Natural Causes Not Ehrenreich's Best


By Barbara Ehrenreich

Grand Central Publishers, 257 pages



There is a scene in the movie A Ghost Story in which an earnest young man expounds upon human vanity and the meaningless of humanity within the cosmos. Nothing will endure, he notes, not great art, individual achievement, reputation, or the solar system itself. We all die and at some point the sun will flame out, the galaxy will implode, and all trace of our existence will disappear. Around him women attend to babies, food is prepared, beverages are consumed, and life goes on. A few bemusedly nod—not because the messenger is wrong, but because what can anyone do with that information? A cynic might view Barbara Ehrenreich's Natural Causes in the same light. Alas, she invites such a reading.


There are few non-fiction writers whom I admire more than Barbara Ehrenreich but I must ask what we are supposed to do with what she tells us in Natural Causes. It's a depressing book, and perhaps also be a dangerous one. Ehrenreich, 76, reflects upon aging and death from the perspective "that I am old enough to die … [and] old enough not to incur any more suffering, annoyance, or boredom in the pursuit of a longer life." Ehrenreich has sworn off such things as annual physicals, pap smears, mammograms, cancer screenings, and bone density tests—most of which, she avers, are irrelevant because they either reveal false readings or irreversible fates. She is exceedingly critical of wellness movements, including the gym culture of which she is a devotee by choice, though she does not believe it will yield a longer or healthier life. If you think she's ruthless on that subject, you're not going to like what she has to say about yoga, running, diet fads, supplements, mindfulness, or mind-body dualism—most of which she sees as utter hokum. Long-time Ehrenreich readers will recognize her takedowns as medicalized versions of her autopsy of positive thinking in Bright-Sided (2009).


Her very chapter titles tell you what Ehrenreich thinks of the medical profession and disease-prevention and life-prolonging alternatives: "Rituals of Humiliation," "The Veneer of Science," "Crushing the Body," "The Madness of Mindfulness," "Death in a Social Context." Ehrenreich is in full muckraker dudgeons in these sections and occasionally lapses into ad hominem attacks or slips into anecdotal evidence. She notes, for example, that running guru Jim Fixx died at 52, author John Knowles—who wrote books on living past 80—also perished at 52, that a vegan diet didn't help Steve Jobs, and that women's fitness center mogul Linda Roberts died of lung cancer though she ate healthily and never smoked. By contrast, Jeanne Louise Calmet lived to 122 after having done lots of things contrary to medical advice. Sure, but these are outliers and all of them would have been marvels a hundred years ago when the average age at death was 49.


The heart (if I might) of Ehrenreich's book comes when her voice shifts from rant to science. She has a Ph.D. in chemistry and can discourse with great intellectual heft on matters such as stochastic noise, lipids, beta-amyloid plaques, neutrophils, macrophages, and inflammaging. In these sections—the bulk of which occur in chapters titled "Cellular Treason" and "Tiny Minds"—she offers a "dystopian view of the body," and that's putting it mildly. The same immunity mechanisms that help fight disease will, in some circumstances and in general as we age, switch from helpful to harmful. Don't look for balms; Ehrenreich clinically observes, "The survival of an older person is of no evolutionary consequence…. [The] diseases of aging clear the clutter of useless older people." Nor is human free will unique. Ehrenreich walks us through studies that show that atoms and cells demonstrate decision-making properties that coordinate human demise.


Only toward the end of her book does Ehrenreich gravitate toward anything remotely cheerful. It's not religion; she sees far more evidence for black holes than for a soul or a deity. Her prescription is to live as joyfully as one can, surrender to the inevitable, and obliterate the self—the last of these her take on the Buddhist concept of ego death. Your life, memory, and works will disappear but the things that made life worthwhile—sunsets and nature, for instance—will continue for a long time. In the final moments, the self can be suppressed through hospice, painkillers, psychedelic drugs, and (in some places) doctor-assisted suicide. 


So, again, what do we do with such messages? I haven't the foggiest idea; death, like birth, is a mystery in which we are unwilling participants. I worry, though, that Ehrenreich refracts too much through her own intellect. Most people don't have a Ph.D. in chemistry and cannot make equally informed decisions about their care. Moreover, much of what she condemns suggests that we need better medical care, not less, and greater oversight in determining best practices from ineffective ones. In the same vein, we certainly need stronger regulations to curtail false claims, hucksterism, and the peddling of latter-day snake oil and electric belts. And I really must caution against a cursory reading of this book, lest one conclude there is no need for medical screening. I know women who are alive because of mammograms; Ehrenreich is one of them. In the end, though, there's no getting around the fact that Natural Causes is such a downer that one could come away with the message of: eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we will die. Unless you're poor—then it's life sucks and then you die, a thesis Ehrenreich advances. Maybe all we can do is go on with the party, come what will.


Rob Weir



A Fanastic Woman Earned Its Oscar

Directed by Sebastián Lelio
Sony Pictures Classic, 104 minutes, R (nudity, sexuality, language)
In Spanish (some English) with subtitles

It baffles me why anyone cares about how others live—especially when their lives don't connect in any way to those who would judge and condemn. Does it really matter if someone is gay, binary, or gender fluid?

Last month, A Fantastic Woman took the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. It is an amazing film and deserving of accolades, but it's my fervent hope that in the not-so-distant future it will look like a dinosaur and people will wonder what the fuss was about. If that happens, society will owe a debt of gratitude to Chilean director Sebastián Lelio, who also co-wrote the script.

The film centers on Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega), whom we first encounter decked in glamour and singing sultry soft jazz to the doe-eyed admiration of her older partner, Orlando (Francisco Reyes). Queue subdued soft lights. Then it's off to dinner, a surprise gift, and back to Oliver's apartment, where they are barely through the door before they are tearing at each other's clothing and making passionate love. Suddenly, though, one of the best nights of Marina's life turns tragic. This, however, is not a classic girl-loses-boy story; Marina is a transgendered woman.

Without revealing much, Marina soon finds herself caught in a cycle of suspicion, bavardage, moral bias, and personal indignities—all before she's allowed to grieve. Compounding this, remember that this takes place in Chile, with its long history of machismo; in the minds of many—including Orlando's ex-wife and her family—a "pervert" like Marina isn't really capable of grief. Now flavor this with a soupcon of magical realism and you have a powerful exploration of identity, but also a seat- squirming look at what makes us fully human: the social scripts we're supposed to follow or a person's essential nature? What unfolds is an age-old clash between human dignity and self-assumed sanctimony.

Daniela Vega portrays both Marina and herself, as she is indeed transgendered. On the screen she dazzles both in performance and her chameleon-like physicality. She plays Marina as one-part hunted animal and one part venting volcano. She knows that even her putative allies have her on informal probation, which means every moment of her life is a negotiation of when to stand her ground and when to turn the other cheek. Not to mention that though she knows that she's a woman, but she hasn't quite figured out what that means. Her angst is written in her body, carriage, and face. At one moment she is beautiful and exotic, but when she pulls her hair back and takes out her fury on a punching bag she presents as mannish in her anger and tearfully boyish when it subsides. Most of the time, she is androgynous—as befits one who lives betwixt and between; that is, between the identity she wishes and the judgments others saddle upon her. Whatever Vega doesn't emote on her own, cinematographer Benjamín Echazarreta paints in light. Pay close attention to the uses of color. There is a particularly exquisite scene at a club rave in which Echazarreta bounces color bars across Vega's face as if it were chatoyant war paint.

My first thought was to compare this film to early explorations into sub-rosa gay culture, such as Longtime Companion, but I think that Philadelphia is a better comparison. There's not much similarity between the two storylines, but the latter film was one of the first to mainstream something (AIDS) society wanted either to label the end product of reckless/immoral choices, or ignore altogether. Those who knew better dismissed Philadelphia as trite, but it is often the peculiar blind spot of the cognoscenti to think the masses deliberately wallow in stupidity rather than consider that it might simply take others more time to change their views. When that finally happens, films like Philadelphia indeed seem like relics.

In an ideal world, A Fantastic Woman would not need to be made; in this one, it does. See for its humanity and its raw honesty. Enjoy it because it's masterfully made and gorgeous to gaze upon. Watch it also with the knowledge that Ms. Vega did her own singing; once you hear her there is no doubt as to how she should present herself. Toward the end there is a scene in which Vega observes her own nude body. Pre-op or post-op? This isn't The Crying Game, so no gratuitous revelations. Why? Because it's none of our damn business and it doesn't matter. If you can't share common humanity with Marina/Daniela, shame on you. Daniela Vega is truly a fantastic woman.

Rob Weir


AL East: Big Bats or Big Arms?

American League East 2018:
Sox versus the Socks

The swagger returns to the American League East. Judge and Stanton are the new Mantle and Maris—or at least that’s how most prognosticators see it. I am a Yankees fan, so I want them to be right, but as a baseball realist I always assume great pitching prevails over hitters who can sock the old horsehide from the Bronx to Westchester County. That’s why I see Boston winning the division.

Will Win: Boston Red Sox and not because they added J D Martinez. Sale, Price, Pomeranz, Porcello, and Rodriguez will shut down a lot of lineups, including that of the Yankees. Betts and Benitendi are fine players. It might be put up or ship out time for Bradley and Bogaerts, though. A healthy Pedroia would help, though it’s possible he’ll never again be what he was. They won't need to score a lot of runs.

Wild Card: That’s the route the New York Yankees will have to take. There are simply no holes in the lineup when you consider that Drury, who hit .267 last year, will likely bat ninth. All of the Judge/Stanton hype overlooks the fact that Gary Sánchez is probably a better hitter than either of them. There’s also Gregorius, Gardner, Walker, and Hicks. Here’s where it gets tricky, though. The Yankees couldn’t unload dead wood Ellsbury so they couldn’t sign what they really needed: a topnotch pitcher. Severino might be an ace, but he’s young and also might take a step back. Tanaka and his fragile elbow make him Jeckyl and Hyde, Gray always seems to find a bat at the wrong time, and Sabathia is in the twilight of his career. Don’t be surprised if Montgomery wins more games than any of the aforementioned. It’s also unrealistic to imagine that Judge and Stanton can repeat their otherworldly 2017 performances.  

Dark Horse: The Toronto Blue Jays have a nice pitching staff, but they’ll need either the Yankees or Red Sox to tank to get into the postseason.

Predicted Order of Finish:

1. Boston Red Sox:  They will still lack bat power, but power arms will compensate.
2. New York Yankees: They will hit a ton, but pitching is a question mark.
3. Toronto Blue Jays: They will pitch well, but everything else is a question mark.
4. Baltimore Orioles: They are filled with question marks.
5. Tampa Rays: No question about it, the Rays will stink. It’s possible that between the Rays and the Marlins, Florida teams will lose 200 games.


The Insult a Brilliant Look at the Stupidity of Ethnic Conflict

Directed by Ziad Doueri
Diaphana Films, 112 minutes, R (which is ridiculous!)
In Arabic and French with subtitles

The Insult is a powerful portrait in miniature of the tragedies of tribalism. I’m glad I wasn’t on the Oscar selection committee, as I don’t know how would have voted for Best Foreign Film given a choice between this film and A Fantastic Woman. Seldom have I seen such a cogent exploration of how little it takes to ignite ancient hatred or how those who started the fire can stand idly by even after they regret striking the first match.

The Insult is set in a section of Beirut, Lebanon in which many Palestinians reside. Some come from old families, some are refugees, and some are illegal. Things are looking up; after a long civil war, things are actually being built and rebuilt in Beirut. That’s where we come in. A construction crew headed by Yasser (Kamel El Basha) is rehabbing infrastructure when suddenly he is doused with water running from a makeshift drainpipe on a terrace above him occupied by Tony (Abdel Karam) and his pregnant wife Shirine (Rita Hayek). A rebuffed offer to repair the illegal pipe touches off a tit-for-tat dispute in which harsh words are uttered. If this sounds like your routine neighborhood squabble, your neck of the woods isn’t a slice of Beirut where Maronite Christians live cheek by jowl with Palestinian Muslims. Nor is it one in which Christians like Tony diet on incendiary broadcasts that make our radio shock jocks seem like Eagle Scouts and nasties like the PLO and Hezbollah stand ready to declare jihad over spilt water. And it’s surely not one where a hotheaded swear can be grounds for a libel suit or a hate crimes countersuit.

The big picture is that Tony and Yasser are caught in a historical maelstrom. Lebanon gained its independence from France in 1945 and once enjoyed a reputation as the playground of the Middle East, its beaches and flourishing network of vices a destination for Euro jetsetters. (Think Cuba before Castro.) It is blessed by beauty and cursed by geography; its next-door neighbors are Israel, Syria, and the Golan Heights. For a while the lid remained on the pot because of an agreement that Christians would control 55% of government offices, including the presidency (a Maronite) and the Deputy Prime Minister (Greek Orthodox). The Prime Minister, though, would be a Shi’te Muslim and his deputy a Sunni. Censuses were avoided like a Biblical/Quranic plague. In 1975, the pot boiled over and scalded Lebanon with a civil war that lasted until 1990, sent a million Lebanese into exodus, and left 120,000 dead. Along the way there were U.S. interventions and withdrawals, an Israeli invasion to punish Hezbollah, and a Syrian occupation that began in 1976 and ended only in 2005. Since then, as a character in The Insult observes, there has been fragile peace, “but no reconciliation.”  

Tony and Yasser are the blue-collar microcosm of Lebanon’s sad history. Tony is an auto mechanic and Yasser a construction worker who is just as devoted to his wife, Manal (Christine Choueiri) as Tony to Shirine, yet neither man can take their wife's advice to settle their dispute. There is far more than pigheaded manhood at stake; each, we discover, were pawns in past massacres and each bears the scars—Tony through his anger and Yasser his smoldering stoicism. There is a poignant moment in which a failed reconciliation ends with Tony driving away, but Yasser sitting in a stalled car. Tony backs up, lifts the hood, and fixes the car; Tony glares without conviction and Yasser nods with a Mona Lisa smile upon his lips. Both men secretly long to end the feud. But is it too late?

Gandhi famously observed that, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” If you think this little more than a naïve aphorism, watch The Insult and reconsider. Both principal actors are superb in this film, but hatred is the unaccredited lead. This film hit me personally. I came of age during the Vietnam War, which appeared utter madness and turned me into the pacifist I remain. In my life, I have seen nothing over which people fight that justifies the horrors that ensue. The Insult drove that home anew. Ultimately, Gandhi is correct. So too was John F. Kennedy, who observed, "Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind." The Insult is about more than a personal conflict elevated to widespread tragedy; it is a weeping planet’s lament.

Rob Weir