I have a new piece in the Summer/Autumn issue of Harvard Divinity Bulletin called “Death in America,” in which I examine the inequalities inherent in our current end of life care. Here’s an excerpt (in which I quote the amazing domestic workers’ rights advocate, Ai-Jen Poo):
Domestic work, whether it is tending children, caring for elders, or performing household tasks, has always been seen as women’s work, and therefore as less worthy of pay and regulation than types of work that take place outside the home. “Often these individual employment arrangements involve no written contracts, and neither the employer/client nor the worker has clarity around hours, safety standards, responsibilities, and rights,” Ai-Jen Poo, co-founder of Domestic Workers United, writes in The Age of Dignity. “In fact, many individual employers don’t consider themselves formal employers at all—they just think of themselves as paying for ‘a little help.’ ” In Evelyn’s case, that diminished view of Maria’s employment is compounded by prejudices that are common to her socioeconomic class. Maria and those like her are invisible, their lives unseen, their labor undervalued, their stories unheard.
Why does Maria not protest? Ask for a raise? Refuse to work long, inconsistent hours? Why doesn’t she quit? In part, she is professional enough in her skills to recognize that dying patients are struggling with all kinds of loss that can sometimes be enacted on those around them. At the same time, she can little afford to push back.
“I’m scared. I don’t want to say something and get in trouble,” Maria confides to me. She desperately wants to keep her job. Like many domestic care workers, she is not a legal citizen. Poo writes that one-quarter of all domestic caregivers were born outside the United States, and 50 percent of this group are undocumented. When Maria began working with Evelyn, she was paid $13 an hour in cash. Four years later she is paid the same amount but by check, an arrangement that she worries will get her in another kind of trouble.
On Tuesday, October 6, the same week California’s governor, Jerry Brown, signed aid in dying into law there, I wrote an op-ed for The Guardian, “California doctors can offer aid in dying, but many won’t have access.” Here’s an excerpt:
That California is a turning point for advocates is obvious by the numbers: nearly 39 million more people with six months or less to live are now able to ask their doctor for a lethal prescription. But the win was not quick or easy. Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion & Choices, the nation’s largest aid in dying advocacy group, noted in an email to supporters on Monday that this was the organization’s fifth attempt in California since 1995. “Let’s not make others wait so long,” she wrote.
The most obvious question is not how these laws get passed (with dogged grass-roots activism over decades) but why more states don’t have them. The answer: the Catholic Church opposes them.
(Illustration by Roxanna Bikadoroff
“More Titillated Than Thou.” I’ve got a new article in the summer issue of The Baffler (No. 28) about the wild popularity of Amish romance novels. It was super fun to read the books and to work again with editor Chris Lehmann who really deserves a heap of credit for making the piece as fun and punchy as it is. Thanks to The Paris Review and Arts & Letters Daily for picking it up! You can read it here, and here’s a clip:
Fiction, after all, is fiction—it offers escape from the strictures of our individual experiences and worldviews. But to enter the world of Amish fiction is to wholly leave behind the world as it exists. I don’t just mean ringing phones, CNN, computer screens, and interminable commutes—although, yes, these are technologies that the Amish live without (albeit with more exceptions than you’d imagine)—but more fundamentally, the world of crime, racism, 50 percent divorce rates, unwanted pregnancies, systemic pollution, same-sex marriage, college tuition fees, healthcare reform, endless war, and political gridlock. All the complexities of contemporary life are absent. It’s as if the evangelical authors have airbrushed their own ideal world onto the Amish vernacular, gently erasing the sharp, contested edges of the pietist denominational tradition.
Please join us! I’ll be reading on February 8 at Radiator Gallery as part of a new show curated by Elisabeth Smolarz and Jamie Diamond. You can find details below and here.
Opening Jan 23 6-9pm
Show Jan 23 – Feb 27
Special Event: Reading Feb 8 2-4 pm
Artists: Micah Danges, Jamie Diamond, Jeff Fichera, Maria Lynch, Elisabeth Smolarz, Weston Teruya & Andrea Wolf.
Writers: Hossannah Asuncion, Christian Hawkey, Hari Kunzru, Ann Neumann & Uljana Wolf.
Curated by: Elisabeth Smolarz and Jamie Diamond
Radiator Arts is pleased to present cake, dolls, gift bags and other things; a group exhibition of the works of Micah Danges, Jamie Diamond, Jeff Fichera, Maria Lynch, Elisabeth Smolarz, Weston Teruya & Andrea Wolf. Employing a variety of media including photography, painting, sculpture and video, each of the artists in this show examines object-hood and it’s relationship to representation, the uncanny and memory.
Our everyday lives are populated and beautified by objects: we collect, organize and fetishize. They are symbols of our desires, surfaces for our projections and vehicles for our memories. By collaborating, constructing, displacing and documenting, each of the works in the show attempt to subvert our vernacular relationship to objects, collapse the temporary and permanent, past and present narratives and confuse ideas of fact and fiction.
I’ll be reading at two events this month. Please come say hello!
Greenlight Books, 686 Fulton Street, Brooklyn
Launch of the Guernica magazine Annual
With readings by Nick Flynn, Rachel Riederer, Saeed Jones, Ann Neumann
And a Q&A with Guernica Editor in Chief Michael Archer
Unnameable Books, 600 Vanderbilt Avenue, Brooklyn
With readings by Dania Rajendra, Nathan Schneider and Ann Neumann*
Hosted by Robert Eshelman
*I’ll be reading from my forthcoming book, to be published by Beacon Press next year
What a week! The response to my op-ed in last week’s New York Times Sunday Review has been overwhelming–and for the most part, phenomenal. People have written from all over the country to share their stories, strategies and encouragement. Thank you!
A few letters, however, and a segment on the Diane Rehm show on Tuesday, have convinced me that the framing of the conversation about natural gas is dangerously wrong. Here’s my response to a really nasty letter I received two days ago. I’m posting it because it pulls apart that erroneous frame (and because the letter pissed me off). I’ve edited it slightly.
Sorry it took me so long to respond to your letter, forwarded via the NYT and in response to my op-ed last Sunday about fracked natural gas infrastructure. I’m on book deadline and, as you can imagine, my inbox has been filled with op-ed responses (strangely, with most negative responses coming from angry men telling me what I don’t know, and positive ones coming mostly from women across the country who are engaged in the same work my sister is–preventing seizure of her property).
At first, I wasn’t sure your letter was legitimate. The tone, content and structure seemed somewhat incongruent with your credentials (listed in detail at the top of your letter). However, I’ve made the decision to respond to every email I receive.
My point is this: “Natural” gas is a ruse that distracts us from preferable (economic, ecological) methods of weening ourselves off non-renewable energy sources. We’re being sold the story that fracking is progress, the future, that it puts America back on top thanks to “Yankee ingenuity.”
I counter that frame, largely because it is developed by those who benefit (gas/oil corporations) and because it wrongly limits our thinking about alternatives. The benefits of natural gas are overstated and oversold. The job creation numbers are inflated and temporary; cheaper gas only further entrenches us in non-renewable systems; gas has a duration of only 35 years (less when manufacturing and exports kick in) and our investment in it is short sighted; co2 emissions should not be the only metric we use to determine clean (pipelines, post-fracking water, methane are pollution too); new gas infrastructure like pipelines and plants serve gas and oil corporations, not the citizens who are bearing their burden at the expense of clean water, air, soil, at the expense of public and private land, and at the bodily risk of leaks and explosions.
I reject your argument that my opposition to new natural gas infrastructure demonstrates support for coal. Minnesota is doing a fine job with solar and wind (and while it’s converting coal plants to gas, its example shows that new gas infrastructure is a short-sighted waste). I reject your argument that my opposition to natural gas infrastructure demonstrates support for the Keystone pipeline, nuclear power or any other non-renewable resource. I find your either-or argument to be too narrow for a conversation about the nation’s energy future. All renewable alternatives should be further developed and expanded.
As to your nimby comment, I oppose this pipeline, regardless of where Williams attempts to put it. To your inaccurate point that I prefer the development of public lands over private: this pipeline will pass through conserved/preserved property, which I oppose. And for the record, all NYT op-eds are rigorously fact-checked. Too, you would benefit from further research into the use of eminent domain in pipeline cases across the country.
I find directives from others that landowners and general citizens with concerns for their health, environment and well-being should quietly take installation of pipelines on the chin for the good for the country (or rather, for the good of gas corporations) to be paternal and naive. They’re also privileged: do you have a pipeline on your property?
I find your comment that I haven’t “given the matter much thought” to be demeaning. And I find your uninformed insinuation that I have not engaged in other energy activism to be irrelevant and illogical. You assert that, because this is a democracy and I am a citizen, I am in part responsible for our existing energy systems but, as you must know, the process that has created this current system was highly undemocratic (and in many ways unethically coercive), just as the process for approving new natural gas infrastructure is. (Besides, democracy is historically, notoriously inept at protecting minority rights.)
Your reference to global and worldwide needs implies that natural gas exports will be good for the US and the world. They may help us geopolitically, they may briefly boost the national GDP–but in the long run, they will put us behind by distracting us from developing alternative sources of energy. Currently, long-term natural resources (the environment we depend on) are being rampantly destroyed by natural gas industrialization; your letter only demonstrates the kind of short-sighted, narrow fervor that is fueling it.
You seem to misunderstand power in the US. Williams and other corporations, whose bottom line is profit, are claiming “public good” for extraction and transport of resources that they increasingly wish to export, via seizure of public and private property and endangerment of air, water and soil purity. Of course I blame Williams and other corporations for the use of eminent domain, as much as I blame complicit federal agencies, and our local, state and federal legislators. Building and/or expanding natural gas infrastructure in the US only ensures that we will pay most dearly for corporations’ gains for decades to come.
Thank you for reading and writing. Best,
I have an op-ed in The New York Times today that I hope you will all read when you can. It’s about an issue that is now dear to my heart: a pipeline for natural gas is barreling through my home county, Lancaster, Pa.
A special thanks to Jessica Lustig, Kiera Feldman and my entire writing group, and all the friends and strangers who have taken the time to read, share and comment.