Books (And Authors) You Can’t Get Out Of Your Mind

I have a long history of becoming pretty obsessed with a particular story or book. I am only slightly embarrassed to confess that I collapsed dramatically on the carpet of the bedroom of my high school years weeping when Fantine died in my first reading of Les Miserables. It is slightly more embarrassing to confess that I really enjoyed the drama of collapsing and weeping over a book. Months later, when my mother and I went to see the musical on Broadway on my 16th birthday, we wept dramatically together on the train ride home. The next day I went to a record store (remember those?) to use my birthday money to buy the Original Broadway Cast recording of the show, so that I could do more listening and weeping.

This week (and last) the book I’ve been obsessing and crying over is Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, and the author is David Rakoff.

Rakoff said that as a child he was “tiny, articulate, and vibrating with anxiety and fear,” which also describes the child version of me pretty well. I was actually quite easygoing much of the time, except I would lie awake poking at my abdomen and thinking that my intestines were cancerous growths. Also, once, I read some really scary junk mail from some crazy group which said  the Holocaust was nothing in comparison with what the Bible predicted would one day happen to Jews (like me, because Hitler didn’t care if you were baptized or if you had a goyische father as I was and I did), and that kept me over-alert, waiting for the sound of goosestepping, for months. (I think I was seven). All that to say: I can really relate to so much of Rakoff’s writing.

This week on my blog, I want to introduce you to some of my favorite bits of David Rakoff’s work: nothing like a formal review here (but look for that elsewhere–I’ll tell you when), just some tidbits. I’m aware that he’s not for everyone; his language and subject matter is not always ‘family friendly,’ shall we say, but there is so much good in Rakoff that I feel compelled to share.

Here are some of my favorite quotations from his first book of essays, Fraud:

Screen shot 2013-07-22 at 12.46.38 PM

On his strange lack of memory surrounding his cancer treatment at age 22:

“What remains of your past if you didn’t allow yourself to feel it when it happened? If you don’t have your experiences in the moment, if you gloss them over with jokes or zoom past them, you end up with curiously dispassionate memories. Procedural and depopulated. It’s as if a neutron bomb went off and all you’re left with are hospital corridors, where you’re scanning the walls for familiar photographs.”

On the curiously peaceful and un-cranky atmosphere in the new Princess Margaret hospital where he was treated:

“When medicine is socialized, when you have true universal health care, when everyone’s treatment is the same regardless of socioeconomic station, those strong-arming attitudes of entitlement just aren’t part of the vocabulary. This atrium, this lovely space in a hospital with a world-class reputation, is actually the equivalent of a state hospital. That American sense that someone somewhere else is getting what you’re not, and the attendant demands that go along with that perceived injustice, well, it’s just not in the equation here.”

And on the necessity of a sense of humor:

“Not being funny doesn’t make you a bad person. Not having a sense of humor does.”


One Deadly Infection, Two Healthy Babies, and Three Broken Legs (or, how Government Healthcare Totally Saved My Behind)

Brace yourselves. I’m about to step on a soapbox.*

Much as I’d like to go all armchair-Constitutional-scholar and argue that access to affordable health care SHOULD be in the same category as education, fire-fighting, and law enforcement, I’m not going to.

I’m just going to tell you what has happened in MY family.

February, 2005, California

Pregnant with first child. Am on crappy private insurance that costs like $500 a month in premiums but covers almost nothing. Calculate that cost of having child will be approximately half our yearly income.

Freak out.

Find great California state government program that we buy into for 1% of our yearly salary, while they, in turn, cover all out-of-pocket healthcare costs, for me AND for the baby.


Except that the insurance carrier (thanks for nothing, Blue Cross of California!) dragged their feet so long in paying that the hospital called me when Aidan was 2 weeks old or something and said I owed like $10,000.

Freak out again. They eventually pay, but not until I have to wait hours on the phone while the recording assures me that Blue Cross cares about me.

April, 2008, Scotland

Living in Scotland. Have received excellent prenatal care under the NHS. On the 20th, I give birth under seriously ideal–though not fancy–conditions, conditions that are CLEARLY motivated by concern for good care, not over who’s gonna sue? Am given pot of tea and plate of toast once baby comes.

Depart hospital that evening (by my choice, I could’ve stayed) and am visited daily for 10 days by midwives who weigh the baby, check us both over, and ascertain that we’re doing well, physically and emotionally.

October, 2008, Scotland

Graeme, about 6 months old, is really sick. Bronchitis with a fever and endless vomiting. I take him to the doctor a number of times just to make sure he’s okay–he’s not. We get orders for admission to the pediatric ward. Semi-miraculously, he recovers.

June, 2009, Rome

We are in Rome on a business trip/holiday. Graeme, now a little more than 1 year, gets sick, maybe with heatstroke. Fever is high; he keeps vomiting, he’s barely waking up. We go to the hospital and try to make ourselves understood. Graeme is given an IV, and recovers splendidly.

August, 2009, France

We are in France on a scholarship. Aidan slips on a wet supermarket floor and fractures his leg badly. He is taken to the hospital to have his leg set, and has several follow-up visits while we’re there.

broken leg #1

October, 2009, Germany

We are living in Germany now. Aidan has his cast removed, but needs (and receives) physical therapy.

At the same time, Graeme cuts his head badly and needs stitches, which he gets.

At the same time, I get a really nasty case of mastitis (on the weekend OF COURSE) which sends me to the ER. Then I get a secondary infection from the antibiotics and have to go back to the doctor.

November, 2009, Germany

Graeme gets a really serious staph infection (MRSA) and is hospitalized for 8 days and needs several follow up visits with a doctor. THANK GOD, he recovers completely.

July, 2010, Germany

Graeme breaks his leg, and I am totally impressed by the ER/ortho team that x-rays, diagnoses, casts, and discharges Graeme in, like, an hour flat. Reminds me of the story my dad told of a fight breaking out at a beer fest in Germany. The whole thing was over and cleaned up in 10 minutes. Efficiency!

broken leg #2

October, 2010, New York

We are back in NY. Aidan breaks his leg. Thankfully, we are among the 1 in 3 or 4 New Yorkers that qualifies for some form of government-assisted health insurance. Nonetheless, I spent HOURS on the phone trying to find a doctor who will take our insurance. Finally, we have to take him to another emergency room to wait for hours until he can be seen.

broken leg #3

(Because what really gets in the way of the doctor-patient relationship? Not the government. Money, and The Insurance Mess.)

Believe me when I tell you I have also left out a lot of other things. These are just the highlights.

And I think you’ll believe me when I say that if I was in the US for all those things–or in less generous states like Texas–I probably would STILL be paying the bills. Or else filed for bankruptcy.

By dumb luck, that’s not what happened, and I’m grateful.

It should be within every person’s ability to take care of their health, and that of their children, without going bankrupt…and I think the free market has had a fair shot at making that happen, and lost.

I have to chuckle when I hear reference to “the US healthcare system.” Because there isn’t one. There just isn’t.

Oh, wait. There is one. It works great. It’s more socialized than the system in Germany. It’s called the VA. It’s socialized medicine! And it works great! My dad says that military healthcare was a major incentive for enlistment and re-enlistment in his day–especially for people who were married with kids.

As far as partisan politics go, no less a Republican than Richard Nixon tried in 1974 to make a ‘Medicare for all’ move. You know who opposed it vocally? Ted Kennedy. Because he didn’t want Nixon to make a move that would be so popularly,well, popular. Because it would have been. And according to Ben Stein (Nixon’s speechwriter) the Nixon plan was much more “comprehensive” (yea, socialist?) than Obama’s. What is this about? Massive change in what each party stands for, or total partisan b.s. all ’round?

I really don’t care which initial is in parentheses after a politician’s name. I just like to see policies that are good for the people who don’t have enough money to buy a dental cleaning, MUCH LESS A SENATOR. Besides, didn’t Jesus expressly say something about doing good to those who CAN’T do anything in return?

No system is perfect. But the US doesn’t have a system, period.

I’m really hoping that yesterday’s decision means maybe we will.

(and now I will step off my soapbox.)

*Jana Riess advises that blogs are not soapboxes, and she’s right. </rant> =)