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Archive for August, 2013

Does the Medium Matter?

Tuesday, August 13th, 2013

Not to get too ecclesiastical about it, but there is a time and a place for everything.  A bridal shower is no place to discuss marital woes.  Lunch with coworkers is no place to discuss your child’s bout of stomach flu.  We all know these things and take great care (or at least we should) to tailor our content to our audience.  But what of our platform?

If we are amongst friends does it matter if a conversation happens in person, versus over the phone, versus via text, versus email?  These are all usually 1:1 conversations in which the platform is relevant only to the participants.  Nevertheless, there are some conversations that we tend to believe warrant a particular communication vehicle.  As an example, Russell Brand was roundly admonished by the general public for asking Katy Perry for a divorce via text.  So we have some standard for propriety in play within private exchanges, whether or not they involve us.   What about Facebook, then, where private-ish conversations spring out of public-ish posts?  If a conversation starts as an exchange of posts and comments is there a point at which it should be taken out of the group forum?  Further still, what about Twitter, whose purpose from the beginning is to cast a wide net?  Is there a threshold at which a given topic has crossed the line of propriety for a given medium?  Or does the medium matter at all?

I ask these questions because apparently NPR host Scott Simon raised eyebrows last month when tweeting extensively about his mother’s failing health and, ultimately, her death.  Simon has 1.2 million Twitter followers, meaning that he was tweeting to a sizable audience.  The content of the tweets is perhaps what anyone might expect when facing the loss of a parent, his tweets having covered, “Gratitude for her life and love. Nostalgia for her wit and aphorisms. Stress and confusion at the logistics of last-minute flights, paperwork, the interment. Awe at how quickly it all comes and goes,” as explained by the Huffington Post.  But while some (many? most?) of his followers were happy to be included in this chapter of the Simon family’s life, the tweets were also met with naysayers.

“Simon has also caused controversy. Should the end of life, grief and the details of after-death arrangements be tweeted? Was he violating his mother’s privacy? … The reaction from his fans and those who work with the dying for a living, has been varied,” explains HuffPo again.  Yet at the same time grief counselors, hospice workers, and others who work in and study the end of life are crediting Simon with starting a national conversation about a subject that is often taboo.  One hospice blog commented that, “Talking about death is difficult for many. Any mention of death and dying causes some people to cover their eyes and ears. We applaud Scott Simon for telling the story of his mother and her final days in such a public way.”

So which is it?  Is it causing a stir because he wrote about it, or because he wrote about it on Twitter, the same platform that was the venue for Ashton and Demi’s foreplay pics, countless celeb spats,  and myraid other banal minutiae of daily life?  Clearly we don’t find it unilaterally off-putting to write about death.  Joan Dideon’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” which explores in depth the death of her husband, John Dunne, was celebrated both in its print and stage versions.  So why the uproar over tweeting a comparable event?  What if Simon had waited six months and documented the experience in a thoughtful essay in Salon or The Atlantic?  Would that have sat better with us?

I wonder if the immediacy of a tweet changes the way we perceive both the message and the person giving it.  Perhaps the real-time nature of Twitter forces us closer to death than if Simon had gained some distance from his mother’s passing.  The feelings he was expressing were the emotions he felt in that exact moment.  The temporal nature of Twitter carries with it, in certain circumstances, a real intimacy that some people may not be comfortable with.  (By contrast, Dideon’s memoir was published nearly two years after Dunne’s passing.)  The thoughts that come in such a moment are raw, fleeting, and rather disorganized.  Sharing that experience with a grieving person is not a light burden to shoulder.

A few months back a friend of mine posted on Facebook a link to this article in the LA Times that explains to people who are prone to foot-in-mouth incidents, how to talk with people who are suffering from illness.  The not-quite-lyrical mantra of the article is this: comfort in, dump out.  The mantra is embodied by an illustration of rings, with the sick person at the center and each ring around it representing people in the life of the sick person.  The sick person should only find love and comfort from those around him or her, should be allowed to vent any pain, sadness, or anger to anyone at any time, and should never be asked to shoulder someone else’s grief over their illness.  Those in the first ring out (spouse, child, parent, etc.) can “dump” on those in a more outer ring, but never on the sick person.  Those in the second ring can only comfort those in the first ring, but can vent their sadness and fears to someone in the third ring.*  It’s so simple it seems obvious, but by virtue of the fact that it is needed, I know that it isn’t.

I bring this up because I think the same goes for death.  Scott Simon is in the first ring outside of his mother.  The loss is principally his and that of any siblings of hers or his.  He should be able (without public outcry) to express his grief in whatever manner suits him.  Given the public forum he chose I think he has to expect that it will generate conversation.  Twitter is not the platform of those seeking privacy.  But I think something can spark discussion without also eliciting denunciation.

Grief is highly personal, but that doesn’t always mean it is highly private.  And we should have the tolerance – especially of a person in grief –  to get right with that.

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*In this case a picture is worth 136 words.

Haggling While Female

Tuesday, August 6th, 2013

Back in April I walked into a car dealership to buy a minivan.  My crossover SUV and GAP’s sedan were no longer big enough to transport our now-three children, and we needed something that would hold everyone.  Nanny also needed something to get everyone around during the week, and there was no choice but to add a third car to our family.

After test driving several and finally zeroing in on the one I thought was a winner (“winner” of course being a relative term when you’re talking about used minivans – none of them is too exciting) I started to haggle with the sales guy.

“Is there anyone else you need to make a decision today?” he asked me.

In retrospect I wish I’d asked him then and there if he’d ever posed that question to a man, and then walked off the lot.  I didn’t, only out of necessity.  I was scheduled to go back to work in a handful of days and was running out of time to get a van purchased.  I needed to buy this car.  When the whole affair was over I promised myself that I’d do it differently next time.  And I will.

Apparently, though, the prejudice that women and minorities face in the car buying process can now be circumvented by haggling and purchasing online.  As described by Libby Copeland over at Slate, when the buyer becomes anonymous the power dynamic shifts significantly, and the whole process becomes much more democratic.  At first blush I counted this as a good thing.  Perhaps even at second blush I still saw it as a good thing.  But after some further thought I began to wonder how much of an advancement it actually is.

I know that we don’t live in a perfect world.  But the ideal is what we aim for.  It is both the goal we hope to achieve and the guidepost by which we measure our progress.  So in the evaluation of ridding the world of sexism – even something as seemingly minuscule as  used-car-purchase sexism – we should be evaluating our progress against the ideal situation of a woman walking into a dealership and being treated throughout a negotiation just as a man would.  Not by her ability to achieve better results by obfuscating the fact that she is a woman in the first place.

I recognize that there is value in upending stereotypes and preconceptions.  When the tough-as-nails online car haggler walks into the dealership and reveals herself to be a woman she perhaps chips away at a salesman’s biases.  Perhaps after a handful of such experiences he will change the way he (or she – women aren’t precluded from bias against other women) does business with women in the future.

In fact, anonymity has been proven to significantly improve the standing of women in other areas – perhaps most notably in the membership of symphony orchestras.  In 1970 only 5% of the musicians in the top five symphonies in the United States were women.  Then, throughout the ’70s and ’80s the practice of so-called “blind” auditions – where musicians auditioned from behind a screen – was adopted by much of the orchestral world.  And by 1997 the presence of women in the top five symphonies had grown by 500%.  It was through the anonymous audition process that these women were awarded slots previously given to men.  And I would be surprised if today women’s musical talent and physical stamina weren’t regarded as being much more on part with that of men.  Going for near term gains has advanced the overall cause.

So which is the right way to go about it?  I bristle at the idea of having to hide my womanhood to get a fair shake at something.  But the reality of the situation is that I probably cannot singlehandedly knock down the existing prejudices that people I encounter may hold.  If I shun the opportunity to improve my own outcomes merely because I find the process insulting do I spite anyone other than myself?

I wish I could go back and haggle the minivan guy down another thousand dollars.  But if I were given the choice between winning that thousand dollars back via an online negotiation or failing in my attempt to do so via a face-to-face encounter I’d be crazy to leave the money on the table just to satisfy my pride.

In the ideal world we would chip away at these biases without apology or anonymity.  But the fact may be that we are better off with the shortcuts available to us, because the ground we gain in the short run may also be ground gained in the long run.  Perhaps there’s no reason or need to go the long way round the barn in the first place.  Nevertheless, I wish we didn’t have to game the system just to be treated fairly by it.