Review: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

I have resisted my penchant for All Things Morbid for some time, but couldn’t manage to force myself not to read Caitlin Doughty‘s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory.  It seemed fitting literary romp for the gal whose Make-A-Wish was to go to Salem, Massachusetts for Halloween. In fact, one of my favorite books of all time is Mary Roach’s Stiff.

Doughty’s book began wonderfully – full of wit, and eyes-wide-open. We learn why she chose mortuary work, and get to learn fun facts and figures about the funeral industry. Some subjects, like stillborn infants, are written about with grace and intrigue, which I can respect as an incredibly difficult juxtaposition to manage, let alone pull off with Doughty’s finesse.

Yet, my beef is in book’s perception of human dignity, not significantly discussed until the end of the book. Part reference book and part memoir, the reader learns about how certain bodies caused the author to reflect on her own life, love, and mortality. Discussing a particularly poignant exchange, Doughty remembers a “wheelchair-bound” widow that she believes “should have been the first to go.” In addition to these stereotypical conclusions, she also infantilizes the widow; after receiving his wife’s cremains, the widow “just thanked me in his thin voice, and cradled the brown box in his lap like a child.” Why should someone that uses a wheelchair die before his able-bodied wife? Why is he any less vital than any other grieving spouse?

It’s not that Doughty has ill-intentions toward the disabled widow; in fact, when he is brought to the crematory not long after, Doughty weeps for the loss of love – deep, beautiful love – that he and his former wife had. Their love is something that Doughty appears to envy. Why not, then, respect other aspects of his life?

It wasn’t until reading this book that I began to realize the deep roots of ableism in American society. I had always written the time off as liberal mumbo jumbo. But when the author began to talk about dignity, linking it with death, I grew alarmed. Doughty even references a piece by Atul Gawande (who also writes beautifully about mortality), and questions whether grandma and grandpa should be enabled to try and cheat death through medical intervention. Why not, then, the poor widow in a wheelchair?

Indeed, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes got me thinking. Just probably not in the way the author intended.

Review: Smarter Faster Better

I recently decided to take a break from heavier academic reading and indulge in one of my favorite genres: pop science. The bright orange cover of Charles Duhigg’s Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business caught my eye on the iBooks shelf, ironically destroying my own productivity as its lessons drew me in.

Duhigg devotes one chapter to each piece of the productivity puzzle, concluding with an appendix of quick tips for applying these lessons to one’s life day-to-day routine.  At first glance, the keys to productivity – motivation, teamwork, goal-setting, the management of others, decision-making, innovation, and data absorption – may appear obvious and overbroad. After all, how does one force creativity out of themselves? Well, Duhigg tells you how in Chapter 7, using Disney’s Frozen and the Broadway hit West Side Story to explain the innovative process.

My favorite part of the book was the chapter on goals, in which Duhigg cleverly melds anecdotes about the Yom Kippur War and General Electric to describe a phenomenon known as “cognitive closure.” For years, ex-love interests have complained about my need to always label relationships and know exactly where I stand within them. Of course,  this penchant for decisiveness carries over into other aspects of my life, pulling me away from the indecisive and willy-nilly. Finally, I’m able to put a label on my certain brand of neurosis: cognitive closure. Duhigg explains that approximately 20% of the population similarly craves finality  and conclusion. While this characteristic is helpful in many situations, it can also be detrimental when one refuses to consider other possibilities or change their mind in the face of impending alternate truths.

Less interesting was the chapter on data absorption, which uses the example of inter-city Cincinnati schools to show that hands-on data manipulation better enables people to understand the data available. While the chapter’s conclusions are doubtlessly sound,  they are also incredibly intuitive. This created a bit of an anticlimactic ending.

Nevertheless, anyone with a few hours to kill will be entertained by Duhigg’s latest book – and perhaps have the necessary toolkit moving forward to avoid wasted, motivation-less chunks of time.

Review: Telethons

As soon as I heard the late history professor and disability rights advocate Paul K. Longmore was writing a book about telethons, I got excited. As someone with spinal muscular activity, the annual Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon on Labor Day was a big deal. When I was younger, I was excited to be on my local TV broadcast, telling stories about MDA camp and friends with neuromuscular disorders. In my mid-teen years, I began to hate what the Telethon stood for – pity, exploitation, and fearmongering. Longmore’s book, Telethons: Spectacle, Disability, and the Business of Charity summed up all my feelings and introduced me to some new revelations.

Longmore’s impeccable research focuses on four major American telethons: the United Cerebral Palsy Association (UCP), the Arthritis Foundation, the National Easter Seals Society, and the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). The UCP was the first charity to begin a multi-hour fundraising program for disabled beneficiaries in 1950. However,  the MDA created the “modern” telethon, reaching 100 million viewers at its pinnacle.

Of course, telethons are now generally viewed as relics. Their decline began in the 1980s, when more of the television audience demanded regular overnight programming. Moreover, the Federal Communications Commission under the Reagan administration deregulated the requirement that local television stations provide community service programming. As such, stations began requiring that the charities sponsoring telethons pay akin to what stations were losing in preemptions and other revenue. Longmore states that the price was sometimes more than $250,000 per hour! (No wonder the MDA recently decided to terminate its telethon programming.)

Interestingly, the decision to nix the telethon drew great criticism from not only some beneficiaries, but also many donors. Longmore writes that telethons “democratized giving.”

No longer relying mainly on a social elite’s sense of noblesse oblige, it mobilized mass publics and sought to instill in them the habit of giving. In reaching the public through the mass media, charity fundraising reflected and reinforced the interpersonal disconnectedness of modern life as it widened the social distance between givers and receivers.

Indeed, Longmore documents the specific role that each participant played – sometimes gleefully, sometimes unwittingly.

Until reading Telethons, I was unaware of the benefits corporate sponsors received by issuing donations to telethons. Obviously, their appearance helped generate goodwill for the companies and their management officials. But asking viewers to purchase a product in order for a portion of the purchase price to go to a particular charity boosted corporate revenue immensely. For example, by offering a charitable donation, American Express increased credit card donations by one-third and yielded $17 million! Known as “cause-related marketing,” corporate public relations officials bolstered profit. Need more proof? “Former executives at two of the charities confidentially disclosed that their telethons lasted as long as they did only at the corporate sponsors’ insistence.”

Donors benefited from their ability to engage in “conspicuous contribution.” They could pick up the telephone, throw a few dollars at a problem, and have the whole world know they did a good thing. Whether having their name posted on the Star Board or sharing photos of themselves locked up in a faux fundraising prison, donors enjoyed the gratification of public praise. Longmore also suggests that some donors of a conservative bent may have preferred charity models of healthcare to government-sponsored healthcare, meaning that, by donating, they could keep socialist reforms at bay.

And, certainly, poster children played their part as well. Easter Seals trained local offices that “children raised more money than adults. Donors “sympathized with images of ‘the most weak.'”  (It should be noted that, at least as far as Lewis was concerned, poster children couldn’t be too weak – “he says he doesn’t want to bend over a wheelchair to raise a buck.”)  Couched in the “narrative techniques, character, and plot devices used in sentimental literature and Victorian fiction, [telethons used poster children in] combining three standard sentimental devices: unmerited affliction through illness or accident, the suffering of children, and emotional excess.”

In addition to this basic overview, the book offers far more insight.  Readers will learn about how Lewis enforced patriarchal culture by branding his “Kids,”  how Jerry’s Orphans fought back in an effort to regain stolen dignity, and how the medical model persisted throughout charitable engagement. With my weak SMA-“afflicted” thumbs, I give this book two thumbs up!