Life as an Extreme Sport

NJ Flags at Half-mast for Whitney Houston – The Right Thing to Do

Stepping into the fray because, well, have we met? – there’s a debate flying around social media this morning that Chris Christie, the charmingly offensive NJ governor, has ordered New Jersey flags (state and federal) flown at half-mast Saturday for Whitney Houston’s funeral.

The argument against goes something like this: flags should only be flown at half-mast for first responders, military, and elected officials. (Since, as we all know, elected officials are paragons of virtue and oh wait…) Because Houston had a public battle with addiction, and her cause of death is pending for tox reports, detractors argue she shouldn’t be honoured, and even if her death was “natural” (and for here, please read what people actually mean: of a cause that they deem appropriate and/or acceptable for a black woman), her years of addiction make her unworthy of any kind of honour.

These reasons are wrong, and they smack of both racism and sexism along with judgmental moralism – or perhaps, to be charitable, simple ignorance. In the days of Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Jennifer Hudson and other African American pop musicians (or as VH-1 might say, “divas”), it’s hard for people to remember what the pop musical landscape was like in the early 80s. One word works pretty well, though: white.

And this is acknowledged enough that most comprehensive obituaries are even noting it: Houston, with her pretty, girl-next-door looks and gospel-trained voice, transcended the very limited role expected of black women at the time, and moved out of the R&B/motown/gospel niche and into mainstream music. We don’t really think about it now, but at the time? It was a big deal – and it’s what paved the way for most of the modern “diva music” that exists now.

But Houston did more than just create a positive black female role model in music. She also moved into movies, starring in an interracial romance that ended up being the sort of megablockbuster that guarantees it’s on Lifetime’s heavy rotation. Whether or not The Bodyguard was a good movie is immaterial – good is embedded in other preferences (although I would argue that the sneering dismissal of romance/chick flicks parallels that of genre chick lit/romance novels – a windmill I’ll leave for another day, or the Smart Bitches) – what does mater is that again, Houston transcended the expectations that society placed on a black woman: namely, that she could not carry and open a movie. And while we like to think that America is progressive when it comes to race and romance, the reality is, it’s still incredibly rare, even in 2012, to see an interracial romance in any popular culture portrayal.

We’re in the middle of Black History Month, a month that exists specifically to highlight and emphasize the cultural and historical contributions African Americans have played in American society, in an effort to equalize the disparity shown to important figures in Western culture who have been marginalized due to the colour of their skin. We have a Woman’s History Month in March for the same reason – to balance some of the historical disparities in honouring women, who are frequently marginalized due to their gender.

Right now, people who are disagreeing with honouring Houston are revealing that they’ve either not stopped to think about what she actually did, or are so caught up in stereotypes that their ugly thinking is showing. Accompanying this is that strain of judgmental moralism, the idea that someone has to die in “the right way” in order for it to be permissible to have sorrow for their death. American society in particular has held on to a very peculiar strain of belief that stigmatizes certain deaths as “bad” – that the person who died deserved it and is being punished for their perceived infractions. With Houston, this narrative is developing as “drug users are immoral people and thus deserve their death;” many cancer patients get the implicit suggestion that because they did something viewed as unhealthy or “bad” – say, smoking – they are now being punished – that they must have done something to “deserve” their illness. In a death narrative, there is always judgment, and those judged as lacking for whatever reason receive the accompanying underscore of “death was deserved.”

Ultimately, if it’s good enough for John Wayne, Israel Kamakawiwo`ole, Clarence Clemons, and protector-of-a-child-molester Joe Paterno, it seems like it should be good enough for a woman who broke down doors in music and movies for an entire generation of women after her.

the spectre of the ghost

Many moons ago, I had my subliminal biases called out and to the front by a classmate. She wasn’t just targetting me, she was slamming the entire class – the entire class of white kids who turned to her, the only black student, to see her reaction whenever slavery, Tuskegee, Jim Crowe laws, and whathaveyou were brought up. She was rightfully angry – why did we expect her to be the face of every black person? On the one hand, we were only 12, so I think it’s an acceptable reaction for the age. On the other, it’s something that’s stayed with me, and I pay particular attention when I find myself either reacting in an exceptionalist way towards someone, or have it happen towards me.

In the last couple of days, more than a few people have asked me what I think about the Edwards continuing the campaign trail, with the news that Elizabeth Edwards now has incurable bone cancer. Do I think it’s right? Don’t I think they should go home, be with family, allow her to die in peace? Shouldn’t I know the proper thing, speaking as someone whose family has been affected by cancer? (There might even be an underlying “well, tell us if you think it’s ethical!”)

The thing is, most of the people who ask seem to be looking for condemnation, and that’s not something I can give. I think that the Edwardses are doing the right thing. She has incurable cancer, but you can live with incurable cancer for a very long time. Why should she flee back to the ‘safety’ of a home that can offer nothing more than she’ll get anywhere else? Why should she – or for that matter, her husband or children – stop living their lives? Can you imagine how that might make her feel, to have everyone drop everything and rush to be around her 24/7? Might that not feel like they’re all just waiting for you to die, so they can get on with their lives?

Elizabeth Edwards is choosing to live with cancer. Yes, eventually it will probably kill her – and she’ll make a choice prior to that to be dying with cancer. But that’s not the choice she’s made right now, and I’m not sure why anyone should want her to lie down and give up well before it’s time to accept an oncoming death.

I think a lot of naysayers are bitter about two things: the potential for this to give Edwards a needed bump in the election process (and frankly, I think that speaks worse to voters, that they would vote for someone out of sympathy instead of qualifications), and the fact that someone who is sick is refusing to hide. By Elizabeth being out there and campaigning for her husband, people can’t pretend cancer doesn’t happen, that good people don’t get sick, that our health care system is fine. Elizabeth, like previous celebrities before her, bring a human face to an illness and remove our ability to create an invisible, stigmatized individual to assign to that disease. And unlike Lance Armstrong or Kylie Minogue, Elizabeth’s celebrity-ness is in a field where she might be able to do more than raise money – she might be able to change the entire way the game is played.

And that, I think, makes people who’d rather not see universal health insurance and health accesss a reality, very very nervous.

Giving Voice

I have a friend, suffering from complications of pre-cancerous cysts and other issues with her breasts. She’s going to be considered high risk for the rest of her life; right now, she’s dealing with a lot of side effects from recent surgeries to remove masses and reconstruct (mostly via reduction) her remaining breast tissue.

This friend is in my department. There are basically four active female graduate students in our department, and then a plethora of men (murder of men? congregation? flock?). She’s taken the stand that explaining why she’s holding a pillow against her chest, or why her clothes seem baggy suddenly, or she’s taking medication, late for classes, looking unwell, or simply talking about how she’s feeling (physically or otherwise) is not only fine, it’s necessary to do so to remove the stigma and shame associated with a breast disease. As she points out, if she had toenail surgery a week ago, everyone would be concerned and no one would react with discomfort or awkwardness. But social sexualization of breasts seems to carry over, and people – or at least many men that I’ve watched her deal with lately – are very uncomfortable with her illness, both in that it’s an illness, but also that it is about breasts. Because everything around a breast must be sexual, of course.

So her stand is to talk about it like it’s any other illness that we would talk about. She doesn’t want pity, but she refuses to be quiet because it makes people uncomfortable.

I admire this, and it’s an attitude I’d already begun to embrace with my mother. Like I told my former department director, when people I haven’t talked to in a while see or chat with me, they want to know how much I love graduate school, how my plans of taking over the world are going – they don’t want, and certainly aren’t expecting, the news that my mother has stage four lung cancer. And after you drop the c-bomb on people, it’s hard for them to recover. People don’t know what to say, are afraid to say the wrong thing, and you have changed in their eyes. A ticking time bomb of utoh and pain.

It’s an awkward situation to be in, though, because you don’t want pity or to be treated differently. Yet at the same time, I at least don’t want to feel like I have to hide things. So in many ways, I’ve adopted a strategy that isn’t walking up to someone and saying, as introduction, “hello my mom has cancer how are you”, but one that allows it to be revealed as a normal part of the conversation. If we’re talking about cats, I’m probably going to mention missing mine. If you ask why they’re missing, I’ll explain they’re in Oregon, and I’ll explain why.

I guess, what my ambien-addled fingers are trying to get out (and this will be ever-so-much fun to read in the sober light of morning), is that too many people in my friend’s position, or my own, react to the stigma of illness by hiding it. She and I have both refused to do that, for our own independently reached reasons – reasons that seem to come down to this:

There is no shame in being sick, and the only way we’re going to remove the stigmas around certain areas of the body, or certain kinds of disease, or even death itself, is to talk to one another about it with frankness, honesty, and compassion.

In eight words, three that will fail

Prior to signing books yesterday, Senator Schumer spoke for a bit about the book Positively American and his motivation for writing it. As the primary architect of the 2006 Democratic takeover, he’s already looking ahead to 2008, and what Democrats can do to win the presidency. He said that there were eight words that elected G.W. Bush: war in iraq, lower taxes, no gay marriage. These eight words were political phrases tied to deep moral values that motivated a core constituency to get out and vote. More importantly, they unified people around those core moral values: protecting the country, smaller government, and the sanctity of marriage.

Schumer belives that Democrats need to find their own eight words for the 2008 electionAnd if you have any, definitely go to the website and suggest them – he is presenting it as a chance for the common person to get involved in the political process.; that this is where Gore and Kerry failed. They didn’t have easily compacted political phrases that tied directly to deep moral values. These eight words need to be positive phrases (“no war in Iraq” wouldn’t work), and cannot be vague. The example he gave, one that he felt was positive and tied to a deep moral value, was “universal health care”.

Unfortunately, there’s a problem with this: it presumes a comprehensive moral doctrine that we most assuredly do not have. For many people, health care access is not a right, it is a reward and a privilege of doing well (and not something to reward people who, in their eyes, don’t do the work necessary to receive it). For others, there is not so much a reward principle tied to health care, but the simple and very common belief that individuals are responsible for their own health.

When you hold either of these views, which are closely related although motivated by different reasons, universal health care is not linking down to a shared moral view on health care access. It is instead alienating a large segment of the population by in fact doing exactly what they morally oppose.

While the idea of overhauling our health care system is certainly a growing, vocal concer, until we separate the notion of personal responsibility from access to health care, we will not be able to achieve universal health care. And in fact, this is exactly why universal health care for children is both okay and strongly supported – precisely because we simultaneously believe that children do not have personal responsibility (autonomy) and that children should be cared for to a certain standard. Once these children reach a certain age, however, we presume they achieve autonomy, and with that the personal responsibility to care for themselves.

Until we separate the ideas of responsibility from health care access, we will not have universal health care coverage. A lack of health care must no longer be viewed as a stigma, or seen as a moral judgment highlighting personal failure to succeed and take care of one’s self. When we accomplish this, then we can begin to talk about unifying political phrases grounded in moral doctrine. But until then, the only thing the three words “universal health care” will do is drive away those who see it as a code phrase for turning the country into a welfare state.

The Daily [05-08-06] – Dependency vs. Addiction

If this looks familiar to some of the longer-time readers, well… it was a busy week. And besides, the original was pretty good in and of itself.

Dependency vs. Addiction
Publish Date: 2006-05-08

I meant this column to be about the idea of informed consent. It’s a subject both House and Grey’s Anatomy have covered in their last couple episodes; something I would call a coincidence if they hadn’t been doing this back and forth of show themes for two seasons now.

But one evening I managed to find myself on the Television Without Pity Web site, in theory rereading the details of those pertinent episodes of Grey’s and House, when I decided I wanted to read recaps from earlier episodes.

That decision led me back to a first-season episode of House titled “Detox.” The theoretical point of this episode was a teenager with bleeding of unknown origin, but the actual point was to examine the vicodin use of the main character, Greg House.

For the few of you who’ve managed to miss this show, the character likes to discover novel ways to take vicodin.

In his defense, he’s missing a good part of one of his thigh muscles and has severe nerve damage from various complications of a blood clot and surgery years before.

House is accused of being a vicodin addict, and is challenged to go a week without taking any. He accepts the challenge, and during the course of the show appears to go through withdrawal, going so far as to break his hand to force his body to pay attention to different pain.

The result? Everyone crows that House is a drug addict.

I don’t agree.

Addiction is a biological and psychological condition that compels a person to satisfy their need for a particular stimulus and keep satisfying it, no matter what the cost.

Dependence is a physical state that occurs when the lack of a drug causes the body to react.

Physical dependence indicates that the body has grown so adapted to having the drug present that sudden removal of it will lead to withdrawal reactions. This can happen with almost any drug.

House is in constant, chronic pain. The physical dependency on vicodin is one that allows the character to maintain a normal lifestyle.

To use analogy to illustrate the point, imagine that a normal, healthy person is akin to a full glass of water. Someone who is in chronic pain is only half a glass of water without pain medications.

Add in a bunch of ice cubes, and the person in chronic pain is brought back up to the normal and functional level of everyone else.

In the case of the addict, toss a few ice cubes in a full glass of water, and watch everything spill everywhere in a mess. That’s addiction.

The chronic pain person needs those ice cubes of vicodin on a daily basis to provide what the body needs to function, but it’s not a situation where they would actively seek out, need, or desire any more than necessary to achieve that state of near-normalcy.

Regular use of some medications is necessary for some people to live a normal life. A diabetic is not addicted to insulin, nor is someone taking medication to control high blood pressure addicted to it.

They are, however, dependent upon it, as a person in chronic pain is dependent upon their drugs to function normally.

Perhaps that’s the thing one needs to consider when weighing notions of addiction or dependency — the person who is addicted does not have improved functionality with their addiction, while the dependent person does.

The writers of House have been irresponsible in how they’ve portrayed the character of House’s dependency, and this causes a lot of grief for actual living and breathing people with chronic pain.

There is a stigma associated with needing pain medicine every few hours. This stigma, shame and fear prevents many doctors from properly treating pain, and prevents many people from seeking out the relief they need.