Dying For Attention: A Graphic Memoir of Nursing Home Care. Susan MacLeod. Conundrum Press. Quebec. 2021. 184pp. $20
Attention all hipsters, know-it-alls, and the like: We are all growing old and will die. Yes, it’s as simple as that. Now, a book like this may inspire utter dismissal by some self-appointed taste-makers and aspiring trend-setters, but the book I present to you is, without a doubt, a book anyone will benefit from and, yes, it is a worthy book to anyone who cherishes what the comics medium is capable of. Yep, that’s one of the driving forces for what I’m all about, sharing with you comics that are really worth a hoot. One way or another, we are all going to die. It’s the ultimate equalizer. If we care about social justice, then we must care about issues related to aging.
Aging is somebody else’s problem until it’s not. Parents in need of care can become an abstraction; a project that needs to eventually be confronted. All the while, we seem to forget that we’re all going to die. That reality should humble us. Susan MacLeod has created a book that answers a lot of questions through words and pictures on nursing home care by way of her involvement in the industry and her own personal experience with her mother and the long-term care system. MacLeod’s hand-drawn cartoons bring life and levity to this serious subject and even offer hope.
MacLeod’s approach is part whimsical James Thurber, mystical John Porcellino, and part concise reportage via sketchnoting: brief drawings and text that get to the point fast. It is a hybrid of graphic memoir and the emerging genre known as Graphic Medicine, comics focusing on medical issues. I offer up the term, personal Graphic Medicine. In the hands of MacLeod, it all adds up to an immersive and informative experience. The narrative kicks into gear with brutal honesty as MacLeod paints a picture of growing up in a highly dysfunctional family. As a child, she felt so marginalized by her parents that her way of coping was to repeatedly beat up her little brother. While the image of a big sister slugging her smaller sibling is a classic comics trope, the reality of such an exchange is dark to put it mildly. MacLeod acknowledges this and doubles down by showing how this messed up dynamic has haunted her to the present day. To her credit, she follows this line of inquiry to illustrate the potential challenges that can face a family navigating the labyrinthine world of assisted-living with its myriad of limitations. It requires real determination and a united family front certainly helps.
The title of the book, Dying for Attention, speaks not only to the ongoing struggle of elders to be heard amid bureaucracy but to MacLeod’s own journey to find a voice. Going back to when MacLeod was a child, she had a passion for drawing that was repeatedly discouraged by her mother. Drawing was her outlet, within a dysfunctional family, and she never let it go. Back then, she managed to gain attention through bad behavior which resulted in the wrong kind of attention, like her father slapping her across the face. Fast forward to the present, MacLeod is modest about her comics, as she shares in the book’s acknowledgements page. But the fact is that many authorities in comics support this book, including The Center for Cartoon Studies and various notable creatives, like comic artist Colleen MacIsaac. MacLeod’s work has a deceptively simple vibe to it, akin to the energy in a doodle. However, it’s one thing to doodle and quite another, as MacLeod does, to sustain an offbeat style. Add to that a compelling need to create. It was only after her mother’s death at 99, after a nine-year journey with her mom and nursing home care, that MacLeod reached back to her fine arts background (yes, she did end up going to art school) and set out to share her story with words and pictures. She wanted a format that would allow her to share such a heavy subject with a certain amount of levity.
Doodles are complex: enlisted as anti-art tools (look up Sunni Brown); or part of an artist’s palette. MacLeod spikes her doodle-like style, loads it and mixes it. The results are in her pacing and flourishes: the way she hurls a character through space; or the way she evokes transition. So, it is within this relatively simple, or accessible, style, that MacLeod masterfully boils down facts and insights gathered from books, her own interviews, and her own experience in the trenches. Her career was in public relations for the Canadian Health Department where she learned the hard way that spin is everything. She endured the wrath of the government when she dared to include in a public statement that there’s a waiting period of at least six months for elders seeking public nursing home care. In the meantime, they are kept in hospital, where they are less than welcome, known as “bed blockers.” MacLeod comes back to this term in her narrative, fully aware of its visceral effect, putting her skills in using concise language to good use. That is MacLeod’s appeal for me. It’s not bravura drawing skills. And, let’s be honest, skills are only part of it. Moomin, for example, is not an incredible work of art, per se, and yet there’s something endearing, worth staying with. I think MacLeod not only has her heart in the right place but she demonstrates to me a genuine need to share what she knows and make it compelling and accessible. While some cartoonists inspire suspicion in me, I don’t get that from MacLeod.
It’s actually not an easy thing to draw in an easy style. People often think they can completely lean into an easy style and just sleepwalk their way through. It doesn’t work that way. Pitfalls range from generic mush to a style that is too slick and formulaic. I don’t want to put too fine a point on it but I think MacLeod’s determination and sincerity serve her well with a style that has integrity. It’s a simple comic strip vibe punctuated with a heightened sense of whimsy here or a smart hint of perspective there. On one page, for example, one panel sums up denial quite aptly: MacLeod is racing up a flight of stairs pulling her frail and disoriented mother along behind her, who is flying like a rag doll. It’s not a “great” drawing and yet it is real and it is memorable.
MacLeod’s most ambitious motif has to do with the notorious call bell, which demonstrates the ongoing struggle her mother was having in alerting the nursing home front office about her needs. First, her little buzzer, the call bell, kept being placed out of her reach. Later, it became obvious that the staff was avoiding her buzzing. For MacLeod, this became a game of trying to figure out the nursing home culture. All this avoidance of buzzers was taking its toll on the quality of life of both residents and staff. Spoiler alert: MacLeod does find a way out of this mess. She discovers a technique which has staff regularly ask residents about their needs. By the time MacLeod is wrapping up her book, she switches from depicting her mother as a cartoon character to a more realistic rendering. The very last drawing is of her dead mother with one hand as if frozen in time, as if holding a call bell.
Keeping a tally of all the slights and missteps she must endure, MacLeod provides an uncanny report from the nursing home front lines. No curt or rude remark goes unnoticed. Each is duly noted and followed by the recurring question, Who taught this person this is the way to respond? No wrongful act goes unnoticed. For instance, when MacLeod discovers her mother’s soiled underwear in her mother’s hospital closet. This leads to a page in the book devoted to a chart that follows the chain of events. Apparently, it all comes down to a recurring problem: a breakdown in communication. And, finally, no problem-solving conversation goes unnoticed. Whether based on various meetings with small groups or interviews with experts, MacLeod consistently mines for golden bits of wisdom. For example, a popular refrain from politicians is to gut public funding for administrators when, in fact, it is going to take funds to attract the best administrators to tackle systemic problems and make sound public policy.
In lieu of any all-encompassing solutions, the answers to how to deal with a parent in a nursing home come right back to the child. MacLeod learned the hard way that it takes every inch of self-awareness one can muster to see it through. MacLeod’s mother wasn’t going to change and suddenly become more affectionate. MacLeod’s brother wasn’t going to change and suddenly become more cooperative. And all the other factors in the world that one could blame, from the patriarchy to ageism, they weren’t going to change suddenly either. In the end, MacLeod had to rely upon herself first in order to move forward.
MacLeod’s book is going to help many readers in search of a better understanding of what’s involved when a parent needs nursing home care. It’s not an easy process and it never really ends. In broader terms, MacLeod’s book offers insights into the search for wellness in general through self-discovery and an appreciation of what it takes to live a worthwhile life.
Seattle Focus: The Celebrated Return of RON and DON
Seattle’s Ron and Don – The Protectors of the People
Guest column by Jennifer Daydreamer
Any study of pop culture would not be complete without a look at talk show culture. Let’s take a look at Seattle’s Ron and Don. Followers of the former Ron and Don Show on KIRO would attest to the program’s integrity. They now have their own DIY podcast! These two cool dudes take up causes with honest discussion. In fact, I am knighting them, “The Protectors of the People.” Now, why such a lofty title? Because they have a knack for seeing an injustice before any of the local news media does. I am not kidding. Even if the media reports a story, Ron and Don are the ones who know how to put all the moving parts together.
Case in point: the homeless crisis in Seattle. About ten years ago, long before the TV news reported that there are illegal encampments and any ramifications of crime, Don and Ron talked about these issues. They walked around their neighborhoods, scoping things out. They decided to just go to the RVs camped out and talk to the people there. They said, quite emphatically, that many of the tenants are good people and being homeless is crushing. And yes, of course, that homelessness is not a crime. They talked quite a lot about volunteering at homeless shelters and how the listener can help. They also talked to policemen and firemen and they were really concerned, warning Seattle had a real problem it was not addressing. They said that there is a subset of the homeless population, not the majority by any means, but that there is this subset that is doing drugs and selling and stealing and they had weapons and they don’t care about you, nor your family and your kids. They said “We are really worried about this. We talked to the mayor and we talked to the council and no one is doing anything about it.”
I remember their warnings so clearly. I told myself that the mayor would step in if things got this unsafe for citizens, in the very least, the governor would step in. Cut to today. Based on my own crime experiences, and my friends and strangers I have spoken to, we are now all living their warnings.
Crime in Seattle has steadily risen in recent years. Regarding crime, it’s not the same Seattle from even just ten years ago. The discussion now is not about crime by the unhoused or by drug addicts or by the housed, it’s just about crime, man. That’s the bottom line. Here are some recent basic facts: The overall crime rate in Seattle is 115% higher than the national average. For every 100,000 people, there are 16.14 daily crimes that occur in Seattle. Seattle is safer than 7% of the cities in the United States.
In case you don’t know, California arrests for .3 grams of any hardcore drug while Seattle does not. Hardcore drugs are illegal here but police have stopped arresting as attorneys are not prosecuting the way they do in a lot of states, including California. Experts say that when you don’t arrest for hard drugs, it creates a lot of chaos in a society. Seattle police feel their hands are tied with red tape. Another way to put it, California is a liberal state and Seattle proper at least, is very far left by comparison on how it enacts its law and order.
Seattle media is very disjointed and it makes it difficult to find the truth. There are a lot of hard-working journalists out there but a lot of stories that should be common knowledge fall through the cracks. Many people know we have a homeless crisis but have no idea the crisis is cloaking “crime in general” activity. In other words, concerns about theft, break-ins and assault are looked upon as “complaints against the homeless” when people just want basic safety. That’s really what people want, including safety for the unhoused or homeless (choose your adjective) but all the moving parts of this BIGGER PICTURE are getting mixed up. There is in-fighting and sidetracks and name-calling and it’s really about grounding Seattle. Get the basic safety in place and then everyone can continue with improvements. Part of the problem is the fact that we are basically a one paper town. The Seattle Times does a good job, sometimes a great job, at reporting. But, it’s not enough. We need commentators like Ron and Don more than ever to keep us all informed with their natural point/counterpoint type of coverage. I am rooting for their continued success.
Be sure to listen and support the new Ron and Don Show.
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