Former Associate editor Margret Aldrich on the hunt for happiness, community, and how humans thrive
1/30/2012 4:48:36 PM
You need it. Everybody says so. Whether you’ve lost a loved one, a job, a relationship, or a pet, the one thing our culture insists will assuage your pain is closure—grief’s endgame. But is the concept of closure real, or is it just a way to exploit your heartache?
“Many bereavement scholars, grief counselors, and those grieving dismiss the idea of closure, but it continues to thrive in popular culture, politics, and marketing,” writes sociologist Nancy Berns in Contexts. Closure, which rose in popularity in the 1990s, “fits our culture’s quest to do things efficiently, following proscribed rules to get to a goal—in this case, an end to pain or loss. Since we are enmeshed in a consumer culture, it comes as no surprise that people turn to the marketplace to find grief rituals.”
And there are plenty of rituals to choose from: In the death care industry, where closure is king, a traditional funeral package can hover around $10,000. As cheaper cremations grow more common, funeral directors push viewings, which often require the cost of embalming, as necessary to reaching closure. There are also cremation-related products such as “memorial soil” (dirt mixed with ashes) and LifeGems (diamonds made from ashes); pet urns (to hold Fido’s ashes); and businesses like Air Legacy (to scatter ashes), all marketed as shortcuts to closure. The Everlife Memorials ash-scattering service, for example, claims that “aerial scattering offers a means of closure to families who are ready to take the final step in the grieving process.”
Other industries offer closure—for a fee—as well. Private investigators sell closure through the collection of evidence; psychics sell closure by offering answers from beyond; some forensic analysts even sell closure by hawking autopsies and the additional information they provide. And the growing divorce party industry sells products to help spurned wives and husbands shut the door on their marriages, with everything from party games like Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Ex to wedding ring coffins.
The business of closure reaches into the political realm, too. In an effort to advance their position, Berns writes, “death penalty advocates claim that killing a murderer will bring closure to the families of homicide victims.” She concludes:
The distorted message about grief that comes from closure marketing is this: You need closure. Salespeople and politicians have entered the business of grief counseling, but their advice is rooted in profits and politics. Expecting people to “find closure” within a particular time frame or after specific rituals does not help our understanding of grief. Selling products…in the name of closure exploits the emotional pain of grief, but it does not mean that closure exists or is needed.
That there is no finish line for grief frees you to experience it in a way that’s right for you. So, when it comes to the business of closure in your own life, consider leaving the door open—even just a crack—until you’re truly ready to ease it shut.
(article available to subscribers only)
Image by Alcino, licensed under Creative Commons.
Margret Aldrich is an associate editor at Utne Reader. Follow her on Twitter at @mmaldrich.
1/25/2012 10:30:05 PM
Excrement is an unexpected hero. While not a subject discussed in polite company, in both medical and environmental arenas poop is coming to the rescue.
Take, for example, the positive buzz surrounding fecal transplants, which are heralded as possible cures for everything from asthma and depression to Crohn’s disease, MS, and the bacterial gut infection c. difficile.
As its name suggests, a fecal transplant is the transfer of feces from a healthy donor to an ailing patient. The transfer, explains Pagan Kennedy in The Atlantic is performed using colonoscopy instruments to squirt a diluted stool sample from the donor into the large intestine of the patient. If all goes as it should, the donor sample repopulates the recipient’s intestine with a healthy amount of good bacteria.
While it doesn’t sound pleasant, the simple procedure yields surprisingly positive results—sometimes clearing up chronic symptoms in only two days. “Lately, stories about the success of at-home fecal transplants have been spreading across the Internet,” Kennedy writes. Such DIY fecal transplants are becoming popular due to the hesitation of mainstream clinicians who have yet to embrace poop as a miracle cure. “So far,” says Scientific American, “fecal transplants remain a niche therapy, practiced only by gastroenterologists who work for broad-minded institutions and who have overcome the ick factor.”
Still, some doctors are reporting remarkable successes, Scientific American continues: “[A]bout a dozen clinicians in the U.S., Europe and Australia have described performing fecal transplants on about 300 C. difficile patients. More than 90 percent of those patients recovered completely, an unheard-of proportion.”
Our health isn’t the only thing that can be improved with feces, adds Sierra magazine’s Dashka Slater (with tongue in cheek): “In the future, poop will solve all our problems,” including environmental ones. She offers three examples of excrement’s energy prowess:
1) Dried flakes of human feces can be burned to produce energy. “The flakes, which resemble instant-coffee granules,” Slater says, “are made from dehydrated sludge, the fecal goo left behind after wastewater is treated.” Sixteen percent of the energy used by British water and sewage company Thames Water comes from human poo.
2) Elephant and panda poop contain bacteria that easily converts plants’ woody pulp into sugars. “Researchers at Mississippi State University (working with pandas) and at the Dutch technology company DSM (working with elephants) say that such bacteria could be key to producing cellulosic ethanol from biomass like wood chips, switchgrass, and corn stover.”
3) Manure on large hog farms produces high levels of methane. “Now Duke University and Duke Energy have teamed up to harness pig-poop power, using the methane from a 9,000-head hog farm in North Carolina to run an electrical turbine,” says Slater. The project produces enough energy to light up the kitchens, bedrooms, living rooms—and bathrooms—of 35 area homes.
Sources: TheAtlantic, Scientific American, Sierra
Image by macaron*macaron(EstBleu2007), licensed under Creative Commons.
Margret Aldrich is an associate editor at Utne Reader. Follow her on Twitter at @mmaldrich.
1/20/2012 4:26:01 PM
How many times have you ordered an entrée at a restaurant only to leave a pile of food on your plate, dump the remains into a doggie bag, or stagger out the door with your pants unbuttoned? The new program Halfsies hopes to cut portion sizes for a good cause.
Halfsies identifies three food-focused problems in the United States. 1) Oversized servings. Most restaurant portions here are 2-4 times the recommended serving sizes, which contributes to our epidemic of overweight Americans. And portion size is a problem that keeps growing: 20 years ago, two slices of pizza added up to 500 calories; today, two slices weigh in at 850 calories. 2)Excessive food waste. Nearly half of the food produced in the United States is thrown in the trash. It’s commonly cited that every day we waste enough food to fill the Rose Bowl. 3)Hunger. More than 50 million Americans—and 1 billion people worldwide—are affected by food insecurity.
Combine these challenges, and “you have a dysfunctional feedback loop of waste, hunger and obesity,” says Beth Hoffman of Food + Tech Connect.
Halfsies wants to break this toxic pattern with a wonderfully simple initiative. When at a participating restaurant, choose a menu item with the Halfsies icon next to it and receive a half-portion. You’ll combat food waste as well as eat a healthier amount. You’ll also fight hunger: You pay full price for the plate, and the resulting proceeds are distributed to local nonprofit partners (60 percent), global hunger organizations (30 percent), and back into the Halfsies budget (10 percent).
Pilot programs will be launched in New York City and Austin, Texas, this spring. To learn more and help bring Halfsies to other parts of the country, view their beautifully commonsensical video here:
Sources: Food + Tech Connect, Halfsies
Image via Halfsies.
1/18/2012 10:45:17 AM
The tiny house movement is undeniably romantic. Toss out your nonessential belongings, leave the responsibilities of your sprawling suburban home, and embrace the freedom and clarity of an unfettered life. Need more romance than that? Make your tiny home a real-life gypsy caravan.
In nineteenth-century Europe, elaborately painted wooden wagons, or vardos, were used by the Roma people (pejoratively called “gypsies”) as living quarters and work spaces. Several companies today, including Gypsy Vans, Windy Smithy, and Ingham & Fallon, produce modernized or replica wagons for sale.
Perhaps most appealing is Roulottes de Campagne, who offers caravans for rent in more than 75 windblown and wildflower-thick locations throughout the French countryside. “Roulotte de Campagne has redesigned the circus caravan, country caravan, or so-called gypsy caravan as a high-comfort way for city-dwellers to get away from it all and tap into their Bohemian spirit,” writes Kirsten Dirksen for *faircompanies.
“The Bohemian spirit is definitely a growing trend,” concurs Roulottes de Campagne. “More than ever before, caravans are the symbol of freedom without frontiers.”
Watch a video tour of one of their diminutive 10-foot by 26-foot dwellings below, and start cultivating your own bohemian dreams:
Images via Roulottes de Campagne.
1/12/2012 2:43:03 PM
What must it feel like to be an astronaut: weightless, rocketing farther and farther from home and country, gazing out your craft’s window at the deepness of space, wondering where you can get a good salad...
As astronauts set their sights on a not-so-distant mission to Mars, scientists are wondering what to put on spacecraft menus. Current packaged meal options, while far more advanced than the nutrition pills and pureed-food tubes of early space travel, aren’t practical for an extended trip, says Alexandra Witze in Science News. “Six astronauts eating 3,000 calories a day for three years, the length of a Mars mission, adds up to 20 tons of prepared food that would need to be launched.”
Homegrown space food could be the answer. Researchers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida are exploring ways for astronauts to raise their own vegetables in orbit, from radishes and lettuce to cherry tomatoes and mizuna greens. The plants, generating oxygen as well as food, are grown hydroponically, with blue, red, and green lights employed to aid production and special implements used to carry moisture to their roots.
But as with Sputnik 1, the Russians got here first. They’ve been growing food in space, on a small scale, for decades and have a miniature garden in their part of the International Space Station. Now, funding for research in the United States—which has been fickle over the years—is reinvigorated, thanks to the prospective trek to Mars.
Researchers suspect that space gardens won’t be the primary source of sustenance on galactic missions, but fresh-picked vegetables will be a welcome addition to the cycle of processed and packaged meals.
“Along with reducing trash and launch mass requirements, such crops would give astronauts a little diet variety and psychological lift,” writes Witze. After all, even astronauts love to eat local.
Source: Science News
Image by Tim Sackton, licensed under Creative Commons.
1/10/2012 2:39:04 PM
When the women I know belly-up to a bar, they’re more likely to order a pint of beer than a glass of wine or a frilly cocktail. I’m a sucker for Surly’s CynicAle and Fulton’s Sweet Child of Vine, both from the rollicking Minneapolis beer-brewing scene. Still, drinking and brewing beer continue to be viewed as primarily male territory.
As it turns out, this split of the sexes is all wrong, says Bitch magazine’s Celena Cipriaso: Women have brewed beer since Babylonian times and female brewers permeate world folklore. Historian Alan D. Eames reinforces the depths of women’s claims on beer, explaining, “From its very inception some 8,000 years ago, every ancient society’s beer-creation myth tells the same story: The drink was a gift from a female deity to the women of that community.”
Cipriaso laments the loss of women’s roles as brewers and beer lovers. “For many years, women have been relegated to the background of the industry,” she writes, “both as targeted consumers and in terms of their place in beer history.”
But now, beer mugs are getting back into the fists of women. Gallup polls indicate that women account for a quarter of national beer sales, and what Cipriaso calls “female beer advocacy” is growing: Regional craft-beer brewers now include women in their ranks, organizations like the Pink Boots Society promote women’s involvement in the industry, and beer-centric social groups like Girls’ Pint Out keep the culture fun.
A new documentary, The Love of Beer, celebrates the women who are breaking into the Pacific Northwest’s brewing arena. Watch a trailer here and check the website to find out if the film is screening in your city. Cheers!
Sources: Bitch(audio only), The Love of Beer
Image by Ryan Bieber, licensed under Creative Commons.
1/6/2012 3:45:50 PM
Doctors have the very best medical care at their fingertips. They read journals that publish the latest medical findings; they know the most up-to-date treatments for various ailments and diseases; they might even play golf with a top surgeon or two. And yet, when faced with death, many physicians forgo intensive medical treatment.
Doctors “don’t die like the rest of us,” writes Ken Murray for Zócalo Public Square, primarily because “they know enough about modern medicine to know its limits.” Most medical professionals regularly see futile care in action—ineffective CPR attempts, unnecessary surgeries, and expensive drug treatments; patients hooked up to hospital IVs and machines for weeks or months before passing.
“I cannot count the number of times fellow physicians have told me, in words that vary only slightly, ‘Promise me if you find me like this that you’ll kill me’” says Murray, a clinical assistant professor of family medicine at USC. “They mean it. Some medical personnel wear medallions stamped ‘NO CODE’ to tell physicians not to perform CPR on them. I have even seen it as a tattoo.”
Our medical system certainly encourages doctors and staff to take exhaustive measures when a patient is dying. The fee-for-service model puts money in the pockets of medical professionals, and desperate relatives often push for recovery by any means necessary. But many doctors recognize there are more important things than the number of days we breathe on this earth. Murray offers one example:
Years ago, Charlie, a highly respected orthopedist and a mentor of mine, found a lump in his stomach. He had a surgeon explore the area, and the diagnosis was pancreatic cancer. This surgeon was one of the best in the country. He had even invented a new procedure for this exact cancer that could triple a patient’s five-year-survival odds—from 5 percent to 15 percent—albeit with a poor quality of life. Charlie was uninterested. He went home the next day, closed his practice, and never set foot in a hospital again. He focused on spending time with family and feeling as good as possible. Several months later, he died at home. He got no chemotherapy, radiation, or surgical treatment.
At-home care can be an attractive, viable option, according to Murray:
Almost anyone can find a way to die in peace at home, and pain can be managed better than ever. Hospice care, which focuses on providing terminally ill patients with comfort and dignity rather than on futile cures, provides most people with much better final days. Amazingly, studies have found that people placed in hospice care often live longer than people with the same disease who are seeking active cures.
That doctors opt out of traditional end-of-life care might make us reconsider the measures we would take for our loved ones or ourselves. Read the moving story “When the Last Guest Leaves,” featured in our current issue, to see how one woman—with the help of her son—chooses a dignified death outside hospital walls.
Source: Zócalo Public Square
Image by Truthout.org, licensed under Creative Commons.
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