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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Thursday (1/29/15) 10:45pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  Being Mortal, The Shallows
Movies:  Big Hero 6
TV:  <none>

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End [audiobook]
This is Atul Gawande's latest book.  It's about elder and end-of-life care.

There are no good deaths in my family.

There's no sense, at the end, of having one last victory lap, a time to be surrounded by so many friends, and relatives, and loved ones, a time to look back, proudly, on a life well-lived.  There's no final moment to make peace, to see that the ones you're leaving behind will be okay, to say some words to be remembered by.

People in my family tend to live long enough to die of old age.  And that old age is harrowing, full of confusion, and agony, and unbearable loneliness.  It's full of regret, and bitterness, and emotional pain.  Either the mind, or the body, or both, fall apart catastrophically.  Institutionalization gets put off as long as it can by strained, well-meaning children, but eventually the decay is just too much.  There's a fall, and another fall, and finally their world, which had already shrunk from the earth to a city, and from a city to a house, shrinks further, from a house to a care facility, then to a single room in that facility, then to a single bed in that room.  And thoughts seem to shrink as well, as the more subtle and sharp distinctions get lost in dementia and confusion.  At the end, the only thoughts left are child-like.

When can I go home?

Why does it hurt so much?

What did I do wrong?

All of which is to say that Being Mortal, surgeon/author Atul Gawande's book about how modern medicine fundamentally fails patients in their waning months and years of their lives, was a hard, hard read for me.  Every little detail about, say, the miserable decline of Alzheimer's, or the fragility that leads to catastrophic falls, were things that my family went through with my mother, and with her mother.

On top of that, I'm turning 40 in a few months.  So the book's rather relentless list of the forms of bodily and mental decay that kick in during one's 30s and 40s and so on made me rather miserable.

But it was still worth reading.  It was still important to read, to take a long, hard look at what my elderly relatives have gone through, and what I likely have ahead.  And it was fascinating, just to notice that dying in a miserable nursing home is not really the natural order of things.  Old age doesn't have to go like that.  And in fact, Dr. Gawande goes to some length about measures people have taken, with variable success, to make that stage of life better.

And his central thesis is one that bears repeating: it's not medicine's job to give us more time.  It's medicine's job to improve our quality of life.  And sometimes, that is a conscious trade-off: it's not worth taking the radical cancer treatment that will cost a million dollars and leave you barely conscious for a year just to buy yourself a couple of extra, barely-conscious months on this earth.  But western medicine tends to operate purely by the heuristic of "more days of life = AWESOME SO DO THAT NO MATTER WHAT", and views anything else as tantamount to assisted suicide.  And that's how we wind up with the elderly packed away into empty sterile rooms.

We want to ensure the best expiration date.

But one thing the book helped me sort out for myself is that, as far as I can tell, I feel relatively at peace with death.  At some point, my life must stop.  And I have had forty good years.  I have done things that were meaningful to me.  I have had friends in my life that have meant the world to me.  There's no shame in having to walk away from that, and no sense that I was ever denied a fair shot.

Mind you, I still don't want it to happen any time *soon*, not least because my life has gotten monotonically better over time.  And frankly I'd feel kind of stupid for having saved away retirement money.

But I don't think death itself fills me with abject terror.

But dying does.

Dying in this particular society, knowing I'm likely to be taken down by Alzheimer's or Parkinson's (or, hey, both) before I go, is the scariest thing I can imagine.  If I reach old age, my relatives will likely die before me, leaving only a few distant, confused niblings, leaving me very likely very alone.  And when my mind goes, I won't be of much use to people.  As my capabilities vanish, the things I really enjoy doing will disappear with them.  And there I am, in some distant future, drooling, institutionalized, wracked with C. Diff infections, waiting for it to be over.

If anything, this book makes it clear that it doesn't have to be like that.  It explains how, in a perfect world, you stay as independent as you can for as long as you can, and there are systems in place to facilitate that.  And the medical community doesn't have to focus so exclusively on lengthening life that they forget that it should be worth living.  So I find myself thinking that, over the next few decades (sheesh, just an eyeblink), things could get better.  The world could get better.

And maybe, in the face of all the odds, I could die well.


The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr
This nonfiction book is about precisely what the subtitle says.  Specifically, it's about how the multitasking, attention-deficit world of the Internet makes it harder for people to muster the long, deep concentration associated with reading a book.

By and large, Mr. Carr makes a pretty strong case for this.  Fortunately, he doesn't come across as a curmudgeon who's telling the damn kids how much better things were in his day (although that is essentially what he's doing).  Instead, he's a baffled English-major type looking at all this new technology, noticing he doesn't seem to have patience for books any more, and wondering where that thread leads.

It leads to some fascinating neuroscientific studies about the plasticity of the brain, the utter stupidity of multitasking[1], and the phsyiological basis for thought itself.  And a lot of it rings true.  True, maybe it's a sort of hindsight bias, but it's easy to feel awfully scattered after any amount of time on the Internet, and we've all found it helpful to shut off our Internet connections when we need to get anything thinky done.  The book takes this to a bit of an alarmist extreme, making reasonable arguments that spending time online rewires our brains, perhaps to the point where quiet contemplation is flat-out impossible.

Yes, there are weaknesses in his arguments.  For example, he talks about how hard it is to have any sustained thought when his email client is pinging him every minute with a new message.  But obviously, if that's happening, you are Internetting wrong.  In fact, if *anything* on your computer is clamoring that insistently for your attention, and it is not on the level of "YOUR HOUSE IS ON FIRE AND ALSO THERE IS TORNADO OF SHARKS COMING YOUR WAY", you probably should shut that down.  He talks about how e-books are fundamentally different reading experiences from real paper books, but that line of reasoning feels pretty tenuous, and basically amounts to "eventually ebooks just be tablets that have all the notification-yammering Internet gewgaws that are on your laptop", which feels a bit slippery slope.  Yes, that will happen... or it won't.  Or if it does, you won't have it pinging notifications at you unless sharknado.

The biggest problem I had with the book is that he never actually defines, to my satisfaction, the kind of thinking that's getting lost in this new Information Age.  Sure, I *kind of* get it -- it's the thinking that you do when you're thinking for a long time -- but it would have firmed up the book quite a bit to have some real, nailed-down description of how this form of thought is different, what happens in it, what it's uniquely suited to accomplish.

In any case, it's kind of amusing how his attitude, which seemed contrarian in 2011, has now become widely accepted, especially among the plugged-in technorati that he described as the most deleteriously affected.  Now we have plugins like StayFocusd, and sporadic "social media vacations", and people like me telling you to turn off all your non-shark-related notifications.  So maybe, in the end, his apocalypse of contemplation will never happen.  But it's still interesting to read about.


Big Hero 6
This is the Disney Animation CGI film about a boy roboticist who deals with the death of his older brother by forming a hero squad, intenet on tracking down a supervillain.

The film opens with the camera looking down on the city of "San Fransokyo", which is exactly what it sounds like.  The aerial shot sweeps across the Golden Gate Bridge, its towers reshaped into Japanese torii, and I thought, "Okay, I don't even care if this movie is good."  San Fransokyo is just amazing.  I'd rank it up there with the pastiche European town of Kiki's Delivery Service[2]  Nearly every shot reveals some new vista, some new street scene, some new image that evokes warm fuzzy memories of both visiting San Francisco and of watching animé.

Honestly, that wonderful setting sets up one of the minor letdowns of the film: the score.  You have this world that is such a particular, wonderful place, with so many pieces of Japanese culture woven perfectly into the Bay area... and yet the score sounds like it's from nowhere.  Or more specifically, it sounds like a perfectly by-the-numbers western movie score.  Now, to be sure, introducing Japanese elements into the film score could have led to some really insulting and cutesy exoticism -- see the "oriental riff" in the soundtrack of Sixteen Candles.  It could have also been confusing to mass-market American audiences.  But surely there could have been just a hint of a wooden flute or a shamisen could have played nicely with a traditional soundtrack.[3]

In any case, the setting is awesome, and yes, there's an actual movie that takes place in that setting, and it's pretty good.  It feels reminiscent of The Iron Giant.  And let me be clear: when it comes to lifting elements, stylistic choices, or entire plotlines from The Iron Giant... I am completely, 100%, *for* this plan.  The Iron Giant is one of the best American animated films ever made.  It deserves to be as influential as Toy Story and as beloved as The Lion King.

And I especially like that this movie is *about* something.  It would be very easy for this movie to devolve into a kind of racist parody of animé: "A boy and his magical robot fight the evil Kabuki man with flying and lasers!"  But by setting up Hadashi as such a strong and sympathetic character, and by killing him off so brutally, and by making that death *land* in such a realistic way -- that makes it *matter*, and keeps the film from floating away into being "just a bunch of moves".  Between this and Tangled and Frozen, it seems like 2010s Disney is carving an unexpected niche for themselves in dysfunctional-family dramas -- and that's "dysfunctional" not in the sense of "my sitcom relatives are soooo wacky!", but in the sense that there's a family dynamic that's really hurting people, and there's no obvious way to make it all better.

That said, once they had set up the emotional storyline, the amazing setting, and a surprising level of familiarity with modern, cutting-edge technology, they had sort of run of 'creativity capital'.  Much of the rest of the story gets filled out by rote.  Yes, they learn how to function as a team.  And the team members have limited screen time, so they're all fairly one-note.  (Imagine The Avengers without any prequel movies.)  Yes, there's a training montage.  And there's a big fight scene at the end, and lots of punching, and... *yawn*.

Actually, not 'yawn'.  Or more precisely, only 'yawn' in terms of the plot structure.  The action sequences themselves are spellbinding.  Don Hall and Chris Williams direct the hell out of this movie, with action that goes at breakneck speed, yet still featuring enough long, wide shots that you know the geography of the scene.  And they direct the hell out of the rest of the movie, too -- it's fascinating how many jokes are done with just editing, or even just shifting the focal plane from the foreground to the background.

That last one fascinated me, because it made me realize how rarely you see that move in animation.  And you specifically never see that bit of film grammar in traditional animation because, with rare exceptions, cel animation depicts everything in focus all the time.  CGI has many drawbacks, in my opinion -- I have yet to see a CGI model that's half as expressive as the angry running lines in Princess Kaguya -- but it's a happy surprise to see how it opens up a whole toybox of live-action film tricks for animators to use.

All in all, it was a nice, solid, three-star movie.


For next week: I'm watching season one of the overlooked animated gem Bob and Margaret while exercising.  I'm between books at the moment, both on my Kindle and on audio, while I deal with a whirlwind of job-hunting.  Lindsey and I are still listening to Welcome to Night Vale.  We've started watching season two of Community (which is amazing) as well as Galavant (which is very, very silly).

_______
[1] If you think you're an "excellent multitasker", then (1) you're not; and (2) shut up.
[2] ... a pleasing bit of symmetry, that.
[3] Have we learned nothing from Bear McCreary?

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