Tuesday, December 14, 2010

You'll have to excuse me, but I've never been one for histrionics about aging (like at 1:30 here).  Aging is a fact of life.  Aging is just what we do.  Big whoop.  Not that there's anything wrong with living as though time stopped when one was eighteen, it just isn't for me.

And then I started in on a troika of books about one's body and soul....topped off by a family member confronting me with lose weight or die at a recent gathering.  Nice.  Things are getting too heavy and I am now older than Sally Albright and heading towards beginning my fifth decade on this planet.  What did I do to deserve this?

Oh, right, I've aged.  How dare I???

Musings on the body and soul began fairly unsuspectingly with Mark Jacobson's latest, which features a cover sporting the object of the book's scrutiny beneath a translucent cover that can be pulled back to reveal the lamp in all its horrid splendor, gifted to Jacobson by a New Orleans resident who happened to get it from Dave Domenici, former pilferer of cemetery artifacts-turned scrounger of post-8-29 debris.  The claims of Domenici that the lampshade is made of human skin are put to scientific examination and testing and are found to be true - which leads Jacobson on a quest to find out more about the shade itself and about the truth of the most legendary - and basest - horrors of the Shoah: that at Buchenwald, the skins of the Jews were made into lampshades and their fat made into soap.  His explorations also lead him into a closer look at the history of race in the city in which the lampshade was found, to an interview with David Duke that made me nearly throw the book across the room, and, finally, to the fact that the object-ness of the lamp is transcended by the humanity of the shade's material.  Jacobson is still looking for a "good" way to dispose of the object, which he thought could be best expressed by a burial of the lampshade.  I personally hope that that comes to pass in some way, but it can be hard to get beyond a person's cellular matter to see who exactly he/she once was.

One person who got very curious about the effect diseased cellular matter had on an individual's - and a family's identity - was Rebecca Skloot.  Having been told one small detail about a set of cancer cells from one woman that had helped medical science immeasurably, Skloot's detective work got her into one family's lives after their dying matriarch's cancer cells were harvested without her permission and found to be "immortal".  Her book is a stunning read, not the least because of the examination of the racial issues that governed medical treatment at the time the cells were harvested from Henrietta Lacks, and how those issues carried over into what little her family knew about what had really happened to her when she went in for the treatment of her cancer.

So I went from tanning human skin out of hate to harvesting human cells without the person of origin's permission in the name of science.  One case would be clear-cut if Jacobson could have established a true connection between Buchenwald and his lampshade - the other case raises thornier questions about bioethics and how much control we really do have over our corporeal selves, how much say we might have as individuals over how our cells are used.  I think I aged a few more years just contemplating all of this....

But then I pile this book atop it all.  The questions of one's immortal soul are big ones, and I've grown up with so many of Rabbi Nachman's tales in my psyche from bits and pieces of them speaking to me throughout my religious studies and my own readings, that looking at them in the context of Kafka's writings and life was intriguing.  It also makes me want to go back and check out Kafka's work again, which always seemed to be so dreary and cruelly dark, so forbidding an oeuvre that I never went beyond "The Metamorphosis".  Considering that, in the author Rodger Kamenetz's estimation, Kafka is more relevant at this time and in this place now more than ever, I ought to give my darkest imaginings a break and see both his and Reb Nachman's tales in a new light.  What tales will live on to help heal the world after we are all gone, and who will continue in that work?  What, in the end, is immortality, really?

So I'm exercising regularly now.  I'm reading a bit more carefully.  Trying to be more considerate to my family and friends because, yes, they do want me around.  And, though I'm still not a huge fan of going insane over time's passing, I must say that I am feeling its effects.  They aren't always pretty.  But they are some of life's necessities.

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