For Grace

My grandmother is dying.  This isn't new news, but rather old news that is suddenly springing into center stage in the weird, nebulous thing that is my awareness.  Grace Sha is currently 92 years old, and has lived a long and fulfilling life.  I think.  We've lived in close proximity for most of my childhood, but I never got around to resolving the language barrier.  Our relationship, more than anything, was based on the simple act of her feeding me.  When I was younger, she would prepare small meals that I could heat up on my own when I got home from school.  On the weekends, the family would always get together and eat dinner at some Chinese restaurant or other.  These weren't great dinners, full of laughter and storytelling.  If anything, they were somewhat difficult, since my grandparents couldn't speak English and I couldn't speak Mandarin.  After I moved across the country, it became something of an annoyance to have to do these dinners.  I'd only have a few days in California per visit, and any number of friends that I'd rather see - friends that I'd grown up with, who were funny, full of life, and where I'd almost certainly have a great time.  But I would still always go to the dinners - often eating in relative silence after the initial bits of conversation dried up.  Because that's how she would tell me that she loved me, and I think you have to be a very special type of a shit to reject your grandmother's love, no matter how irritating it may be.

In the last several years, she has had a number of health issues that have resulted in periodic trips to the hospital, from which she almost always bounces back.  A few weeks ago, it came to light that she most likely has pancreatic cancer.  We can't be sure, because testing would involve surgery, and Dad and his siblings have basically decided that even if they knew what it was, it wouldn't make any difference. No one is going give the 92yr old woman chemo.  I cracked a little when I was speaking about it with my cousin Eric.  I vaguely knew that she was going to die at that time.  But it was still a "maybe later" type of thing, like the other trips to the ICU.  Cancer could mean months, but it could also mean years.  Who knows?  Not the doctors, and certainly none of us.

I saw her this morning.  We spoke for a few hours.  Not in any meaningful way, but in the Groundhog's Day type of endlessly looping conversation that we've developed ever since she started showing signs of Alzheimer's.  Her short-term memory is hopelessly fried.  She forgets everything that we've discussed within roughly 45 seconds, so just happily asks the same thing she did before.  In a way, it's a minor blessing, as it allows me to have prolonged conversations with her, even if they just go over the same content over and over and over again.  I can say whatever I want, because if I fuck up what I meant to say, who cares?  She'll forget and I'll be able to try again in another 45 seconds.

This morning's conversation revolved around two topics.  One - How old are you and are you getting married soon?  Do you have a girlfriend?  Oh, that's right, she's very beautiful.  Where is the wedding happening?  If you have it in New York, that's OK, I will come and be there.  Two - What do you want to eat?  No really, what's your favorite?  I know New York has everything.  What would you like to take back with you?  I'm sorry, I'm a little tired today.  Tomorrow, I'll take you to your favorite restaurant.  We had both of these conversations over, and over, and over again.

Fast forward many hours later.  I am sitting at my family's dining table, eating a pizza and talking with my Dad.  We are discussing plans for tomorrow, and I casually bring up that she wanted to get dinner.  And then it occurs to me that she can't be out of bed for more than thirty minutes a day without becoming tired.  She hardly eats anything anymore, which is why she doesn't have the strength to get up and about.  We're not going to have dinner tomorrow, and I feel stupid for asking about it.  And I am now incredibly aware of the fact that I will likely never go to one of those dinners with my grandmother ever again, barring some kind of miracle.  And I can't actually remember when the last time we went to dinner was.  Did I enjoy it?  Was I properly grateful?  Or was I just being a prick, checking my phone and thinking of other places that I could be?  Because that may never, ever happen again.  And I literally don't even know what the words are to tell her how sad this makes me, and how much I will miss her when she's gone.

The 99%

Totally different type of post today.

If you haven't done so already, I'd recommend checking out the "We Are the 99%" tumblr blog ( Say what you will about the Occupy Wall Street movement (and I'm a banker, so I certainly have had the opportunity to be critical), but there is some really sad/depressing content there. What's striking is that the postings have none of the sort of calls for revolution, or the political leanings of any of the protest movements of the '60s. Instead, people are really just posting about how helpless they feel. Having to choose between eating or paying the rent. Getting sick, not having healthcare, and then losing their jobs. Being scared. It's not about fighting for a huge change, it's about not feeling like being totally eff'd.

There is a very popular meme in American politics that says that the people without the work are lazy, spoiled, or entitled (e.g. Herman Cain). And that if these people just applied themselves a little bit more, then they wouldn't have these problems. If you believe that, then I would strongly recommend that you take a look at this blog, and let me know what you think about it afterwards.

Taylor Swift - Mean

I have a friend. She is without a doubt, one of my favorite friends in the world. I met her recently when I was still in school, and even though we only really knew each other for the space of a month or two, it was very clear to me that she was one of those rare people that you just know will be your friend forever. Or at least until the school year is over, but hopefully for longer than that.

In any case, on top of being fun, witty and charming, she is also one of the most thoughtful people I know. She sent me a card when I moved into my new apartment, and even sent me something for my birthday.  Or at least, she says she did, but is apparently having trouble figuring out how many stamps she needs to put on the damn thing.

One of the more amusing things about her is her undying affection for Taylor Swift. She knows every song, and even worked for Taylor's label (and now has a photo of herself standing and smiling with America's Amazonian Sweetheart).  And for some reason, of all the T. Swift songs that she knows, the one song that she sings at me all the time is, "Mean." Specifically, she likes to repeat the following stanza, in some abbreviated form:

"All you are is mean. And a liar. And pathetic. And alone in life, and mean. And mean. And mean."

Taylor Swift - Mean

Book Review: The Magician King

I loved the first book, The Magicians. It was a great mixture of old fantasy tropes (primarily from Narnia) and more modern personalities. This book is mostly more of the same. Which is fine, but as I read through it, some of the stylistic flaws became more apparent.

For those of you unfamiliar with the first book, it is basically what would happen if the kids that went to Hogwarts were like today's Ivy-league set, as opposed to the more mythical types that inhabit the Harry Potter novels. There is something of an "It's all fun and games until someone gets eaten by a dragon" theme to these books, in which the main characters are basically like you and I, with fantasy-novel born pretensions of being heroes, but without any of the actual underlying strength of character to actually perform in the manner required.

So, as I said, this book is more of the same. The main strength that it relies on is the author's ability to drop in tongue-in-cheek comments, mostly via the protagonist's internal monologue, about all of the weird things happening around him. It does this quite well, and manages to be quite funny. The biggest issue that starts popping up is that in some ways, there is a legitimate bit of fantasy in here. And to be honest, that part just isn't that great. It's all very surface-y and can be a bit unsatisfying. But I still crushed through this book, and I still laughed. So, overall, worth a skim.

Book Review: The Emperor of All Maladies

This was a great book. The first several hundred pages were awesome. I will, however, ding it a little bit for dragging on a bit towards the end.

It moves in three major arcs. The first major arc is treatment, spanning bloodletting, surgery, and chemotherapy. This arc kicks into second gear when it becomes intertwined with the history of the modern cancer movement, starting with Sidney Farber and Mary Lasker. The second arc is much briefer, and goes through the various prevention efforts, including the war on tobacco. The final arc is essentially the culmination, in which a genetic understanding of the cancer cell leads to what looks like the beginnings of the cure, via gene therapy. Intertwined through all of these arcs are Mukherjee's personal dealings with his own cancer patients, which gives the book a human element.

As a reminder, this book took forever for me to finish. It is not a short read. It drags towards the end. It begins to feel as if you're just going from one discovery to the next, one random doctor to another. But overall, it's very edifying.

A couple of key insights, outside of the random factoids. One. Medical progress comes in fits and starts. A lot of what we've discovered about cancer seems to have come through almost accidental discoveries that almost get overlooked. Two. Organization is key. The modern cancer movement didn't seem to really get its legs under it until Farber and Lasker basically built the American Cancer Society into a well-oiled machine. Three. Cancer is scary, I really would rather not ever get it.

That's about it. I wish I had a witty and insightful review of this book, but it's hard. This is not a particularly emotional book, despite the gravity of the subject. Mukherjee moves very quickly through the subject matter, and in so doing, makes the book feel oddly light. In the few places where he tries to tell a human story, you can tell that he is clearly not in his element, and is - if anything - trying to mimic the feel of something more serious. He is much more at home going through the annals of cancer's history, describing the import of this discovery or that discovery. If anything, this book is more interesting for its compact navigation of what would otherwise be an even longer and denser subject matter.


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