Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Twenty years ago, a woman in her mid-thirties wrote a book that would become an environmental classic. I finally read it last week.

Still in print and still selling briskly, Refuge defies classification. Check out the reviews posted on Terry Tempest Williams's website: Wallace Stegner evokes her poetic style; Barry Lopez mentions the story's emotional depth; the Kansas City Star calls the book an environmental essay, and Kirkus highlights its political implications.

Williams interweaves two stories: the rise of Utah's Great Salt Lake, and her mother's slow dying from cancer. "Most of the women in my family are dead," she writes in the Prologue. "Cancer. At thirty-four, I became the matriarch of my family. The losses I encountered at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge as Great Salt Lake was rising helped me to face the losses within my family."

I read more memoir than nature writing, and I found Williams's account both moving and satisfying. It is good to read about a strong family with supportive grandparents, aunts, cousins, siblings, and friends. The Tempest tribe has been Mormon for many generations, and their faith, shared history, and rituals clearly strengthen them. At the same time, Williams does not skirt difficult issues. Her father's grief sometimes turns into rage. Her grandmother and mother push well beyond Mormon boundaries to find beliefs that will sustain their difficult journeys. Williams grows weary of caregiving, even briefly considering giving her mother enough morphine to send her on her way.

I have cared for dying loved ones, and I have faced serious illness. I recognize the emotions she describes, both her own and her mother's.

I suspect that readers of nature writing find the book equally satisfying. Williams does not just use the natural world to illustrate her own emotions. "Currently the Annie Clark Tanner Scholar in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah" (see her bio here), she writes as a scientist and a keen observer of nature. Her descriptions of birds, their habitat, and their interactions with their human neighbors stand on their own (she even includes a six-page appendix listing all the birds associated with the Great Salt Lake).

And although the book is by no means a political essay, she ends it with a stunning chapter, "The Clan of One-Breasted Women," that is simultaneously political, environmental, poetic, feminist, and urgent.

Thanks to my friend Molly H. for giving me this book. Twenty years ago I might not have understood it as well as I do today. Now I pass it on to you.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Fear, death, and being human: thoughts before surgery

Heart and blood vessels
(Leonardo da Vinci)
I am scheduled to have open-heart surgery next week.

They will open my chest, slicing right down the sternum, and they'll hook me up to a machine to pump my blood and keep me oxygenated while they mend my innards. I am told this will take from three to six hours.

Fortunately, I will be sound asleep the whole time. And to prevent any operating-room chatter from possibly invading my dormant brain cells, large noise-cancelling headphones will fill my ears with reassuring music.

I've known this was coming since 2003. In May 2008 I wrote a brief note about it here. Last March my cardiologist and I agreed that it's time to go ahead. A defective valve needs replacing. An aneurysm needs repairing. Some faulty electrical circuits need rewiring. Bring on the plumbers and electricians.

As Samuel Johnson said to his friend Boswell, "Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

In my case, the mental concentration is another word for fear. I felt fear when my cardiologist announced, "Mrs. Neff, you are not normal." (I also burst out laughing, which puzzled him.) I've felt fear every time  I've had echocardiograms, CT scans, MRIs, Holter monitor readings, and other tests - and I've had a lot of them. When the doctors decided I needed a catheter ablation, I could not stop shaking. My thoughts turned dark and morbid during three days in the hospital while they started me on a potent medication.

Most of the time, thank goodness, I can deal with fear. Denial works remarkably well. Failing that, joking can be effective. But when surgery became a date on my calendar, not just a remote possibility, I knew I had to pay attention. So I asked myself the obvious question, What are you afraid of? And I gave myself the obvious answers: Pain. Serious side-effects of surgery, such as stroke. Undesirable brain changes, such as compulsive alliteration.


Not much chance of that, they tell me. The numbers are excellent: the survival rate is at least 97 percent. I'm otherwise healthy, and my surgeon is one of the best. Not much chance of stroke, either. It happens, but not to the vast majority of patients.

When I strode up to the Grim Reaper to fling these statistics in his face, he was not impressed. Life, he pointed out, is a sexually transmitted condition that is 100 percent fatal. At age 63, if I am average, I can expect to live another 26 years (check out your own life expectancy here). That no longer seems very long. What's more, my healthy life expectancy is only another 8 years, according to the World Health Organization's database. I'm guessing I might have more time than that because I've never smoked, have had excellent medical care, have eaten good food, have exercised. My parents did all of those things too, and their health was good up to about age 79. But that's still only 16 years away.

If I survive this surgery - and I believe I will - I will probably have another 10 to 20 years before the artificial valve has to be replaced, or Alzheimer's infiltrates my brain, or I am attacked by cancer or strokes or some other disease. It's going to happen because I am dust, and to dust I shall return.

This is where I might go theological, or at least pietistic, and start talking about heaven, resurrection, immortality. I'm not going to do that. Undeniably many people find comfort in their faith. Morris West, author of The Shoes of the Fisherman and many other novels, faced open-heart surgery with strong faith: "Alive or dead, I was resting in the hand of Omnipotence. I knew with absolute conviction that I could not fall out of it" (A View from the Ridge, p. 145). Before he reached that conclusion, though, he had to face his own mortality. When he went into surgery, he knew he might never wake up.

As it turned out, West lived another 11 years: he died at his desk at age 83 while working on his 28th novel. He did, however, eventually die. So did all my ancestors. So did several of my friends. So will you. So will I.

This can be hard for us Americans to accept. When doctors want to talk with us about our end-of-life plans, some of us worry about death panels. When someone dies, we want to know who's to blame (the doctor? the hospital? the deceased's habits? ourselves, for not intervening in some way?). The idea that death is a normal part of being human - from the Latin humus, earth, soil, dust - is hard for us to understand - and what we do not understand, we fear.

Voldemort, remember, means "flight of death." His followers were Death Eaters - people who feared death so much that they were willing to kill to avoid it. By contrast, Dumbledore and Harry Potter accepted death willingly, and thereby saved the wizarding world. I don't expect to save any worlds, but I am guessing that if I can accept - really accept, believe at a gut level - that I am dust, I will save myself a lot of unnecessary anxiety over the next few days.

Oh, by the way, I may not be posting much for a while. Or - who knows - I may feel the urge to comment on every passing headline (someone please stop me! No one should blog while medicated!). If you want to keep up with Lively Dust but you don't want to keep checking back unnecessarily, sign up to "Follow by Email" - right-hand column, second box from the top.

Saturday, August 13, 2011


"This is the book I've been looking for," I said to my friend Carol at a book group last night. "I'm so tired of books where the characters are miserable at the beginning, think a great deal, and are equally miserable at the end. Not that I want sappy sweet books..."

"You want books that are redemptive," Carol said.

That's exactly right. Happy books featuring genuinely good people, like D.L. Smith's The Miracles of Santo Fico; gritty books whose protagonists take on evil and win, like Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch detective stories; or even deeply ambiguous books whose seriously flawed characters turn out to have a good side after all, like Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge. What I don't want to do is waste my time with any book that goes nowhere or, worse, leaves me depressed and anxious. If I want to feel suicidal, I can watch the news.

I loved Major Pettigrew's Last Stand.

The book is very redemptive, though if I told you exactly what I mean by that I'd give away the plot. It is also a charming romance. Characters fall in and out of love; marriage proposals are made, accepted, postponed, and turned down. The necessary complications arise because of misunderstandings (or downright nastiness) between races, nationalities, religions, generations, sexes, classes, and people with varying levels of pretentiousness. The love of money and possessions triggers plenty of havoc.

Fortunately, this is a comic novel, not grim realism. The author, a native of England who has lived in the U.S. for 20 years, enjoys poking fun at stuffy old Brits (aren't they almost extinct?) and brash Americans (thriving, alas).

While Major Pettigrew, 68, and especially the quietly indomitable Mrs. Ali, 58, are well-developed characters, many members of the supporting cast are hilarious caricatures - the vicar's dreadful wife, Daisy; the Major's narcissistic son, Roger; Mrs. Ali's scowling religious nephew, Abdul Wahid; the ecologically minded but fashion challenged neighbor, Alice;  Lord Dagenham, who brings bankers to the manor to shoot at farm-raised ducks... Well, all of Helen Simonson's characters, right down to walk-on parts like the rule-obsessed lady at the tea-and-cakes kiosk, are wryly amusing.

To be sure, the course of Major Pettigrew's romance does not run smooth. Potentially derailing subplots abound: an American real estate developer wants to turn Edgecombe St. Mary into a haven for displaced minor nobility. The Major and his sister-in-law disagree about who should inherit the deceased brother's valuable gun. A single mother confronts her child's father. The yearly club dance finds yet another way to showcase its planner's ignorance and bad taste. A love affair seems to die even before it gets properly started. Hey, this is a romance - we can hardly expect things to be easy.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is funny, it's heartwarming, it's even wise. And in the end, when the main characters get what's coming to them (for good or for ill), I'm betting most readers will chuckle and cheer and say to their friends, "Here's a book you've got to read."

When Googling for a picture of the book jacket to include with this post, I discovered that Alexander McCall Smith reviewed this book in the New York Times (March 3, 2010). His review is excellent, but even if you don't feel like reading it right now, click on this link to see the illustration. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Give me your tired, your poor - but only if they have a really good lawyer

Everybody agrees - the U.S. immigration system is broken. Americans strongly disagree as to how it should be fixed. But there's one fix, desperately needed, that just about all of us can agree on. When people flee to the U.S. because staying in their home countries means almost certain torture and death, we need to help them.

Alas, we don't.

I became aware of how the U.S. treats refugees when my husband and I became friends with a lovely family who escaped their home country at night, by boat, and eventually ended up in the Chicago area. For over 20 years they have been fighting to become citizens or even permanent residents. They have fought maybe half a dozen deportation orders. They have spent vast sums on lawyers. Twice a Senate bill has been introduced for their relief (and has subsequently died in committee). They don't want to be "illegal aliens"  - they are conservative, law-abiding, tax-paying, hard-working people. But they don't dare return to their country of origin. It looks like their green cards are finally coming through. They will believe it when they see them.

For all their uncertainty, fear, and dollars spent, my friends have had it easy compared to Regina and David Bakala, refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo featured in Josephe Marie Flynn's gripping new book, Rescuing Regina (the link will take you to my brief preview; my full review will appear in a couple of months in Christian Century). A coalition of Midwesterners, whose politics ranged from Tea Party to left-wing Democrat, worked hard to get Regina out of jail and to keep her from being sent back to the warlords who had promised to kill her.

Or check out this unfinished story about Edmond Demiraj, published yesterday in the New York Times. Demiraj agreed to be a government witness against a mobster and was then virtually delivered to the mobster's doorstep in Albania. He eventually made it back to the U.S. - legally - but now his wife and son are in grave danger. He is hoping the Supreme Court will hear their case.

If you prefer happy endings, read this story about Chicagoans Tony and Janina Wasilewski in Sunday's Chicago Tribune or the more extensive New York Times account. Twenty-two years ago, Janina applied for asylum. Four years ago, she and their six-year-old son were deported. Thanks to a persistent husband, a tenacious lawyer, a documentary filmmaker, several politicians, and a Supreme Court decision, the family was reunited yesterday.

Folks, it shouldn't have to be this difficult.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Why even hard-working, frugal, clean-living Tea Partiers may someday need Social Security and Medicare

I have to ask myself: am I part of the American majority who wants to scale back government expenses – as long as none of my personal benefits are touched?

I confess: I will turn 63 next week, and I don’t want Social Security or Medicare reduced or – heaven help us – privatized.

I have personal reasons.

My husband and I have been saving heavily for 20 years, have paid off the mortgage on our modest house, have nursing-home insurance policies, and have no debts whatsoever. Nevertheless, our retirement accounts have been significantly diminished by the recession of 2008–11, and the future of stocks and bonds does not look good. Without Social Security to supplement our savings, we’d have a rough retirement.

Both of us take good care of our health. We’ve never smoked, and we exercise daily. We eat no red meat, few desserts, and lots of whole grains, vegetables, and fruit. My weight has always been right where it’s supposed to be, and his isn’t far off. Nevertheless, I’m scheduled to have open heart surgery later this month, and I will need to have costly check-ups and possibly medications for the rest of my life. Without Medicare, I’d probably have a very short retirement.

So yes, I’d much prefer that we strengthen Social Security, Medicare, and our entire health-care system and stop paying for 46.5 percent of global military spending, for example.

But my reasons are not entirely personal. Although my husband and I are the kind of people Republicans love (and Jesus worried about), we will be in trouble if the senior safety nets come down, right along with people who have had to face unemployment, divorce, foreclosure, addictions, natural disasters, accidents, disabilities, and catastrophic illness; right along with people who don’t know how to manage money, who abuse their health, and who long ago stopped thinking about tomorrow (see my previous post, "The United States of Florida").

Really, folks, this isn’t a question of deserving. As Jesus pointed out, God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). God may or may not be the sender, but I’ve noticed that crap falls on both the good and the bad as well. We all benefit from God’s grace, and we’re all just one step away from catastrophe.

Government programs can’t give us comfortable lifestyles if we have no job and no savings. They may not be able to give us good health if our bodies are faulty or abused. They can’t keep us from getting old and dying. What they can do is help us – all of us who need help – have food, shelter, and necessary medical care.

If this means additional funding – a payroll tax on all earned income, for example, and not just the first $106,800 – so be it. If it means ending President Obama’s extremely unwise payroll tax holiday , so be it. If it means I have to pay more taxes, so be it.

Our government is not only of the people and by the people, it is also for the people. May Lincoln’s vision of a nation dedicated to the common good not perish from the earth.


P.S. I’m not saying that Social Security and Medicare are our most important social programs, by the way. Nothing is more important than educating our young, and comparative test scores show that the U.S. is in trouble here (22nd place in math!). Still, many of our suburban schools are excellent. We say we believe in equality of opportunity: what are we doing to assure that all of our children, no matter where they live or how much their parents pay in property tax, have access to good schools?

Friday, August 5, 2011

The United States of Florida; or, Why we can't give up Social Security and Medicare

Yes, we have to do something about the federal budget. Yes, Social Security and Medicare cost a lot (about 1/3 of total expenses and rising, according to this graph). It's not surprising that politicians want to reform them, or redesign them, or cut them, or even get rid of them. But what exactly would we do without them?

Folks, we can't just say we can't afford them.

In 2010 about 13% of the U.S. population was 65 and older. This year the first Baby Boomers turn 65. By 2029, all Baby Boomers will be over 65, and by 2030 (according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates) over 19% of the population will be 65 or older.

If that doesn't scare you, look at it this way: in only 10 or 12 years, the entire U.S. will have a higher percentage of seniors than Florida has right now (only 17% of the Sunshine State's residents are 65 or older).

Seniors, per se, aren't especially scary, but the likely financial condition of Boomer seniors is truly terrifying.
  • As we retire, we'll be taking money out of the financial markets instead of putting it in. That can't be helpful to the national economy.
  • Most of us started out working for companies that provided defined-benefit pensions. Since then, most private companies have switched to defined-contribution pensions - 401(k)s. 
  • 401(k)s are fine for self-disciplined, well-paid employees when the economy is rapidly growing. However, a 401(k) can be quickly depleted in times of economic recession.
  • In any case, for a 401(k) to provide a decent pension, you need to fund it right up to the legal limit from day one of your career until your retirement party. Alas, very few people actually do that. One survey found that people in their 60s have saved an average of only $30,000 for retirement. Only 11% of all workers have saved over $250,000.
  • It used to be considered safe to withdraw about 4% of your retirement savings per year (that's really too much to withdraw during a recession, but let's stick with that figure anyway). A person who has saved $250,000, then, can safely take out $10,000 a year - $833 a month - for living expenses. A person who has saved $30,000 can withdraw $100 a month.
  • People used to figure that they could make up the difference with the equity in their houses. Right.
  • Meanwhile, we're all living longer, which means more of us are getting diseases like Alzheimer's - and health-care costs are soaring. Over the last 10 years, the Consumer Price Index rose 26% while health-care costs rose 48%. 
  • "Guess I'll never be able to stop working," say many Boomers. Some will indeed postpone retirement, but many will not be able to postpone it for long. Decreasing stamina and worsening health may make it impossible to continue working full time. And if seniors lose their job for any reason, it will be next to impossible to find another one - especially when the national employment rate is over 9%.
  • "If worse comes to worst, we may have to move in with the kids." This solution will work for some. But perhaps 20 to 25 percent of Boomers have no kids, and many Boomer kids are struggling to bring in enough income to avoid foreclosure or to send their own children to college. People with Alzheimer's and many other geriatric diseases require full-time care, and few middle-aged families can afford for one adult to quit working and stay home all day with Mom.
Social Security and Medicare are expensive. Reforming them is a great idea - but not if those reforms mean trading defined benefits for private financing. Privatizing Social Security and Medicare, as our experience with 401(k)s has shown, could mean big rewards for the financial industry. Unfortunately, it could also mean that a high percentage of unemployable seniors would have literally no place to go.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

INSIDE OF A DOG by Alexandra Horowitz

"Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend.
Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read."
- attributed to Groucho Marx

Alexandra Horowitz has both a personal and a professional interest in dogs. Besotted with her own dogs - the late lamented Pumpernickel and the current model, Finnegan - she is also an assistant professor of psychology at Barnard College, where she studies animal cognition. According to Barnard's website, she "is currently testing anthropomorphisms made of the domestic dog, through experiments with dogs in natural settings."

Dogs, she points out, are not people. They perceive the world in an entirely different way from how we perceive it, and if we expect dogs to have human responses to our bumbling attempts to befriend and train them, we'll be disappointed. (So that's why my dogs never respond to my carefully reasoned explanations!) She labels the-world-as-perceived-by-dogs their umwelt, and much of the book is an explanation of how the world looks, sounds, feels, and especially smells to our canine friends.

On the other hand - and contrary to much popular opinion - she insists that dogs are not wolves. After at least ten thousand years of domestication, many of their physical, psychological, social, and developmental characteristics set them apart from their near relatives. "As the domestication process probably began with early canids scavenging around human groups - eating our table scraps," she writes, "it is a particularly silly stance to feed dogs only raw meat, on the theory that they are wolves at heart. Dogs are omnivores who for millennia have eaten what we eat."

Dogs, says Horowitz, are anthropologists. They study our behavior - our typical actions, and especially every minute variation of or departure from our usual theme. They know when we're thinking about going for a walk. They know how to persuade us to give them food. They may not actually feel guilt or shame (the jury is out on that one), but they know when they're likely to be punished.

And they know how to communicate. Not only with us (wag, lick, dance, growl) but also with other dogs: in one fascinating chapter, Horowitz describes how dogs invite each other to play, how they respond to another dog's invitation to play, how they play, and why they will play with some dogs and not others.

Are dogs, then, highly intelligent? Do they ponder philosophical questions? Most important, do they really, truly, love us? Read Horowitz and see what you think.

If you're only ever going to read one book on animal behavior, though, the book to read is Temple Grandin's highly original Animals in Translation. Once you've read that, you probably won't be able to keep from reading Grandin's follow-up book, Animals Make Us Human (my review is here). If those books whet your appetite - or if you want to skip the parrots and monkeys and cows and head straight for dogs - Inside of a Dog is a good choice. It's research based, well documented, aimed at a general audience, and seasoned with humor.

Your dogs will thank you for reading it - though if they had their druthers, you'd first take them for a walk.