Sunday, June 26, 2011

June 2011: Dr. Jack Kevorkian

June 3, 2011:  Dr. Jack Kevorkian passed away today. 

Jack Kevorkian was Armenian.  He was born Hagop Kevorkian on May 26, 1928.  Hagop was the second child and only son of Levon and Satening Kevorkian.  His father left his home village of Passen near Erzeroum in 1912 before the Armenian Genocide of 1915.  His mother was, like many Armenians in the Detroit area, from Govdun, a village near Sepastia.  She survived the Genocde and made her way to the US.  Detroit was a draw for the immigrant Armenians because of the abundance of jobs in the automotive industry.   The family lived in Pontiac, Michigan.  In those days, it was not considered part of metropolitan Detroit as it is today.

Jack, as Hagop become known, graduated from Pontiac Central High School in 1945.  He went to the University of Michigan for both his undergraduate work and then medical degree in 1952.  He embarked on a career as a pathologist.  Even early in his career, Jack was interested in the end of life doing experiments on transfusing cadaver blood in humans.  He probably got the hepatitis that caused his liver cancer from transfusing the cadaver blood into himself.

Dr. Jack Kevorkian became famous or notorious for his interest and action in euthanasia.  He was called Dr. Death because of this assistance in helping terminally ill people end their own lives.  His trials for second degree murder, his convictions,  and time in prison were front page news when they were happening. 

June 6:  Armenians were never sure if we should be proud or ashamed of him.  There was no problem acknowledging his Armenian heritage and most of us tried to give him the benefit of doubt and understand what he was trying to do.  At the same time, we would try to reconcile any Armenian being an advocate for euthanasia.  Dr. Jack was, after all, the son of a genocide survivors.   Life was supposed to be precious to us.  We proudly claim to be the first Christian nation and his work certainly crossed some ethical lines in this regard.

Personally, I could see both sides.  I can see that if someone is suffering, unable to care for themselves, and costing their families or society thousands of dollars a day, they might want to end their life.  I also see the preciousness of life.  I believe that the hospice movement has the right middle ground.

My grandmother, Azniv Frankian Merian, was in St. Mary’s in Livonia back in the mid-1990s.  She was probably 90 years old at time.  She came out of surgery and was in her room.  A priest or nun, I do not recall, came to see here and she said, “you know that I am Armenian, you know, like Dr. Jack Kevorkian.  I bet you don’t let him in here.”  She had to have that trademark glint her eye.

Back in the 1960s, the Detroit Armenians of the St. Sarkis community built a new church in Dearborn. MI.  It was a very exciting time.  The generation of Jack Kevorkian built the church and they were energized to move the church and the community forward.  They formed a Men’s Club.  The Men’s Club decided to have monthly dinner and have guest speakers of interest from business, sports, and wherever Armenians were making their mark.  Sometimes the dinners were father and son events.  I enjoyed going with my Dad.  It was being part of a fraternity and being part of the adult world.

I remember two of these events distinctly.  At one of them, an executive at the Ford Design Center spoke.  He gave us insights at the world of concept car design as well the process of taking a concept to actual production vehicle.  It was fascinating.  I decided to ask whether they considered aerodynamics in their designs but I was too young or too nervous to actually use the word aerodynamics.  I felt a little stupid even though I knew it was a good question and something I was curious about.  The speaker told us that they really did not consider aerodynamics in their designs.  I remember thinking that they probably should.  This was a few decades before it seemed every car ad from every carmaker showed footage of a car in a windtunnel.

The other speaker I remember was Dr. Jack Kevorkian.  I want to say that at the time he spoke he was either the Wayne or Oakland County Coroner or Medical Examiner.  I tried to verify this but all of the articles about Kevorkian talked only about his assisted suicide/euthanasia work and his conviction.  There were very few references to his earlier positions.  He was always fascinated with death.  At the time he spoke, I never knew what a coroner or medical examiner did.  They may have featured such on television crime dramas but those were not shows I was watching in those days.  It was also a few years before the Jack Klugman series, Quincy ME, about a medical examiner.

I recall Dr. Jack Kevorkian was an engaging and interesting speaker.  He talked about his job and shared amazing facts about the human body.  He was an energetic speaker bordering on the nervous.   I became more interested in biology and medical sciences because of his speech.  Up until then, I was more interested in physics and aeronautical engineering primarily because of the US Space Program and the Race to the Moon which was in full swing at the time.

June 15:  I never gave another thought to Dr. Jack Kevorkian until he became newsworthy in the 1990s.  Even then I did not immediately remember it was the fellow I heard speak at St. Sarkis twenty or twenty-five years earlier.  It wasn’t until I actually heard him speak on a news broadcast that I put two and two together.

So what do I think about Jack Kevorkian and his legacy?  I am not so much for euthanasia.  Life is precious.  The end of life can be very difficult and painful to deal with.  As mentioned earlier, I think I am more prone to what the hospice movement does.  Their goal is make each day a good day for their patients.  They help manage the pain and try as much as possible to have their patients stay at home.  It is infinitely better than being in a hospital connected to machines.  I thought it was a very good thing for my Uncle Azad. He had lung cancer and they made his last days as good as possible.  He died at home and given the grave end game of his disease, he had a decent quality of life in his last year always until the last week.

I also believe that the Genocide strongly influenced Dr. Jack Kevorkian.  I believe he was, in some way, trying to give some control to people of how and when they die.  When I learned that Jack Kevorkian was also an artist, I was curious about his paintings.  When I saw them, I was pretty convinced of my Genocide influencing him theory.  His art is obsessed with death.  But, don’t take my word for it.      
One does not have to be trained psychologist, psychotherapist, or art historian to see the theme that runs through a great majority of his art.  The man was heavily impacted by both death and man’s inhumanity to man.  I can only imagine that the travails of his parents influenced Jack from his youngest days.
I did not know that Jack Kevorkian was an artist and musician until the past few years.   I found out only because the HBO docudrama on him, You Don’t Know Jack, starring Al Pacino as the famed Dr.  In tandem there was a documentary on Dr. Kevorkian that seemed to have run simultaneously.  The documentary featured a showing of Dr. Kevorkian’s art at an Armenian Church in California.  The subjects and nature of the paintings had a great impact on me.

The docudrama starring Pacino was heavily hyped.  I watched it when it first aired and then watched it a second time.  It was well done and had seasoned stars with Brenda Vaccaro as Dr. Jack’s sister and Susan Sarandon and John Goodman as his friends.  I expected something more from the movie and I was not sure what.  It just seemed a little reserved to me as if something was missing.   The aforementioned documentary revealing the Doctor’s artwork provided the missing pieces for me.

A lot has been made of Dr. Kevorkian opting for a natural passing rather than taking his own life as he advocated for and helped others do.  He had a terminal illness and yet chose to let it run it’s course.  I guess he was advocating “pro-choice” and he made his own decision.  Should he have taken his own life to have made a point?  Does it matter?  There was a cartoon in the Sunday June 5, 2011 New York Times of Dr. Kevorkina at the Peraly Gates.  St. Peter asked him a one word question, “Unassisted?”  The cartoon was the work of Jeff Stahler of the Columbus Dispatch:

There was a movie that starred Charleton Heston and Edward G. Robinson.  It was called Soylent Green.  The future as depicted in this 1973 movie had many disturbing practices and a grim prediction of the future as were many movies of that era of The Generation Gap and the divisive Vietnam War.  One of the practices that was in place in this future United States was encouraging older people to commit suicide, state assisted suicide.  The suicides took place in beautiful facilities with what was the equivalent of Imax like videos of the most beautiful nature scenes as the elder slowly and beautifully died.   The Edward G. Robinson character was supposed to die alone but died in the presence of the Charleton Heston character.

As beautiful as the death chamber was depicted, it was still a death chamber.  It was supposed to be offensive and I definitely took it as such.   Such movies of that era were to make us suspicious of the government or Big Brother.  We should be very careful as too how much power and leeway “they” have over us.  One of the messages in Soylent Green is that if are not careful the government could end up promoting assisted suicides at the end of life.  The real fear is that promoting or encouraging assisted suicides is a fine line away from mandating assisted suicides i.e. deciding who should live and who should die.   This is the scary part of going down the Kevorkian path. 

When President Obama and Nancy Pelosi were promoting their health care legislation a few years ago, there was an interesting scare tactic used by the opposition.  There were serious discussions around the very high costs associated with the very end of life care.   The basic point was that thousands upon thousands of dollars are spent to on patients that are clearly dying.  The expense is disproportionate to both the extra time a patient may live and the quality of life the patient might experience during that time.  While such debates may be realistic, it is easy for many to be leery of the kind of life decision the government and insurance companies might have over us.  It was easy to see that a price was being put on life.  If the price benefit ratio is not high enough, the expenditure would be denied and the patient in question would naturally expire.  This quickly translated into “Obama Care will decide who lives and dies.”

Certainly Dr. Kevorkian was strongly committed to his beliefs and worked passionately to realize his vision.  I believe that his views were strongly influenced by what his parents lived through.  In my view, I just don’t think it is right and there are more compassionate ways of managing the very real issues that Dr. Kevorkian, minimally, got us all thinking about.

The August 2, 2010 New Yorker had a brilliant article on how we should approach the end of life.  The article advocated hospice as the most humane and dignified alternative.

June 25:  I was grading final exams for a statistics course I was teaching.  I took a break and flipped on the TV.  You Don’t Know Jack was on one the several HBO channels.  I watched it.  It was very close to the end which is the trial that led to Dr. Kevorkian’s conviction and jail sentence.  Dr. Kevorkian was on trial for assisting in the suicide of a very ill patient.  At one point, the prosecution likened what Dr. Kevorkian did and was advocating to the Nazis and genocide.  Dr. Kevorkian flipped out.  He went ballistic and kept bellowing “How dare you!?!”

How did I miss this in my first viewing of this docudrama?  The prosecutor accused Dr. Kevorkian of advocating something that could lead to genocide.  He accused an Armenian of this.  He accused an Armenian raised by genocide survivors and obsessed with death of this.  The prosecutor was either lucky to hit a nerve or an amazingly good tactician.

I certainly did not know Jack, but I believe I understood a bit of what moved him to the position and actions that defined him.

Orange Colored Glasses

There is an old adage about looking at the world through rose colored glasses.  It is a saying about people who look at the world this way.  It is a not necessarily complimentary and implies that the wearer of the rosy lenses are naively viewing everything as positive.  Their glass is always half full.  They never seem to see the harsher reality of the world.  So, when the phrase is used, it is generally to disparage the naivete and oblivious view of the person it is directed toward.

These days we admire people that have a positive attitude.  We are encouraged to turn every twist and turn in life into something positive and helps us grow.  It is not exactly looking at the world through rose colored glasses because this philosophy challenges us to see the world as it is and not gloss over what can be nasty twists and turns.  Rather than looking at the world through rose colored glasses, this philosophy tells us to that when the world serves us lemons we need to make lemonade.  It is a good way to approach life.  It is better than glossing things over and merely look at the world through the proverbial rose colored glasses.

I do not look at the world through rose colored glasses.  I try to make the twists and turns of life into positives but I am not sure how well I am at this special skill.  What I literally do, however, is look at the world though orange colored glasses.  

Orange colored glasses?  Whatever for?

When I got into bicycling, I took a rather nasty header in my third year.  I was wearing whatever sunglasses I had laying around.  They happened to be metal framed.  The rims of the glasses cut into the bridge of my nose and right below my right eye socket.  As I healed up, I started to look into cycling glasses and learned that they are all plastic frames and lenses.  This is done to be both light but also to minimize exactly the kind of injury I had.  

I settled on Smith Sliders.  Smith is a French brand of sport glasses with interchangeable lenses of various colors, tints, and polarizations to accommodate any and every weather and visibility condition.  Changing the lenses was easy, they simply slide in and out hence the name.  When I finally got to a store that stocked Smiths, the style of frames that I liked came with clear, green polarized, brown, and orange lenses. I hesitated buying them because of the orange lenses and vocalized such to the sales person.   The fellow told me “If you buy these, you will end up only using the orange lenses.”  Huh?  Crazy.  I took it as a sales pitch but bought the glasses anyway.

I loved the glasses.  I mostly wore the green and brown in the first few weeks.  I remembered what the sales person said about the orange lenses.  I decided to give them a try  even though the idea of using orange lenses in the bright sun sounded counter intuitive.   The sales person was absolutely correct, within a few more weeks I just left the orange lenses in all the time.  What made them so good?

Like the rose colored glasses, everything just looked better.  Things are brighter and crisper.  Yet, there is no need to squint and there is less glare.  Everything is better defined.  There is more contrast.  And yes, the world looks more dull and drab when I take them off, for just a moment.  The orange color lenses are like those blue blocker sunglasses that were being peddled on TV a few years ago.   Even though I never bought a pair of those, I remember having a pair.  I have no idea where they came from.  They were OK.  These Smith’s are unbelievable.  

My daughter Armene used to always call me “orange sunglass man.”   I used to respond in three ways.  I would mostly respond “I’m looking at the world through orange colored glasses.”  But, I would also respond, “I am setting a fashion trend, you;ll see.”  Once I noticed that Bono wore almost the exact same glasses and lenses, I would say “It is just me and Bono! See, I am at the cutting edge of fashion.”

The orange lenses do not gloss over the world.  They make both the good and beautiful, as well and as the bad and ugly, more vivid and distinctive.  It is up to me, to decide which attitude to take.  

That is a life long endeavor.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

What to Do When the Electricity is Out?

I was at a Toastmasters Meeting yesterday, Tuesday, June 21, 2011.  Toastmasters is an organization dedicated to having meetings that are “learn-by-doing workshop in which participants hone their speaking and leadership skills in a friendly atmosphere.”  One of the sections of the meetings is something called Table Topics.  The Table Topics Master poses a question.  The participants, who have no prior knowledge of the question, must respond ad lib.  It is a great way to improve one’s skills at impromptu discussions and comments.  In this most recent meeting, the Table Topics Master asked this question:  “The electricity is out at your home, how would you pass the time.”  It was a prophetic question.

I was teaching later on the day, in the evening, at the College of Lake County.  When I got out of class at 9 pm, the weather was horrible.  It was windy, raining sideways, and everything about the air and sky had a tornado like eeriness.  Driving was not so bad.  I figured I would get home around 9:40 pm or so and made a mental list of the work I needed to accomplish before turning in.  I was thinking I would sit in front of the TV watching something mindless and peck away on my laptop.  If I was efficient, always a big if, I would be done at 11:30 at the latest.

As I turned into our neighborhood, it looked like a war zone.  There were branches of every size strewn all over the place.  There were a few very large trees down.  Most importantly, the street lights were off and all the homes were dark.  The electricity was out.  Normally, when the power goes out, it either a momentary flicker or it is restored in a few minutes.  This did not feel that way.

We are so used to having electricity all the time that I hit the garage door opener out of habit.  The little red light in my car blinked but the garage door stayed closed.  Ah yes... no electricity.  Upon going into the house, I instinctively hit the light switch to illuminate the laundry room.  Hmm... nothing.  Of course, the electricity was out.  I sat down and ate a piece of fruit by candlelight.  Then I turned my attention to what to do next.

While my laptop was fully charged and theoretically I could work, the files I need were in the cloud of Google Docs.  I needed the inter-net to access those files and to access the inter-net required electricity to run the cable modem and wireless router.  SOL as they used to say.  I thought about watching TV just a micro-second before realizing that that device also required electricity to operate properly. One does not realize that almost everything we do is requires electricity to function. Most everyone I know has never lived without it.

I sat there and took a deep breath.  Shortly, I realized that the Table Topics discussion from earlier that day had suddenly become very prophetic and very real.  I thought about all the things the participants in that discussion suggested.  Their ideas ranged from playing a board game with the family to pulling an Abe Lincoln and reading by candlelight.

So, what did I do?  I went to bed.  I was tired.

Monday, June 13, 2011

College Grads and Jobs

The economy is getting a little doomy and just a tad gloomy again.  No one is talking about slipping back into recession or using words like double dipping.  In fact, President Obama said we will not experience the double dip.  The stock market has been on a slide most of this month greased by less than positive economic news.  A recent lead story on YahooFinance summed it up in the first two sentences:  
Another lackluster economic report sent stocks down Wednesday, extending a weeklong slide. The Federal Reserve report, known as the Beige Book, showed the economy slowed in several U.S. regions for the first time this year.
Gasoline prices are high.  The Arab Spring and Summer is working itself out in Syria, Libya, and Yemen.   Food prices are high in the poorest parts of the world.  The economies in Greece, Ireland, and Portugal are still tenuous.  So, while we hear that things are getting better, they are going slower than most would like.

Personally, I still worry about the job market.  Actually, it is just part of the job market:  fresh college grads.  I met two just this week and it gave me the inkling about this segment.  Both were working in food service.  I was at breakfast recently.  The waitress was a the All American girl next door.  She looked like a younger lovelier Katherine Heigl.  This young lady had just graduated from college.  She could not find a job and was waitressing.  A few days later I met a young man at Starbucks.  He is a barista.  He also  graduated recently and could not find a job.  

The fellow has a degree in general business.  He is going to CLC to become a CPA.  He figures that specializing will improve his chances for getting an entry level job.  The young lady will have a harder time.  She measured in Art History.  She wants to work at a museum.  She will have a much harder time fulfilling her desire.  

Only 24% of the college graduates this year had a job waiting for them.  As awful as this sounds.  It is an improvement over last years 20%.  The average starting salary dropped 1.7% to $47,673.  Young people with liberal arts degrees had average starting of only $33,540.   I cannot imagine what is like for some like the waitress especially if she has $50,000 or $75,000 in education debt.

OK things may not be much better for white males in my generation.  But, we are grown ups, we have had our chance.  We are still in there fighting and things will somehow work out.  To me it is just wrong and unfair for the young people.  They have finished their educations, they are ready to join the workforce, and they are eager to begin their careers. All three quarters of them can get are service jobs.  It makes me feel bad.

Certainly, things will work out for these folks.  In my sample of two , they have great attitudes and understand the supply and demand of the marketplace.  They are happy to have the jobs they have and do them very well as they continue to work toward their career objectives.  They will be stronger for it.  I just wish it I had that magic wand that I would use to make it easier for everyone in their generation.

Check out the great cartoon on the subject from the Pulitzer Prize winning Matt Davies: