Discover more from Body of Work: Belle de Jour
When I met them they seemed like any other couple enjoying retirement. A modest 3 bed, 2 bath bungalow tucked away in a sunny spot on the edge of high desert and forest, close to the husband’s favorite hobbies of fishing and hunting. Once a month I would show up on a Wednesday afternoon and find them, as often as not, sitting on the back porch listening to a bright cacophony of birdsong and sipping red wine. They were generally tidy, tipped well, and had a puppy who followed me from room to room as I cleaned, running away each time the vacuum cleaner started.
Then the cracks started to show. The wife was sometimes startled when I came into the room, as if I was a stranger and not a regular visitor. The collection of drugs by the sides of their twin bathroom sinks grew and grew. Stabilizing handles appeared in the shower and a frame around the toilet to assist in sitting down and getting up. My visits contained the same amount of cleaning, but usually a few extras as well: replacing carbon monoxide detectors they could not get on ladders to do, clearing out a food pantry that hadn’t been touched in over a year, and so on. They both started wearing emergency alert necklaces, and a folder took up permanent residence on the kitchen counter with EMT INFORMATION printed in block letters on the front.
Inside were their Do Not Resuscitate orders.
The husband explained. His wife had early onset dementia and retired as result years ago; he was now her full time carer. After that she developed a seizure disorder. He had a small stroke and had worsening vertigo ever since. Then a fall that healed slowly. Their respective cocktails of drugs caused side effects such as incontinence and muscle weakness. One night he had called 911 because she collapsed by the toilet; her body blocked the door and it was an hour until paramedics could get her out of the house.
The house they had built together was supposed to be the place they would spend the rest of their lives. As each month went by I wondered how long it would be before I received a call letting me know one or both of them had been moved to a nursing home.
They are both younger than my parents.
Since the Reagan era, American life expectancy mapped against healthcare spending has plateaued: we outspend countries with national health care such as Canada, Chile, most of Western Europe, and the richest Asian nations but have seen life expectancy flounder at years less than theirs.
Even this it seems is too much for some people. Ezekiel Emanuel, a medical ethicist whose thoughts on why he did not wish to live past the age of 75 made him a darling of the Obama administration, recently gave an interview in which he doubled down on his opinions of our ‘obsession’ with longevity. As Emanuel sees it, living past the age of perfect cognitive function is worthless, and even a long life with good health and mental acuity is to him (at 62) also not admirable. “These people who live a vigorous life to 70, 80, 90 years of age—when I look at what those people do, almost all of it is what I classify as play,” opined Emanuel in Technology Review. “It’s not meaningful work. They’re riding motorcycles; they’re hiking. Which can all have value—don’t get me wrong. But if it’s the main thing in your life? Ummm, that’s not probably a meaningful life.”
I wonder what Emanuel would think of my father, whose ‘meaningful’ life meant mowing stranger’s lawns up to and including the day he died.
I remember only one vacation with my Dad. It was a canoe and camping trip around the Withlacochee River with family friends, and I was maybe seven years old. Dad didn’t have any shorts so he cut the legs off an old pair of work jeans. I remember the way my Mom trailed her legs over the side of the canoe. Swimming in cold springs that bubbled up from the aquifer with water so clear it seemed like you could reach out and catch fish with your hands. The long bending leaves of river grass rippling in the current. I am a Florida girl through and through, give me any small boat, any water, anytime and I am happy. My summer uniform was a swimsuit and I don’t even remember learning how to swim. In West Central Florida, before everything was built up, you could have as good a time as anyone even with modest means. That relaxation, that leisure - it’s how people are meant to live.
We visited a goat farm, and Dad’s friend David got upset because a goat reached into his pocket and ate his cigarettes. (Decades later, I reminded my mother of that story, and she corrected me. It wasn’t tobacco the goat had eaten, it was a bag of pot. No wonder David was so pissed.) Aside from that one time Dad worked every day of the week, every week of every year. My father loved the outdoors, loved Florida’s rivers and beaches and sunsets as much as I do. But in his mind they were something to be enjoyed after work was done. An hour snatched here and there. A brisk leg stretch only after finishing the business of the day. Something for another time. Later. After retirement. It would always be there, wouldn’t it, when he was ready?
If I was about 7 when this trip happened that means my father was about 30. Aside from a brief visit to New York one December, I don’t remember him taking any other vacations. Forty years with no leisure time. Supporting a family and then a drug addiction that wiped out what savings he had, making do, sliding forever backwards. My father’s 70 years were more than many and less than some. How short life is though, if you live for the weekends, live for retirement. He didn’t get either.
Instead of vacations, he had work days. Instead of travel, he had a stack of postcards that I sent back to him from all over the world. Egypt. Devon. Sicily. Kathmandu. He never went to see his mother’s father’s masterpiece, a sculpture in the sandstone facade of a church in Canicattì, but he had the out of focus photo I took when I went there.
Sure, my father did not experience a long, slow decline as his own father had, something which I knew disturbed him very much. A part of me is glad Dad did not have to go through sustained illness, dementia, or any of those horrors; another part of me is guilty for feeling in any way relieved that he died. But there is - or should be - something between working in one’s prime and the inevitable end of life. Some time to reflect, to enjoy. Time even to waste on motorbikes and gardening if one wants. Time in which one does not need to load up lawnmowers into a dilapidated Ford or don a Walmart smock to greet customers in order to live.
It is tempting to believe that the scrape by til the grave ‘ethic’ that so many Americans pay lip service to is a creation of the right, but it is a deep value of the left as well. An ivory tower does not build itself, after all. They hated Donald Trump not because his beliefs are greatly different from theirs but because he said those things out loud. The universal education the left pushes us towards, the public schools that should and must be available for all, are modeled after the factory work day. A man like my father - born working class, working class all his life, died working class - is only of value so long as he is vigorously contributing to the economy like a good little worker ant should.
The only other picture I have of my father as an adult enjoying time off is a snap from Anclote Key taken two years before I was born. The color balance is poor, I only know where and when it is from my mother’s handwriting on the back. Anclote is a small island just three miles as the crow flies from the house where my father died. To my knowledge he never visited the island after 1973.
My parents did not yet live in Florida, they were down from Syracuse visiting his parents. His mother was suffering from the occupationally-caused lung cancer that would shortly kill her. She was less than ten years older than I am now. My parents married in haste before arriving, so Dad could show he was not living in sin to the mother who disowned him after the heroin trafficking episode but on her deathbed called for her younger son.
It is not, objectively, a good photo. It will not be reproduced in shiny coffee table books or reposted on Historical Pictures accounts on Twitter and Facebook unlike, say, the holiday snaps of towheaded and toothy Kennedies and Bushes enjoying family beach time in Kennebunkport. He is wearing cutoff jeans instead of a polo shirt and Topsiders. The view from Anclote Key is back towards a power plant and industrial docks, not picturesque shacks selling lobster rolls. It is a poor man’s paradise devoid of expensive houses and reached only by the kind of small fishing boats working people aspire to own, or you can pay a sponge boat captain to drop you off there.
It is my favorite photograph of him.
To great thinkers like Ezekiel Emmanuel it is a tragedy not that someone has died without enjoying time off but that someone has had time off instead of dying. These public intellectuals can identify that folks over retirement age often have complex medical care issues without ever questioning the cult of work that leaves them broken long before their eighth decade. Because that sort of work is work Ezekiel Emanuel et al will never do. Instead such deep thinkers are paid megabucks to badly interpret lifecourse epidemiology for governments. What makes me sad is so many people like my father defer enjoyment until they reach a mythical retirement stage that after decades of labor is financially and medically unsustainable. We live in a society where a seventy-year-old man has to do a teenager's job to make ends meet on Social Security, and big brain Emanuel over there thanks it's great that at least he never stopped contributing.
You can see this attitude echoing through society in many ways. From the distaste for ‘tacky’ caravan holidays (tacky because they are the preserve of the working class) to the widespread revulsion at just about any activity that attracts more poor people than it does rich: fishing, working on cars, bingo halls. Just meaningless wastes of time compared to nodding gently at the philharmonic or playing golf or buying up vast ranches in Montana as the rich do. It’s even different when it comes to a universally popular downtime activity such as taking drugs. Rich former crack addicts like Hunter Biden get sympathetic portraits in the Sunday Times about the tragedies that have befallen their families. Poor former crack addicts like my father are ridiculed in the Mail on Sunday for same. One is forgiven, the other unforgivable.
This is what the people anointed as our betters think of us. That our lives have no value, not really, unless sacrificing bodies to the grindstone. Our desires are not worth staying alive for. Our hopes are not significant. Our pain and struggles? Meaningless and unrelatable. Our thoughts and lives - unlike those of Euler and Newton, whose fame and achievements Emanuel cites warmly - are trash to be discarded as soon as we stop having what he considers meaning.
As someone who has worked at the sharp end of medical care from emergency rooms to mortuaries, I can see the value in rethinking how we approach the end of life. Should we extend it past the possibility of all recovery? No one really wants to die in a sterile hall surrounded by beeping machines that breathe for them, do they? But writing off entire decades of most people’s lives as not meaningful smacks more than a little of eugenics.
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The Withlacoochee River still exists. Anclote Key still exists. They are protected as state parks, unlike so much of the Florida of my childhood, which was long since swallowed up by timeshares and suburban sprawl.
The 2012 film The Queen of Versailles documents the failed attempts of timeshare billionaire David Siegel and his beauty queen wife to build America's largest private home in Central Florida. In one scene Siegel's eldest son Richard stands before a room of timeshare salesmen and tells them that they are just like EMTs, firefighters, and lifeguards because their job saves lives. “I could show you the research and the statistics,” the younger Siegel tells his rapt acolytes. “People who take the fewest vacations are the most likely to die of heart attacks.”
He is probably right though not for the reasons he believes, or at least allows his employees to believe he believes. A week a year in Orlando won't save your life. But the people who don't have the money or time for even that absolutely can expect shortened life spans.
Timeshares are a terrible deal, often missold and frequently fraudulent. Billionaires like the Siegels peddled a fantasy in which ordinary people could pretend to be wealthy. Meanwhile they got incomprehensibly rich off the meagre dreams of an American working class who can at most dream of one week at a theme park per year. And they destroyed natural Florida's rivers and beaches acre by acre in order to do it.
My Florida is not the Siegels’ Florida and I don’t just mean because of money. It is a place with low hanging Spanish Moss and meandering rivers that sometimes go underground. It is sunshine and white sand, yes, but also grabbing a bucket and a sieve when the tide is coming up to get the small multicolored clams that make coquina soup. It is burial mounds of long lost civilizations, memento mori warning off newcomers from thinking we can control and shape Florida however we want. When the sea wants us the sea will take it all back.
Years ago, as a side effect of working as a lifecourse epidemiologist, I became interested in a kind of personal biology experiment known to its followers as CRON. This stands for Calorie Restriction, Optimum Nutrition. You can read more about it elsewhere but the upshot is that health can be improved and lifetimes lengthened by eating less food with more attention to nutrition. It seems to work in every nonhuman species it’s been tried on, it helped the hapless residents of Biosphere 2 make it through their ordeal, and the science is on their side.
It is in some ways like the opposite of a DNR order. Do, in fact, intervene. Do keep me alive as long as possible. For those unable to afford cryonics, CR is the cheap form of preserving your mortal coil for possible eternity.
I still pay attention to what I eat because as the old saying goes an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. But I don’t engage with the community so much anymore and here’s why. Many of the people who follow CRON believe that ‘actuarial escape velocity’ (the point at which we can halt all aging) is imminent, and also, that when achieved it will be made available to them. CRON is after all just a crude approximation of the medical breakthrough they believe is coming and will change human society forever and for the presumably better.
Why shouldn’t they think it’s coming when billionaires like Peter Thiel have thrown money at life extension research, almost as much as they have at their end of the world bunkers in New Zealand.
It’s insanity to believe that extension of human life in a world riddled with so much injustice will magically erase inequality. It will only, could only, make it worse. Emanuel in his joyless dissection of post-retirement life is at least right about one thing: the interest from Thiel and his ilk in life-extension medicine and technology is not because they care about the health of the masses. It is exclusively to benefit themselves. Thank you for being the lab mice of life extension. You will not however be rewarded. If and when science reaches escape velocity from the inevitability of aging, decrepitude, and death, those technologies will not be available to you and me.
Every press release heralding this or that life extension breakthrough bears about as much application to my life as finding out the Airbus A380 first class offers a 32-inch LCD widescreen monitor, extra reading lights, and a personal linen closet on routes between Tokyo and Hawaii. Relevant to about eight people and of no use to the other 8 billion of us whatsoever.
The rich will, however, still need someone to clean their doomsday bunkers. They will need the Morlocks to their Eloi. If they can’t replace us with robots, they will find ways to keep us in chains forever. The arrival of vastly extended human lifespans, should it ever come, will be a sentence of slavery to those humans whose ‘usefulness’ will be measured exactly in how much infirmity-free work they can provide to their billionaire and trillionaire masters. We will either be bred as a class of fungible parts to staff the settlements on Mars, or less likely, find our lifetimes stretched into a deathless infinity of service in underground colonies.
Others seek not infinite lifetimes but literal escape from Earth. Recently, Elon Musk’s girlfriend Grimes tweeted that she was ‘ready to die with the red dirt of Mars beneath my feet’ as if her feet, should her billionaire boyfriend ever establish a colony there, would really touch dirt. Years ago I wrote a short story imagining the last hours of the last person in a failed terraform of Mars; whoever that person will be, it surely won’t be the mother of the richest man on Earth’s child.
It is a pleasant pastime imagining the end of the world as we know it will consist of billionaires shot in the head on the landing strip by limo drivers ordered to take them to their escape pods, but in reality they have already thought about this and are planning ways to keep the service class in their place. Chip implantations, electroshock collars, who knows. They always find a way.
In March news sources reported that Samuel Radha, makeup artist to a host of celebrities including Forbes’s youngest ‘self made’ billionaire Kylie Jenner, had been in a car accident, sustaining injuries that required emergency brain surgery. Jenner, whose money was made flogging makeup via her Instagram account off the back of her family’s celebrity in under three years, has faced backlash arguing she is not really a billionaire (Forbes later estimated for fortune at a mere $700 million) and for not being self made. It seems extraordinary to hold a reality TV star to higher standards regarding financial honesty and nepotism than the previous president was expected to attain, but they do have a point.
Rather than pay for the surgery herself, Jenner - who is estimated to earn $19,000 every hour from her various activities - instead directed fans to Radha’s GoFundMe page where his family were hoping to raise $120,000 to offset surgery and recovery expenses. Jenner’s own contribution was a paltry $5000. A mere 0.0005% of a billion, and substantially less than the $15,000 she paid to grace her toddler daughter Stormi’s arm with a miniature Hermès Kelly handbag.
Opponents of national health care argue that society as a whole needs to step up, suggesting that charity can somehow take the place of well run and managed public programs. But if billionaire Kylie Jenner, whose fortune is arguably attributable entirely from the makeup artists who transformed her from thin-lipped, pasty teenager to the bronzed and beesting-pouted media sensation she has become, can’t even be relied upon to do the right thing, what makes them think anyone else will? It isn’t simply that Kylie in particular is greedy. She is, by all available evidence, not a lot different in politics and habit from others of her income bracket. Rather that billionaires as a class give the least and the balance of the check is picked up by the rest of us, whether through GoFundMe or the taxes that the super rich are able to easily dodge.
It would be unfair to single out any one member of the Kardashian/Jenner clan for their complete detachment from the reality of most of their fans’ lives. So consider as well Jenner’s older sister and newly minted billionaire Kim Kardashian, who took to Instagram in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic to brag about hiring a private island for 40th birthday. “After 2 weeks of multiple health screens and asking everyone to quarantine,” she tweeted, “I surprised my closest inner circle with a trip to a private island where we could pretend things were normal just for a brief moment in time.”
Emphasizing, of course, that all of the guests had ‘multiple health screens’ and ‘quarantined’… yet plenty of those guests had been photographed out and about maskless in the weeks leading up to the party, because they live their lives online, that is their occupation. Adding insult to injury in the background of multiple photos of Kim’s unmasked guests, were the many support staff providing hospitality services for the ‘normal’ shindig. They, of course, were fully masked and gloved throughout. Were those people as confident as Kim was about the safety of her bubble? Did she screen their health beforehand, or accept any responsibility should it emerge that her guests may be the cause of their illness? Or is being flung a few coins while the super rich do the bare minimum during a time of global crisis meant to be enough to get us through the worry of contracting a deadly illness? It’s a rhetorical question, of course. They deserve all the vacations and we are supposed to be grateful for crumbs.
The Kardashians are easy targets. I know. But they provide a useful insight into the values and behavior of the super rich. Their laughable, almost kindergarten-level belief that Reality TV is reality is not much different from the ‘tech billionaires’ whose achievements boil down to having been born with the money to pay smarter and more capable people to do stuff you can put your name on. It’s a grift not unique to the age; former president Trump projected the image of success by putting his name in 20-ft high gold letters on things he didn’t even own. Tesla was neither founded by nor benefits from any work directly originating through Elon Musk. There are many such examples.
It says a lot about billionaires that pretending things are normal for a brief moment in time means - indeed, relies upon - risking the health and safety of those made to serve them. What Kardashians do on private islands now, Trump and Siegel have been doing at resorts for decades, and the successors to Musk and Thiel will do on Martian colonies later.
The beauty of Internet Stan culture means for every person calling out the tone-deaf event on social media, there were dozens more quick to the Kardashian klan’s defense, saying they earned the money and can spend it however they like. I’ll repeat: billionaires are allowed free time at the expense of poors, and poor people log on to defend this. I’m amazed anyone provides these services for free; as an escort I was at least paid to pretend to like rich people.
’They can spend it how they want, they EARNED it’ is the rallying cry of the Stan, living vicariously through the constantly streamed, ‘grammed, and Tik Toked images of the superrich enjoying what is for most of us unattainable luxury, especially during a pandemic - a birthday party with family.
I am more guilty than most of being an early contributor to the online illusion of reality that now bombards us at all times every day, but “earned”? Fuck me sideways, the Kardashians are not even whores, they do not even fuck well for their money, as anyone who’s had the dubious pleasure of witnessing the sex tape that started it all can attest. Much less dig a ditch, mop a floor, or any of the almost limitless jobs people are paid far too little to do while this lot famous for their makeup don’t even do their own makeup.
A few years ago the doyennes of Luxury Communism Twitter could not stop raving about the Kardashians, about something something surviving under capitalism, but let’s call this clan what it is truly: parasites. Neither more nor less so than the rest of the Forbes rich list, most of whom do not typically parade their Let Them Eat Cake bona fides with such oblivious lack of grace as Kim, Kylie and the rest of the krew. But they are out living like the pandemic never happened all the same. Taking the holidays we have neither the time, money, nor on-tap medical screening to afford. Glimpses of their luxurious existence is considered enough reward for us. We make do vicariously through their surgically enhanced and photoshopped lives.
Meanwhile in Central Florida, a decade after the documentary about David Siegel and his family's white elephant of a house, Versailles still sits empty. I am fascinated by photographs of the empty shell bordering a fringe of Cypress swamp. It can barely be above sea level. My father's house was only 12 feet above sea level, also close to a swamp. Someday a hurricane season will come that will wipe them both out.
It reminds me of one of my father’s sayings. Nobody deserves what they get, nobody gets what they deserve.
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