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An Old Friend in Her Eighties

A dear friend in her eighties had been in and out of hospitals and nursing homes for a few years, every stay more life threatening and leaving her weaker. She had congestive heart failure, frequent pneumonias, respiratory failure, diabetes, and poor circulation, and was so debilitated that it was difficult for her to stand, even with a walker, and she had trouble making it to the potty on time. Yet, in many ways, she remained what she had always been: feisty, opinionated, trusting only in her own judgment.


She at first dealt with her declining health by fighting with doctors, so a visit or a telephone call meant hearing about the incompetence of the medical staff. They hadnít read her chart or come on time or explained a new medication or coordinated with one another. I and my wife and her god-son, who are her only family because she never married, were faulted for not having been quick enough to catch or correct the mistakes.


Anger, clearly enough, is an irrational but helpful mechanism to use to combat a decline in oneís powers and the inevitability of the end. There is no use, Dylan Thomas says, in going gently into that night. So anger is displaced from the existential situation to people who can be blamed for incompetence, real or imagined, and so it is no use telling the patient that the doctors are doing the best they can. Angry patients, so the studies show, last longer. Anger keeps the juices flowing and concentrates the mind.


There is more to it than that, though. Joan Gordon had been, for many years, the chair of the Sociology Department at Quinnipiac University, where I taught since she brought me there a few years after she organized the department. Even in her frail state, she was capable of pulling rank. Her anger and criticisms were a way of saying she was not inferior to the medical people, and therefore could not be treated like a radio brought in for servicing. She had taught courses on medical sociology and so thought herself capable of holding her own with doctors because she understood the way medical organizations and the medical profession worked. She held them all to account for how they should treat her as a patient, never mind whether they knew more medicine than she did.


Of late, however, she had not been tracking conversations too well and so it had become difficult for her to probe medical people about her drugs or diagnoses or about her appointment schedule with specialists. Now, she expected my wife to manage her medical affairs.


My wife knew her before I did. Joan was a professor of hers at college and, among other things, led her to study sociology rather than history. Joanís lectures opened Janeís eyes on how to systematically explore the aspects of social life, such as stratification and voting behavior, which historians of the time barely touched upon. Now, after forty years of friendship, Jane called twice a day and visited as much as her job allowed, doing as much as she could to appease Joanís sense that Jane was not doing enough, while I tell Jane that there is just so much you can do in the face of the Grim Reaper. That is, I suppose, my own rational way of dealing with the conflict between people and deathóor is that just another irrational form of solace?


When I would go to visit or telephone, Joan was on her best behavior. She wanted to know what my kids and grandkids were up to. She also wanted to know the latest faculty gossip at Quinnipiac, an institution to which she remained devoted. She wants to know what I am teaching in my courses, and still occasionally tells me that I am misconstruing the material, just as she had done ever since I came to Quinnipiac. Joan tries to appear to me as a competent person, not burdened down by her illnesses, carrying on a normal conversation interspersed, as those are, with usual pleasantries.


Jane had it tougher than I did during this period of Joanís confinement. She heard the complaints, the anger, the whining. She is supposed to make things right. She and Joan are part of the secret society of women who hide their physical frailties from men and who desire to appear both competent and attractive in front of men. Or at least that is the way I, in my muddle-headed male way, construe it.


A family crisis developed over whether Joan should go home. She very much wanted to do so. Jane and I did not think it a good idea. She was much too frail. She would need round the clock nursing and it would not be easy to get her back and forth to her medical appointments. She is more secure at the nursing home, where people drop into her room regularly to fluff a pillow or see to her meds or give her some physical therapy or just to chat. She can as well watch television in the nursing home room as she can at home. She says she wants to go home to pet the cats and have a scotch. Well, the cats are long dead and she no longer drinks scotch. We tell her what she used to tell us: there is no way to run a one bed nursing home.


My daughter Joan, who was named after Joan Gordon, and who now has two children of her own, thought Jane and I were being too negative. The younger Joan is a social worker and thought that Joan Gordon was entitled to try for one last accomplishment, which was to go home for however brief a time that might be before care arrangements or her health fell apart and landed her in the hospital for one last time, even if the return home lasted for only forty-eight or seventy-two hours. Joan Gordon, at any rate, was adamant that this was her decision, not ours, and we agree with that, however poorly she performs on her mental evaluation tests (subtract backwards; use these words in a sentence). All we could do was seek to dissuade her.


Prompted to think about these things by Joanís failing health, Jane told the children she wants them to shoot her before she gets to that stage. She was very serious. I am, as my personality requires, slightly more open minded, though really shedding responsibility just as much. I imagine the kids squabbling about when they pull the plug. At that point, I will no longer be an interested party, just a radio on the shelf, as Erving Goffman might say, no longer capable of being repaired, ready for the garbage dump. I still donít know if what Jane and I were saying is empty rhetoric or not. 


Joan Gordon did come home. She had a wonderful few weeks. She felt much better, took up her old habits of grilling me about contemporary politics, and nagged everyone about how they could live their lives better. It was all, I suspect, the effect of being in her home surroundings. Then she started to deteriorate rather quickly, even though she had full time home care and a number of people to run her errands. Maybe she wasnít monitoring her own medications properly. Maybe the effect of being home had worn off.  At my last visit, she said she would see me the following week, if she were still here. My daughter was right; Joan Gordon had accomplished what she set out to do. She died a few days later in her own bed in her own house.


I presided at the funeral just as I had done at Joan Gordonís motherís funeral in Indiana some ten years before, when my then teenage daughter had accompanied us to give Joan Gordon some emotional support. So I knew what she wanted at a funeral, which was a secular ceremony with a few poems and a eulogy that did not intrude on the privacy of the deceased. Joan Gordon did not have much taste for religion; she thought Jesus must have been a nice man, but that was about it. I could fill that bill.


I began by telling about that trip to Indiana. We had met a number of friends of the deceased who had also been elementary school teachers in the days of normal school education when only widows or maiden ladies were hired to teach elementary school, whether because they could be paid less than men, or because they were less sexually sophisticated and so appropriate for their little charges, or both. That is where I think Joan Gordon, raised by Vera Gordon, her widowed mother, and a grandmother, because her father had died young, developed her sense of the sorority of women, turning herself into a latter day bluestocking for emotional more than practical reasons.


Joan wrote articles in her later years that appeared in the Bluffton (Indiana) News that were based in part on her motherís diaries. They recounted what it was like to go to high school at the time of the First World War, and what it was like to come to New York with her mother just before the Second World War so that Vera Gordon could get an advanced degree in elementary education at Teachers College to meet the new educational standards. She remembers her mother repeating that a professor in the summer program told the students that they should go to museums and the theatre and wander around New York City because the more they themselves learned the more they would have to offer their students. It is my impression that candidates for certification as elementary school teachers no longer get that advice; they are trained, instead, in child psychology and in learning theory and in how to maintain classroom discipline. 


Joan Gordon went to college in Rockville, Illinois, and then received an M.A. in sociology from the University of Chicago, then a highly qualitative department. After the war, she was a member of that great set of graduate students produced by Robert Merton and Paul Lazarsfeld at Columbia University. She knew Rose and Louis Coser, and Peter Blau, and Marty Lipset. She herself worked with the grand old man of qualitative sociology, Robert Lynd, who wrote Middletown and Middletown Revisited, to my mind still two of the best books ever produced by American sociology.


Lynd thought the world of Joan and thought her dissertation, on the way family capital was passed down through the generations of the Livingston family, was a vindication of his career as a qualitative sociologist. (I know that this was the case because I have seen his comments to her about her dissertation.) She showed how the Livingston family was careful to arrange its marriages and to give only seed money to a member of the next generation until he could show he had the right stuff, the same sort of thing that is true in John Marquandís H.M. Pullman, Esq. and with the Coreleones. That way, the Livingstons were able to transition their wealth from its basis in the land grants along the Hudson Valley that they received from King James II through the financing of Robert Fultonís steamboat a century and a half later through the transition into commercial banking, the Livingstons vital in the founding of the Bank of Manhattan, which merged just a quarter century or so ago with Chase. Joan, though, was never able to follow through by turning her dissertation and her interest in historical sociology into books and articles, and so she wound up, in the late Sixties, teaching at Quinnipiac, which had just been transformed from a business school into a general four year college.


After having taught at Vassar College, where my future wife was her student, and thought her one of the best teachers she ever had, able to lay out the argument for sociological causation with the rigor she had learned from her own teachers, the students she met at Quinnipiac provided a different sort of challenge. She told me years later that she had picked herself up off the floor after the first few sessions of her courses fell flat and tried to find something and some methods of presentation that the students would find appealing. At this, by all reports (student evaluations and informal remarks offered by students to other faculty, as well as classroom observations) she was very successful. I have a set of transcribed lectures (something very rare in the academic world) of a course of hers in medical sociology. She is very good at conducting a conversation, introducing sociological concepts that will clarify the conversation, whether it is about the isolation of patients in a hospital or how to deal with the unequal authority of the doctor and the patient, while allowing the students to think that they have come up with these ideas, and then clearly summarizing what the discussion has accomplished. These techniques were unnecessary at Vassar where the students could more or less take the abstractions straight.


The main thing I learned from her when I joined the faculty was her view on how to teach college students who are less than elite. She spent faculty meetings for the department going around the room asking people how well they were getting across the concepts of bureaucracy or social stratification in introductory sociology, and she advised me on which topics I should cover in my advanced courses. I was at first taken aback by this apparent violation of academic freedom, and came to realize that Joan did not think course content was a matter of academic freedom at all; it was a matter of good teaching practice: what images or analogies, what string of questions, would help get a concept across and what material should every student know about and what paperbacks were popular enough to engage their interests and their level of reading ability and still have enough content to provide a sociological perspective rather than just, say, make you feel sorry for the poor. The week before she died she wanted to make sure that I talked about the Great Depression in my course on Business and Government and that my students knew how hard it was to live on what the Bureau of Labor Statistics considers a poverty level budget.


Joan showed the same due diligence with regard to faculty members not in her department, most of whom had also been trained at fancy universities and had wound up at Quinnipiac and had no experience at dealing with students who were able enough but just not very inquisitive and so had passed into college without having their minds sullied by thought and so unequipped with the skills they needed to do that when called upon to do so. Joan and some other key faculty members hectored us all into inventing ways to jump start these students. An English Professor did spelling bee type contests to see how many details of a novel the students remembered. You canít analyze the meaning of a novel if you donít know what happened in it. I used the nuptials column from the Sunday New York Times to illustrate how social stratification worked. People marry people from their own social backgrounds; people go beyond the occupations of their parents or go into the same occupations, and so on. Joan had all students in Freshman Sociology do family trees so as to show the interrelated impact of ethnicity and social class on their livesóas well as the fact that the number of children went down over the course of generations. Why would that be? It happened before the Pill came on the scene.


Her concerns with these students were no different from the ones she had with the Vassar girls, because it was her view that everyone had to learn these things in order to become good citizens. That was the purpose she gave to college education, though I think she got it from the liberal rhetoric of the Thirties rather than from John Dewey. She saw that as a distinctive goal. Education was not to train the mind or make it cultured or prepare people for jobs or graduate school. It was to make students aware of what was going on in the world, to think critically about that because they knew something about history, about social structure, and about statistical findings. Students at non-elite schools were no different from students at elite schools because all of them needed a grounding in how the world really worked, whether their biases were those of the students who sometimes came from the wealthy families described in sociology classes, or whether they came from lower middle class families and so were ready to see conspiracies everywhere. A student once told me I was not being cynical enough when I said the basic price of oil, though not the price of spot oil, was set by supply and demand rather than by corporate executives who might well be crooked, but not in that respect.


Joan Gordon was an intensely political person, politics serving as her substitute for religion, I think, just as the high culture of Shakespeare and Mozart and Conrad is a substitute for some people while Darwinism is the substitute for those others who fill their heads with dinosaurs and early humans scratching out a living after emerging onto the African plains. She had never joined the Communist Party, she once told me, because she had never been asked, though she thought highly of them in the Thirties. I think she would not ever have joined because she was never militant enough. Her basic political sense was that of John Locke, as that was tempered by the British Socialist writers of the Thirties and Forties. People could cooperate with one another if they just knew enough about one anotherís conditions and put their minds to it. When I would tell her that drivers sped (I was thinking of myself) so that they could cut a few minutes off their trip home, she told me that she did not think of driving as an expression of antagonism but as an example of cooperation. Drivers deferred to one another all the time so as to avoid accidents.


She was drenched in politics. She supported Henry Wallace in 1948 and was active on the Vassar Campus, working enthusiastically for John Kennedy, which is when so many people of my generation thought there was a chance for politics to be the expression of the intelligent class, rather than the way it had been with Eisenhower, when politics was an expression of mainstream America. As a teacher of mine told me at the time, Kennedy was not all that intellectual; promoting high culture was just one of the things he thought he had to do. Joan Gordon, however, was not interested in such snobbish matters. She thought Kennedy would push civil rights and help the poor. We were both mistaken. But she drove the young Jane down to the March on Washington in her red Corvette. (Not knowing Jane at the time, I went down by bus with a Harlem church group.)


The third thing that characterized Joan Gordon, aside from politics and teaching, was that she was an amateur social worker. She helped friends fill out medical insurance forms, which is no easy thing. She once called an insurance firm to ask them to refund her an extra dollar that someone was due, and when asked why this was worth the bother, she said it is worth it for every last cent. She thought that might make the insurance companies act more responsibly in enforcing their own procedures, but she doubted it. She also helped immigrants navigate both the immigration service and the local school system and also, when some young man got in trouble with the law, the criminal justice system.


She also helped people move their belongings from one house to another, taught children how to cook (she was a wonderful cook) and gave advice on how to live your life and how to take care of your pets (she had a way with cats). I know that Joan wanted to help people partly so that they would need her and so allow her to be part of their lives and so they part of hers. But the acts transcended the functions of the relationship and made the relationships wonderful for themselves alone. I know that for a good part of my life I was part of Joan Gordonís case load and I am grateful for it.

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Issue No. 77
December 22, 2013

"The Moonstone" as an Aesopian Novel- Part I
"The Moonstone" as an Aesopian Novel-Part II
Earlier Issues

List Articles by Topic

The Political Ticker
The Hillary Coalition
  - November 19, 2014
Obama's Win in the Ukraine
  - April 5, 2014
"House of Cards" Politics
  - February 14, 2014
Birenbaum: The Day the President Struck Out
  - January 29, 2014
The Debate Over Inequality
  - January 27, 2014
Temporary Issues: "Stop and Frisk", Climate Change, Inequality
  - January 21, 2014

Previous Political Tickers

The Administrative President
  -January 12, 2014
Three Chronic Problems
  -December 19, 2013
Obama the Transformational President
  -December 13, 2013
"Homeland", "Alpha House" and the Tea Party
  -November 27, 2013
Off Year Election Post-mortem
  -November 7, 2013
Kathleen Sibelius and the Iliad
  -October 31, 2013
Political Impasses: 2013 and 1936
  -October 7, 2013
Birenbaum on The Tea Party
  -October 6, 2013
Fifty Years Later: The Anniversary of the March on Washington
  -September 18, 2013
The Principled Obama
  -September 10, 2013
Obama Thinks About Syria Freshly
  -September 5, 2013
Syria and the Falklands
  -August 30, 2013
Public Opinion on Syria
  -August 24, 2013
Upward Mobility Through Educational Innovation
  -August 12, 2013
The Anthony Wiener Bubble
  -July 30, 2013
Racial Issues in 2013
  -June 29, 2013
The David Brinkley Era of Journalism
  -June 5, 2013
Republican Scandal Mongering
  -May 23, 2013
Benghazi and Two Other "Scandals"
  -May 14, 2013
Lackluster Politics
  -May 7, 2013

The Cultural Ticker
A Dour Cultural Week
  - February 4, 2014
Colonial Virginia
  - January 15, 2014
Birenbaum: The Joy of Middle European Posters
  - January 6, 2014
A Jewish Nipple
  - November 28, 2013
Birenbaum: My Oral Comprehensive Examination and the JFK Assassination
  - November 27, 2013
"12 Years a Slave"
  - November 12, 2013

Previous Cultural Tickers

Pinter and Shakespeare
  -November 8, 2013
Birenbaum on "I Am Divine"
  -November 3, 2013
The Hearing Impaired Student
  -August 17, 2013
Ideas and People
  -August 10, 2013
The Weekly Roundup of Morning Joe and Chris Matthews
  -August 8, 2013
The Zen of Dishwashers
  -August 5, 2013
The Profundity of the Second World War
  -August 2, 2013
The Trayvon Martin Bubble
  -July 20, 2013
Eliot Spitzer
  -July 9, 2013
The Study of Everyday Life
  -July 5, 2013
The Zimmerman Trial
  -July 3, 2013
Le Carre's "A Delicate Truth"
  -July 1, 2013
Zucker: A Madeleine (A Memoir)
  -June 23, 2013
Von Trotta's "Hannah Arendt"
  -June 7, 2013
The Armchair View of War and Disability
  -May 30, 2013
Birenbaum's Summers
  -May 24, 2013
Old Neighborhoods
  -May 21, 2013
Jackie Robinson
  -May 20, 2013
Barbara Spun's Catskill Vacations
  -May 16, 2013
An Old Friend in Her Eighties
  -May 11, 2013


A new issue of “w. end ave.: an e-journal of culture and politics” is published once every three weeks or so. It is edited, owned, and where not indicated as otherwise, written by Martin Wenglinsky. The rights to all materials published here are copyright © 2008 by Martin Wenglinsky