The naked truth about aging

In a weird way, the tsk-tsking over a pair of high-fashion ad campaigns featuring Joni Mitchell and Joan Didion reminds me of the flap over a pregnant Demi Moore posing naked for Vanity Fair in 1991.

I remember talking about the Moore cover at the time with a colleague who admitted to being a little bit shocked. Not at seeing a nude woman—we see nude women all the time in movies, magazines and art. It was the fact that she was so very pregnant that he found disturbing.

A nude pregnant woman isn’t an aesthetic object or figure of fantasy in the same way a Playboy model or Goya’s “Naked Maja” might be. She’s a real person (albeit a gorgeous movie star) with baby onboard.

Joan and Joni didn’t have to take it all off for Celine and YSL, respectively, to cause the same kind of stir. All they needed to do was to show their aging faces in moody, black-and-white fashion shots without (it seems) much makeup or retouching. Each looks unapologetically old—Didion is 80 and Mitchell, 71—and completely at ease with themselves. I guess those naked faces are a different type of nudity.

Ultimately, time catches up with us all; there’s no way around it. We won’t look youthful forever. Stopgaps like Botox, lasers and surgery have their limits. People who have work done look—well, they look like people who have had work done. Who’s more attractive, Joan Didion or Joan Rivers?

It’s our reaction to those faces—not to mention the ones we see in the bathroom mirror—that’s the problem. We like to look at pretty people, and that’s what Madison Avenue and Hollywood dish up 99% of the time. When they give us something different, what are we to think?

I, for one, had mixed feelings about the Mitchell ad in particular. Joni is a boomer icon. I’ve long followed her career and still love her music. She was so striking and unconventionally pretty back in the day; I found it disconcerting to see her as she is now.

Am I brainwashed by the beauty culture? Or spooked at the reminder that I’m aging right along with her, and have my own wrinkles and sags to contend with?

Yet on another level, it’s inspiring to see the unvarnished photos of real older women who seem comfortable in their own skins. Mitchell and Didion challenge us to look beneath the surface and rethink our definition of beauty. “Will you take me as I am?” Mitchell sings in “California.” It could be her refrain now.

“We (women) don’t really have any idea of how we ought to look anymore, just how we’re told we ought to want to look,” says Anna Quindlen in her book on aging, “Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake.” Mitchell and Didion, of course, have the help of chic design houses in figuring it out. But perhaps their radical self-acceptance can be a lesson of sorts for the rest of us.

 

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TV hits and misses

The theme from “M*A*S*H” is playing over and over in my head, all because of our new cable channel, MeTV. The network isn’t named for the “Me” Generation (the acronym stands for “Memorable Entertainment Television”), but it might as well be. All its shows are reruns spanning the formative years for the baby boomers, the 1950s through 1980s.

We don’t watch Nick at Nite or TV Land, the other two channels specializing in “classic TV.” But for some reason, MeTV has become a favorite in our household. If nothing else is on, an old episode of “The Rockford Files” or “Taxi” will do.

For my husband, MeTV is déjà vu all over again. He grew up with TV and knows all the actors and shows. But for me, much of it is terra incognita. I remember the programs from the 1950s and ‘60s, when I still lived at home with my parents. But I missed what television had to offer in the ‘70s, since we had no TV during my first marriage. My first husband didn’t believe in it. He was an Amherst man, a bit older and something of an intellectual. I think he took all those warnings about the “vast wasteland” seriously.

I must have agreed with him, because I don’t remember TV non-ownership being an issue between us. Nevertheless, once we divorced I promptly got my first TV—an old black-and-white set that friends were giving away. Even then, the only thing I remember watching on a regular basis was “Dallas,” assuming I didn’t have anything better to do on a Friday night.

My abysmal lack of knowledge about TV was ironic given that during some of this period, I worked at Us Magazine (now called Us Weekly). I fell into a job as a copy editor there soon after moving to New York in the late 1970s, when celebrity journalism was still new. It was a fun place to work, if you didn’t mind deadlines. Coming from a daily newspaper background, I didn’t.

Through my job, I knew of Farrah Fawcett, John Travolta and other TV stars. I knew all about “CHiPs” and “M*A*S*H” and the typographical peculiarities of their titles. But I never saw the shows.

All these years later, I’m catching up on at least some of this programming via MeTV. There are so many gaps in my knowledge. Who knew Doris Day once had a sitcom? I only found out when MeTV aired a Christmas episode. “Black Sheep Squadron”? “Emergency!”? Never heard of them.

And oh, the commercials. They all seem to be touting laxatives, support hose or lawsuits over failed hip replacements. Clearly, the advertisers are well aware of the MeTV demographic. It’s a little frightening to find myself a part of it.

“M*A*S*H” I like; “Cheers” too. But many of the shows from the so-called golden age of television are pretty lame. If I never see “Gilligan’s Island” again, it will be too soon.

TV is better now, in the 21st century. And when it’s not, there’s Netflix.

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Maybe it really is ‘all in your head’

I’ve always been a reader. It’s nothing for me to consume a book in a day or two, if it’s something that really grabs me. So it was a matter of some concern when suddenly, last fall, I stopped reading. I would pick up a book, read a few pages and put it down. The genre didn’t matter—fiction, nonfiction, lightweight, literary. Nothing held my interest.

Was I spending too much time on the Internet? Perhaps darting from site to site and playing Candy Crush Saga in between had ruined my powers of concentration. But then it dawned on me. I stopped reading in September, right after my mother died. It might have been a form of mourning.

Thankfully, my reading life has resumed. I started the new year at the Friends of the Library sale room, where I bought several books. I read one of them—Cathy Crimmins’ “Where Is the Mango Princess?”—in two days. Just like old times.

This is a genre I like—a memoir by a gifted writer of an unusual, transformative event. In this case, it was the traumatic brain injury (TBI) that befell Crimmins’ husband while the family was vacationing in Canada. Alan was struck by a speedboat. Talk about freak accidents.

Crimmins’ account of his recovery and post-TBI personality changes helped me understand my mother a little bit better, retrospectively. Mom suffered a brain injury too—a series of small strokes in the summer of 1999. Although she looked the same afterward and did not show any visible deficits—no paralysis, for example—she was a different person in important ways.

As with Crimmins’ husband, the damage to the frontal lobes caused a degree of disinhibition, which in Mom’s case took the form of rather colorful cursing that seemed weird coming from a little old lady. It wasn’t extreme or constant, but it was enough so that our dentist, when offering condolences on her death, joked about what she might be saying to Saint Peter.

Another issue was suggestibility. Mom was an easy mark for telephone solicitors, TV ads and magazine salesmen. I had to make many a phone call to disenroll her from miracle eye cream subscriptions and bogus credit-card protection services.

This wasn’t Mom—not really. It was her TBI, a physical injury.

Indeed, reading Crimmins’ book has made me question whether other behaviors I see around me could be organic rather than neurotic in origin. People in my cohort are at that dangerous age when changes in the brain are beginning to happen, whether from silent strokes, hardening of the arteries or incipient diseases too scary to name. Could brain malfunction explain why a friend’s wife tells those long, tedious stories, or another friend blurts out casual insults and seems to lack a verbal gatekeeper?

My next book up is a memoir of autism, another source of unusual behaviors. These books remind me to be charitable in how I view people’s actions. You don’t know what someone’s situation is. Sometimes they really can’t help it.

 

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The upside and downside of memories

There’s something artificial about the “year in review” roundups you see in newspapers and on TV in the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Life doesn’t tie up so easily into a neat, 12-month package. The borderlines are porous, or perhaps nonexistent. Jan. 1 winds up looking suspiciously like Dec. 31.

Facebook too has been offering a look back at 2014, a brief pictorial review that gathers a few of your more important posts of the year into a little presentation, under the headline “It’s been a great year. Thanks for being a part of it.” I saw a couple of these on friends’ timelines. But when Facebook showed me the one it had created for me, I came face-to-face with my mother’s obituary and a post about the death of a beloved cat. I decided not to hit “share.”

“Everybody had a hard year, everybody had a good time,” says John Lennon on “I’ve Got a Feeling,” and that’s as good a summation as any for New Year’s Eve. It’s true—the year was a hard one in some ways. And yet, didn’t we have a good time too? No doubt it will be the same in 2015. That’s just the way life is.

This year, instead of making New Year’s resolutions that I am unlikely or unable to keep, I am formulating a simpler goal: to be mindful of memories. Memories are precious, of course. But they cut both ways. You’d be amazed at the number of people who told me how much they dreaded Christmas because the holiday was not what it used to be in memory. The kids were grown, people had died, families had drifted apart. Memories of Christmases past made it impossible to enjoy Christmas present.

My own attempt to recapture certain particular memories was a complete flop. When I was in my mid-20s, I spent a couple of afternoons recording my grandmother speaking about her life. Grandma was a natural storyteller and she gave me some great material about working in New England textile mills as a child and raising four children during the Depression.

I transcribed the interview and some years ago, made clean copies for family members. But recently, my cousin Karen asked me to duplicate the tape itself so that she could hear Grandma’s voice again. I decided to give it to her as a Christmas present.

I found the tape, popped it into the machine and began recording, only to realize I had begun on side 2. I hit Stop, reversed and fast-forwarded a couple of times, then turned the tape over and pressed Record.

Nothing happened. The tape was old and fragile; the overzealous activity had snapped it. My husband, who can fix anything, couldn’t fix it. Neither could the professional audio guy I consulted.

Disappointed, I tossed the partially unspooled tape on my desk and there it lay until one day, my Maine coon cat, Bob, jumped up there. Soon I heard a funny noise. It sounded as if Bobcat were eating something. Indeed, he was ingesting Grandma’s stories.

I ran over, opened his mouth and began gently pulling. Out came a couple of feet of 40-year-old audiotape.

The cat was OK. No harm done. But the message was clear. It’s dangerous to try to hold on to the past. You really can’t go home again.

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Dreaming of northern lights

I’m glad I traveled when I was young, because I’m not a good traveler now. How I wish I were like the adventurers I see around me—people who fly to San Diego for business (my brother and sister-in-law), drive a couple thousand miles to Florida and back for six weeks in the sun (my cousin) or spend a month hiking and sightseeing in Peru, returning home via a cruise through the Panama Canal (an old friend).

I’d like to like to travel, as so many Boomers are doing in an apparent quest to get it all in before we no longer can. But things don’t seem to go well when I do.

I’ll spare you a recitation of my vacation woes. Let’s just say there have been enough “incidents and accidents” (to quote Paul Simon in “Call Me Al”) to make me a wee bit travel phobic.

There’s a totaled rental car in our travel history. Another time, a tow truck had to drive us (and our crippled Mazda) home. Aside from accidents, there are illnesses. We’ve seen the insides of more than one ER while on vacation.

The last getaway we planned was modest: a long weekend in Niagara Falls in September. We had to cancel at the last minute due to a family emergency. See what I mean? I’m trying to avoid the word jinx.

But as winter settles in, I find myself daydreaming about going away. My husband wants a real vacation, not just trips to see family, and suggested Hawaii. He’s always wanted to go there. I proposed Bermuda. Pink sand! Plus, it’s closer, and thus easier to get to, not to mention British, which I find appealing.

One day while idly scanning the Groupon offers that flood my e-mail in-box, I spotted an ad for a trip to Iceland. Since then, all I can think about is northern lights. Isn’t the aurora borealis something you should see before you die? One of the wonders of the natural world?

Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve never liked winter and I hate being cold. So why dream about a trip to Iceland? I don’t know—there’s just something about the idea that grabs me. It seems so civilized to view the marvels of nature not from a dog sled in the wilderness, but from a cosmopolitan city in Europe—Reykjavik . There will be restaurants and museums along with the volcanoes and mineral springs, and at the end of the day, the security of a warm hotel.

We’ve been binge-watching the Netflix series “Lilyhammer,” which is set in Norway, and I think that’s contributing to my Nordic fantasy. Watching Steven van Zandt from “The Sopranos” (and, earlier, the E-Street Band) navigate the snowy scenery captures my imagination, somehow.

My husband said that if I really want to go to Iceland to see the northern lights, we will go. It seems like one of those bucket list things to do; 2015 might be the year.

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Dylan: past, present and future

I never understood the attraction of the Great American Songbook, even when rockers like Linda Ronstadt and Rod Stewart were recording the old standards. Why sing torch songs and dusty show tunes when there was so much great new music to choose from?

But I’m beginning to warm up to this intergenerational nostalgia, if that’s what it is, thanks to Lady Gaga and Bob Dylan. Gaga has famously teamed up with Tony Bennett, while Dylan has announced a Frank Sinatra homage album. As he has throughout his career, Bob continues to surprise.

Tony and Gaga are literally “Cheek to Cheek” in their recording sessions and the concerts and TV appearances promoting their album of that name. What a difference from Sinatra, who handled his partners remotely when he made “’Duets” in 1993. People like Aretha Franklin, Carly Simon and Bono delivered canned recordings that were merged with Sinatra’s cuts in the studio—a kind of musical PhotoShop.

Bob Dylan did not participate in “Duets,” but he did sing at Sinatra’s 80th birthday party concert in 1995. The other stars all did Sinatra standards (Hootie and the Blowfish, for example, performed “The Lady Is a Tramp”). Not Dylan. He sang his own moody “Restless Farewell,” from the 1964 folk album “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” A novel choice, perhaps, but Sinatra seemed game. At least, he applauds at the end of the YouTube video.

So until now, we’ve never heard Dylan cover a Sinatra song. But that’s about to change. Last week, Dylan announced that his next album would consist entirely of tunes that Frank made famous. “Not from The Onion,” one friend deadpanned when he shared this improbable news on Facebook.

It’s hard to find two more radically different voices than Sinatra’s and Dylan’s—silk vs. gravel. But the sample cut Dylan posted at his website, “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” was strangely effective. Dylan maintains he’s “uncovering,” rather than covering, these songs, stripping them of layers of production values and retrofitting them for his voice and his band. Well, OK then.

“Shadows in the Night” is due out Feb. 3, hard on the heels of “The Basement Tapes Complete,” a six-CD set of all the recordings Dylan and the Band made in Woodstock, NY, in 1966-67. This newly issued collection, which Rolling Stone hailed as a masterpiece, was never intended for release. The guys were just fooling around and recording demos—like “Quinn the Eskimo” and “Too Much of Nothing”—for other artists.

A separate compilation, “Lost on the River,” features artists including Elvis Costello performing songs they’ve written based on Dylan’s unused lyrics from the Basement Tapes sessions. Cuts I’ve heard are impressive. As my friend Jim says, Dylan’s discards are better than 99% of the music that’s out there.

So, is it the Basement Tapes or the Sinatra album that’s nostalgic? Do we pine for the Big Band era or the Band? I guess the answer is just to take whatever Dylan chooses to give us with gratitude.

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Jingle bells and rum balls

My friend Greg puts up his Christmas tree before Thanksgiving. Now, that’s early. But judging from the pictures I’ve seen on Facebook, it seems that a lot of people follow suit shortly thereafter.

For my husband and me, it’s still too soon. My traditional deadline for getting a Christmas tree is Dec. 10—my father’s birthday. But my husband and I often miss that date. We strive to have a tree up a week before Christmas, but we’ve been later, even decorating on Christmas Eve a couple of years. We always get a real fir. The fresh pine smells good and brings life into the house.

I’m not sure when we’ll get our tree this year. It’s the first Christmas without my mother, who died in September at age 87, and I’m just not feeling Christmasy.

Mom lived next door to us for 10 years, so the two of us had 10 Christmases in tandem. She would haul out her tree first—a tabletop model that she stored off-season in a black plastic garbage bag, ornaments and all—and then come over to help decorate ours, whenever we managed to acquire it. She tended to position the ornaments on the very tips of the branches, where gravity was sure to claim them. We had to surreptitiously rehang anything fragile or heavy.

On Christmas Eve we would have a fish dinner (though I never cooked the classic Italian “seven fishes”—too much work), then go to 10 p.m. Mass. Mom wasn’t a churchgoer, but she liked this particular Mass for the music—all those lovely carols.

After church we opened presents. And the next day, we would have friends over for Christmas dinner, setting the table with a poinsettia-pattern tablecloth and napkins that Mom had sewn in the 1960s. If you looked closely, you could see the ghosts of ancient food stains from Christmases past.

My mother never liked to cook, not even when she was younger and had to make family meals. In old age she subsisted on Lean Cuisines and Meals on Wheels. At one time, Mom did like to bake. But she pretty much gave it up after my father died.

On her first or second Christmas as our next-door neighbor, I suggested she contribute a dessert to the party. After some deliberation we settled on rum balls, because they require no cooking—just assembly and chilling. There was a problem finding her old recipe—so many of her things went missing when she moved to Pennsylvania—but ultimately we dug one up.

I don’t remember exactly what happened, but something went wrong and the rum balls failed to cohere. Mom called me over to see. Instead of cute little puffs dusted with confectioner’s sugar, we had a bowl of mashed vanilla wafers, walnuts and cocoa, steeped in fragrant rum.

Mom and I decided the fault was in the recipe. We ate a bit of the mixture with spoons, and it tasted pretty good. Maybe we should have served it as an ice cream topping. Instead, we threw it out.

I should make rum balls this year in Mom’s honor—or perhaps rum ball crumble.

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The pleasure of doing nothing

From a glance at the bestseller list, it’s clear the French have something to tell us about the art of living well. Frenchwomen don’t get fat—nor do they get facelifts, and yet they manage to remain elegant toujours. And French children don’t talk back, thanks to the way French parents have raised them.

I wonder if there’s an enterprising French author out there writing a book on retirement. From the American writer Adam Gopnik’s memoir “Paris to the Moon,” it seems that the French do it differently than we do.

Americans, says Gopnik, feel that “to stop working is to stop living. It is the vestibule of death.” But in France “there is no equivalent anxiety.” Indeed, the opposite holds true—there’s a “romance of retirement,” he says, and the earlier the better.

Gopnik cites a series of articles in Le Figaro on young retirees who boast of having the time to “reflect”—in other words, to do nothing. The pieces are written, he says, “in exactly the same admiring spirit that an American daily might use for a series about old people who are as busy as all get-out.”

I am one of the lucky ones with a foot in both worlds. I like to work, and I’m still at it in my 60s. But because of the nature of my job, I have downtime, too. I work for a quarterly publication, so I am busy four times a year during our production cycle and off duty in between.

What do you do when there’s nothing that has to be done? Time becomes elastic. A morning or afternoon might pleasantly pass with nothing much to show for it. It’s easy to put things off, because after all, there’s always tomorrow. I don’t have to cram all my chores into Saturdays, as I did when I worked full time.

An errand like grocery shopping may make an afternoon. There’s time beforehand to check the cupboards and contemplate my list, time later to have a cup of tea after putting everything away. When I was working, going to the supermarket was something I did in spare moments. It’s roomier now.

There’s time to take a walk, time to read, time to meet a friend for coffee. We have a couple of spots in town where you can while away an hour over an espresso without feeling pressured to leave. They may not be Parisian sidewalk cafes, but the croissants are just as good.

I have scheduled events in my life too, meetings and appointments and the like—enough of them to anchor me in the here and now. I don’t lose track of what day it is.

But I’m happy to stay a little laid-back and resist the temptation to be overly energetic. Let’s call it my homage to the French. Soon enough, my production cycle will kick into gear again and I will be thrust back into the working world. Let me revel in the pleasure of doing nothing while I can.

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Is it better to give—or to receive?

OK, show of hands: who is sending out Christmas cards this year? Every Christmas I rethink my list, weighing the pros and cons of the traditional paper cards (environmentally questionable, no doubt) vs. the e-mail variety (a touch impersonal, perhaps?).

In the end I will probably opt for the USPS, as I always do. I certainly have enough cards, thanks to the freebies I keep getting from charitable, humane and environmental-action organizations.

I receive these and other types of premiums almost daily, from agencies I support and those I’ve never heard of. I’ve never been to Colonial Williamsburg, for example, much less given them a donation. Yet, they have been sending me note cards for years—rather nice ones, too. You might get one from me this Christmas.

Greeting cards and the ubiquitous address labels (invariably, with the street name wrong by a letter) aren’t the only goodies I get. All my many umbrellas come from charitable organizations; likewise most of my many tote bags. I receive bookmarks, pens, baseball caps, T-shirts, toy animals (from groups like Defenders of Wildlife), backpacks (Sierra Club), rain slickers, small fleece blankets the perfect size for a cat to sleep on, and key chains up the wazoo.

I get Buddhist prayer flags from the Free Tibet people and religious medallions from the Catholic organizations. Some groups send actual cash—a dime or a nickel glued to the appeal letter. Others include a postage stamp, presumably for use when you mail back your check. Meanwhile, I need never buy another calendar or notepad as long as I live, since so many come to me unsolicited.

Some organizations have a tick box on the return card where you can decline the promised premium. But many others send the premium first, and only later issue their appeal. All of these goodies beg the question of whether the money spent on gifting potential donors couldn’t be better put to use in the charity’s actual work. But there are marketing gurus who specialize in these things, presumably armed with statistics showing that a set of Christmas gift bags with matching tissue paper will draw more donations than a naked letter with no freebie at all.

Moreover, the organization may have already paid for my $7 coffee mug as part of its promotional budget. Maybe I’m doing them a favor by taking the mug off their hands and relieving them of the cost of keeping it in inventory. Who knows?

A couple of years ago when money was tight, I took a look at our charitable donations and made some hard choices. We still give to certain organizations that I’ve supported for years, and that score well (on sites like Charity Navigator) in terms of transparency, accountability, administrative costs and CEO salary. Otherwise, we concentrate our giving locally, on organizations we know and trust. No premiums necessary.

It’s my pleasure to be charitable—it reminds me that I’m doing well enough to be able to share, and to support causes that are important to me. But if my charity is rewarded with a gift, does it qualify as charity at all?

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All things must pass

Maybe I’ve spent too much time reading Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal,” a book about end-of-life issues, but it seems that intimations of death are everywhere I turn lately. Or maybe they always are and I usually opt not to see them, because after all, who wants to think about death? It’s depressing—the ultimate buzzkill.

Sure, we all know that we will die—all things must pass, as George Harrison tells us. But not for a long, long time. Or so we hope.

Gawande’s book, subtitled “Medicine and What Matters in the End,” brings the issue front and center. The author points to the extremes that can occur when a culture fears death and medicalizes old age. Doctors, terminally ill patients and their families often choose futile, costly and indeed, injurious treatments in a last-ditch effort to stave off the inevitable. Oddly, those who pick hospice instead frequently do better and live longer than peers who opt for more aggressive interventions. That’s a very Zen outcome, as Gawande notes: you avoid suffering by not trying to avoid suffering.

I found the book difficult, and had to read it in fits and starts. This is tough material to stomach, since the author—a Boston surgeon—goes into detail about the insults a human body can endure when assaulted by cancer or some other incurable disease.

He also discusses the care of the frail elderly and cites some interesting experiments in alternative living situations that enable even dementia patients to retain a degree of autonomy. Too often, the elderly are regimented in institutions that infantilize them and fail to acknowledge their unique individuality. The goal is to live a life filled with meaning, all the way through to the end, Gawande says.

Which brings us to Stephen Jenkinson, a Canadian palliative-care expert who has worked with hundreds of terminally ill patients. Jenkinson goes further than Gawande. Not only do we all seek a life filled with purpose and meaning, he says, but the only way to have it is by embracing our own deaths. Jenkinson suggests you are not living fully and completely unless you say can say yes to it all—living and dying alike. He presents death as a kind of opportunity for transformation and redemption. It’s both a right and a responsibility to “die well,” Jenkinson maintains.

I recently watched the documentary “Griefwalker” about Jenkinson and his work. The film showed him counseling a number of patients, including a terminally ill woman who was in cheerful denial about her prospects and the parents of a dying child. The medicalization of death was a big theme, as it is for Gawande. But Jenkinson sees death not as something to be hated, but as something necessary—essential—to life and, indeed, even beautiful, in a fierce and terrifying way.

Jenkinson’s book “Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul,” is due out in March 2015 (it’s available now as an e-book). It promises to take the conversation Gawande has begun with “Being Mortal” in a new direction.

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    Jacqueline Damian

    Jacqueline Damian is a writer and editor living in Milford, PA. The author of "Sasha’s Tail: Lessons from a Life with Cats" (W.W. Norton), she has worked in newspapers, magazines and book publishing. She currently edits Xcell Journal, a technical ... Read Full
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