned of the late British social psychologist Tom Kitwood, who, in the 1980s and ’90s, had developed a new model for providing care to persons with dementia. Challenging the old culture of care that viewed dementia patients as problems to be managed, as bodies in need of physical care and little else, Kitwood argued that people with dementia should be engaged with as complex individuals living within complex social environments. From what I gleaned at the workshop, I sensed that his approach to dementia might help me better understand what contributes to the invisibility of persons with dementia.

In the coming months, I read his seminal work, whose title alone attracted me: Dementia Reconsidered: The Person Comes First. It seemed telling that a reconsideration of dementia would entail something as seemingly obvious as centering the person— as giving persons preeminence in their own lives. Most of the research on dementia had ignored the impact of the social environment on people with dementia, and on their disease process. Kitwood offered a profound corrective. He observed the ubiquity of what he called “malignant social psychology” in relation to persons with dementia. Through close observation of daily interactions between caregivers and dementia patients, Kitwood identified seventeen malignant elements that promote the depersonalization of persons with dementia: treachery, disempowerment, infantilization, intimidation, labeling, stigmatization, outpacing, invalidation, banishment, objectification, ignoring, imposition, withholding, accusation, disruption, mockery, disparagement.

Kitwood argued that care settings shaped by malignant social psychology can actually accelerate neurological decline. He critiqued the “standard paradigm” of dementia, which in his view often blamed only the organic progression of dementia for the decline that sufferers experience. The silent, stigmatizing partner in this dynamic—that is, the cultural bigotry against both cognitive impairment and old age—gets off scot-free. The process of dementia, according to Kitwood, involves “a continuing interplay between those factors that pertain to neuropathology per se, and those which are social-psychological.” Herein lies the frightening and hopeful prospect: the person with dementia does not simply disappear on her own. It is not just a matter of the private malfunctioning of her private brain. It has to do with our malfunctioning, our diseased public mind.


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Not long after I read Kitwood, I walked into the program room and found Ruth yelling and pounding her fists on the table. She had recently moved to the dementia unit, where I had met her a few days before during my rounds. At that time, Ruth had been unhappy about her move but not distraught like she was now. Seeing my shock, an activities staff member explained, “She’s been terrible to us—yelling out bad things at everyone who walks by. She said she was hungry, that she wanted lunch. But she just ate lunch, so I got her pudding for a snack. And she threw the pudding at me, and it splattered all over the floor. Then she called me a bad name. I’m done; I’m just done.” She turned her back to Ruth and walked away.

Understanding Kitwood’s malignant social psychology helped me unpack this brief encounter. There was infantilization: Ruth was not permitted the food of her choice, because she “just ate lunch.” There was ignoring and objectification: the staff member talked over and about the resident as if she were not there, as if she were a nonentity. There was imposition: overriding Ruth’s stated desire, the worker insisted she must have a snack instead of a meal. There was disparagement: the staff member was clearly angry with Ruth, blaming her for her bad mood. There was withholding and banishment: the staff member left Ruth, declaring, “I’m just done.” Ruth was left alone. Malignancy now hemmed her in. I watched a dining room staff member approach Ruth. “What would you like?” he asked. “A sandwich or something,” she replied. He returned from the kitchen with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Ruth immediately bit into it. “Thank you, I never thought I’d be this happy with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” she said.

By this relatively simple act, the staff member had unraveled a bit of the malignancy, but the task of undoing malignant social psychology cannot rest only on direct caregivers. Kitwood understood malignant social psychology as “in the air”—part of our cultural inheritance, not a phenomenon to be blamed on (or solely remediated by) individual caregivers. Malignant responses to dementia, in Kitwood’s analysis, revealed tragic inadequacies in our culture, economy, and medical system, which often define a person’s worth in terms of financial, physical, and intellectual power.

That certain mental powers determine one’s moral standing reflects what the bioethicist Stephen Post calls our culture’s “hypercognitive” values, a phrase he first used in his 1995 book, The Moral Challenge of Alzheimer Disease. Revisiting the concept in a 2011 article, Post highlights the “troubling tendency,” in our hypercognitive culture, to “exclude human beings from moral concern while they are still among the living.” Our particular veneration of cognitive acumen generates “dementism”—a term Post uses to describe the prejudice against the deeply forgetful.

It is not just a matter of the private malfunctioning of her private brain. It has to do with our malfunctioning, our diseased public mind.

Transcending the acts and intentions of discrete individuals, systemic dementism exists in structures that overlook, minimize, or actively undermine the needs of persons with dementia. For example, assisted living facilities, in which approximately seven out of ten residents have some degree of cognitive impairment, are underregulated—leaving people with dementia particularly vulnerable. A severe shortage in the United States of geriatricians, who are often best equipped to provide ongoing clinical support for older persons with dementia, signals a prejudice in the medical system.

The overuse of psychotropic drugs, which carry risky side effects for elders with dementia, is another sign of dementism. Unlike medicines used to treat the cognitive symptoms of dementia, these psychotropic drugs, which include antidepressants, antipsychotics, anxiolytics for anxiety, and antiseizure medications, are used to manage certain behaviors associated with dementia—and are not approved by the FDA for this specific use. Antipsychotic medications are particularly hazardous for older adults with dementia, greatly increasing the likelihood of stroke and death. A study published in 2016 in International Psychogeriatrics revealed that only 10 percent of psychotropic drug use among people with dementia is fully appropriate. And yet pharmaceutical companies have pushed the use of such medications for persons with dementia. In 2013, Johnson & Johnson paid a $2.2 billion settlement for the improper promotion of Risperdal, a drug designed to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, for use with dementia patients, despite the company’s knowledge of its serious health risks for this population.

As I consider religious institutions within my own Protestant circles, I notice how rarely seminaries offer much if any training to future pastors about aging and dementia. Churches often pump tremendous resources into ministries for young families and children, with little attention to elders—let alone elders with dementia. Progressive churches like mine, which faithfully fight for racial, gender, and economic justice, often fail to take into account ageism and the plight of people with cognitive impairment. Redressing malignant social psychology is not as easy as serving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Remediation is needed at every level.

* * *

It occurs to me that the possible roots of dementism may lie in a discomfort related to the body; I sense that our culture is fearful both of the body’s powerlessness and its power. As I prepared for Dorothy’s memorial service, I reflected on such corporeal conundrums. The body is unwieldy and dies. A source of perpetual conflict, the body is at once our home—there’s no escaping it—and our battleground, as we struggle to break free from its inevitable demise. We want the box to pop open to reveal our still-kicking legs; we want to shed impossible shackles.

I suspect those bodies in need of hands-on care by others are objects of cultural contempt, because they lay bare our collective fear of the body’s fragility and dependence. Perhaps those bodies most charged with the hands-on care of these bodies also bear the taint. The same malignant forces that marginalize the old and the cognitively impaired also marginalize their caregivers, who are often the most economically vulnerable and politically invisible people in American society.

The philosopher Eva Kittay notes that the particular demands of caregiving and the traditional relegation of this work to women or servants make care workers “more subject to exploitation than most.” According to a 2018 report released by the Paraprofessional Health Institute, nursing assistants who work in nursing homes—the majority of whom are women of color—suffer workplace injuries at nearly three and a half times the national average. Half of nursing assistants have no formal education beyond high school, and nearly 40 percent rely on some form of public assistance. Fifteen percent of nursing assistants live below the federal poverty line, compared to 7 percent of all U.S. workers.

Nursing assistants spend more time with residents than any other clinical staff, providing a median of 2.2 hours of hands-on care per resident per day. That this occupation, so central to resident care, is both hazardous and poorly compensated reflects the low cultural value placed upon those who perform it and, by extension, their clients. I can count on one hand the occasions I saw administrators on the Gardens’ dementia unit spending time with residents and staff. This absence reflected and reinforced the broader culture of invisibility. Perhaps it is little surprise that both the vulnerable staff (often black immigrant women) and their patients (often immobile, voiceless, dependent) were relegated to the same space. The curtain is drawn, hiding them from view—a vanishing act with no scheduled reappearance.

* * *

Accompanying Dorothy’s obituary, many newspapers included a black-and-white photograph of her popping out of Houdini’s oversized radio—a prop that looked to me like nothing more than a coffin with dials affixed to it. Next to this box stood a tuxedo-clad, wild-eyed Houdini, his arms agape, holding a wand overhead as he presented his assistant, the “Radio Girl.”

The image made me think—perhaps irreverently—of the stories of Jesus’s empty tomb and the play of presence and absence that permeated early accounts surrounding his death. In Mark’s gospel, when women come to the tomb to anoint Jesus’s dead body, a young man dressed in a white robe—presumably an angel—appears to them and points to absence: to nothing but a heap of empty grave clothes. “Look, there is the place they laid him,” he says. The women look at where the body was. Offered only a brief explanation of the absence—“He has been raised; he is not here”—the women are granted no positive confirmation of Jesus’s whereabouts. They respond the way any God-fearing people would: they flee the scene, deathly afraid.

The scene has the right components of a magic show—an expectation of presence or absence (depending upon the setup) and a surprise reversal. I imagined Houdini at Jesus’s tomb wearing a white tuxedo and waving a magician’s wand overhead as he presented the empty space. The reversal, however, is askew, or it is, at least, incomplete. The dead body should be revealed as alive—not merely as missing. But the original ending of Mark, the earliest Gospel, includes no post-resurrection sightings of Jesus. The women at the tomb were to believe based on what was not there—a faith based on disappearance.

Uncomfortable with this silence and with the last image being one of women fleeing in fear—and perhaps intuiting the failed dramatic arc—Mark’s earliest editors added postresurrection encounters with Jesus in the flesh, and not just with the clothes his flesh had once inhabited. The later Gospels chronicled rather detailed meetings between the risen Jesus and the disciples. Jesus shows them his feet, hands, and side; he walks through closed doors, breathes on them, and makes breakfast for them on the seashore. In John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene mistakes the risen Jesus for a gardener, until he speaks her name. The disciples experience, with their senses, a newly constituted but still bodily Jesus—and thus gain what we moderns might call a sense of “closure” in the wake of Jesus’s traumatic death. When all seems lost, a magical, fleshly reappearance defies death’s despair.

Nevertheless, I am drawn to Mark’s original ending; it rings truer in light of the abundant absence that, to my mind, marks all earthly existence. The dead don’t often visit us again (imagine the silence at the yearly Houdini séance). The Population Reference Bureau estimates that 107 billion people have ever lived, which means that for every one person now alive, approximately fifteen people have died. There comes a tipping point in the timeline of our own lives when we know more of the dead than of the living. We all have forgotten much more than we remember. The proliferation of vanishing, more and more, is what we have to live with.

And yet disappearance does not necessarily mean obliteration. I hope that what remains might be enough, that beholding something as quotidian as a dead body’s dirty laundry might be enough to ignite and kindle undying devotion.

* * *

For all of his losses in old age, I have come to feel that my grandfather—Jack as Jack—did not vanish. He persisted, a complex conglomeration of the past and his new present. Jack would mock-sing into a saltshaker when good music came on in the nursing home dining room. What else but an affinity for life was behind the enjoyment of playing instruments, traveling the world, perfecting omelets, and singing into a saltshaker? Stooping over his wife’s coffin, deep in dementia, Jack said, “I don’t want to join you yet, babe!” What else but a will to survive was behind piloting a cargo plane across the treacherous Burmese Hump, scraping his way through medical school playing gigs in bars at night, and declaring at my grandmother’s graveside his desire to live? The essences behind his previous life endeavors seemed intact in Jack until the end—in subtle shades, often known only to those who spent time with him— while the activities that once embodied them had fallen away.

The mystics might say what is left is a truer, purer self. The dissolving of all doing, the stripping away of the via activa, makes straight the path for the naked, beloved self to emerge. The deconstruction of ego can facilitate a new freedom of being.

* * *

The definition of “vanishing point” seems to integrate apparent opposites. The point at which parallel lines receding from an observer converge at the horizon is also the point at which the lines disappear. The vanishing point is both unification and dissolution, the point of convergence and cessation.

If I stand still and watch a person walk away from me, she grows smaller and smaller, until she reaches the vanishing point. She has not vanished from the planet or from herself— she has vanished only from my view. If I move toward her, she reaches her vanishing point more slowly; if I move away from her, she reaches it sooner.

Kitwood argued that as the degree of neurological impairment increases, the person’s need for psychosocial care increases. What traditionally happens is the exact opposite. As the degree of neurological impairment increases, the person becomes increasingly neglected and isolated, further increasing neurological impairment—a vicious circle. Malignant social psychology hastens the vanishing point. Person-centered care, which aims to affirm identity and promote well-being, tries to keep the vanishing point far off, to keep the person with dementia in view as a unified whole. The benefits of person-centered approaches, including the reduced usage of psychotropic medications among residents in long-term care settings, have been well documented. The Alzheimer’s Association 2018 Dementia Care Practice Recommendations, a comprehensive guide to evidence-based quality care practices, names person-centered care as its underlying philosophy, pointing to research showing that individualized care decreases depression, agitation, loneliness, boredom, and helplessness among people with dementia, and reduces staff stress and burnout.

Only 10 percent of psychotropic drug use among people with dementia is fully appropriate. And yet pharmaceutical companies have pushed the use of such medications for persons with dementia.

The vanishing at the vanishing point, however, is an illusion. A road does not cease at the horizon; it simply disappears from an observer’s view. The person with dementia exists beyond my capacity to keep her in my line of sight; she remains a person despite my (or anyone else’s) limited powers of vision. Still, we must reckon with the disappearing—even if it is, in some sense, illusory.

Leonardo’s Last Supper contains perhaps the most famous vanishing point. Our eye is pulled into Christ’s head at the center of the composition; it is the aggregating point. We are drawn to and through the mind of Christ—both to disappear there and to gather there. Christ dies on the cross (dissolution); Christ merges with the divine (unification). As we reach the vanishing point, we both dissolve and converge.

* * *

Having previously made arrangements with a Detroit funeral home for Janet Adkins’s remains, her husband, Ron, headed straightaway to the airport to catch his flight back to Portland on the afternoon of Janet’s death. “He wanted to get out of our jurisdiction as quickly as possible,” one prosecutor involved in the case told the Los Angeles Times. “He wanted to disappear.”

Ron Adkins publicly voiced support for his wife’s decision, but I wonder if he pled with her not to do it—that it might be his honor to be burdened by her. Perhaps he resented his wife’s determination that he should not be asked to do so. Perhaps he could come up with nothing more pressing in his life that would render caring for his wife a lesser good. Perhaps he was willing to risk their futures. He had purchased his wife a round-trip ticket, in case she changed her mind and wished to return to Oregon with him.

I suspect those bodies in need of hands-on care by others are objects of cultural contempt, because they lay bare our collective fear of the body’s fragility and dependence.

I have witnessed many loving partners unable to rise to the occasion—and perhaps this is what Janet Adkins wished to avoid. I have seen one spouse keep the other alive by any means necessary because the idea of being without the person was simply unbearable. Maybe Janet Adkins knew that love is blindness at times. Maybe the only person she trusted was herself, in the present—and a pathologist in Michigan.

I don’t think Janet Adkins wanted to kill herself—rather, she wanted to kill her future self, the deteriorated self she imagined, the self she worried would put her family “through the agony of this terrible disease.” The Janet Adkins on the tennis court and at the piano killed the projected Janet Adkins in a wheelchair, unable to find notes on an instrument whose name she cannot recall. The self-determining Janet Adkins killed the dependent Janet Adkins. The strong Janet Adkins killed the weak Janet Adkins, before the weak Janet Adkins got a foothold. The story is a familiar one: the strong subjecting the weak—the strong eradicating their fears through expulsion of the weak. Is this not the fascist impulse, the imperialist compulsion? Or might it be the compassionate impulse, the yearning to be free of unnecessary affliction? How blurry the distinction between exterminating weakness and alleviating suffering.

* * *

What does it mean to vanish well? After all, the result is always the same: you end up gone. There are no tricks to undo this finality. Magic’s familiar script—the sudden deletion into thin air; the breathtaking reappearance out of thin air—does not seem to apply in the end. The stage assistant’s role, however, may abide.

Perhaps, to vanish well entails allowing others to help unbind you, trusting them to keep your secrets. I think of Dorothy, who stood just offstage, offering a measure of knowing assurance, as Houdini attempted improbable escapes. We need compassionate attendants who help us in our final stages of disappearance, too. I think of my mother, soaking her dad’s feet in a tub of warm water; of the nursing assistants, tenderly lifting spoons to open mouths; of Ron Adkins, sliding Janet’s return ticket into his breast pocket. I imagine a world in which securing good support is not so hard, because living and dying with dementia is not so feared or fearful. For most of us, our vanishing will occur slowly and may mercifully give us time to gather willing assistants who know the illusoriness of disappearance when we reach the vanishing point.

***

Lynn Casteel Harper is a minister, chaplain, and essayist. Her work has appeared in Kenyon Review Online, and Catapult magazine. She is a Barbara Deming Memorial Fund grant recipient and the winner of the 2017 Orison Anthology Award in Nonfiction. She lives in New York City and is currently the minister of older adults at The Riverside Church.

Excerpted from On Vanishing: Mortality, Dementia, and What It Means to Disappear, by Lynn Casteel Harper. Copyright © 2020 by Lynn Casteel Harper. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Catapult. All rights reserved.

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