Friday, January 17, 2014

Just Like Dylan Thomas....

I do not know Robert Kessler.  I have laid eyes on him though - courtesy of the humorous and poignant blog he writes in which he documents his battle against stage IV non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.  His blog is rather cheekily entitled, "Cancer?  I Hardly Knew Her!"  You can check it out here:

Kessler is a bit of a newbie to the battle against cancer.  And by that I mean nothing more than he only received his diagnosis of lymphoma on December 3, 2013.  I mean neither disrespect nor to make light of what is a very serious health situation.  Today marks the forty-fifth day since he was diagnosed.  Shit, the disease is still under warranty for f*ck's sake.  I hope for him as I hope for everyone who is attacked by one form or another of this horrible, insidious disease, which is nothing less than a full recovery and a long, healthy life.  Fortunately for him, his medical care is entrusted to skilled medical professionals at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan and not to some aging, science-deficient asshat who earns his living practicing law across the river on the Jersey side and who bears a sadly uncanny resemblance to Yours truly.

Since he earns his living as a writer, Kessler has found it therapeutic to write about his experience with his disease - hence the creation of his blog.  However, not wanting to subject anyone to reading something that he or she might find offensive or depressing he informs those who stop by his blog, "Read it or don't; I've got other things to worry about. Specifically, lymphoma.

Earlier this week he took up the fight for Lisa Adams.  Ms. Adams - who I do not know - has spent the past seven years documenting her battle against metastasized breast cancer on Twitter.  True confession time:  Until I read Kessler's blog entry from January 14, 2014 I not only had never heard Ms. Adams's name, I did not realize that Twitter had existed for at least seven years.  You can follow her here:  

While doing something that remains intensely personal to her - even while sharing it with the world at large via Twitter - Lisa Adams managed to run afoul of two holier-than-thou, self-appointed and card-carrying members of the Legion of Decency who, as luck would have it happen to be married to one another.  Perhaps whoever coined the phrase "Misery Loves Company" also has an interest in the dating service that completed the love connection for Bill and Ella Keller.  Ella Keller writes for The Guardian ( and in a column that she wrote last week, which apparently generated so much backlash that her employer removed it from its website, she assailed Ms. Adams for doing what she is doing.  Apparently "move along there is nothing to see here" never was a concept taught at Ms. Keller's British prep school.  Too bad.  

Bill Keller, who spent almost a decade as the Executive Editor of the New York Times and presently is employed as an Op-Ed Columnist at the paper, weighed in with his own preachy, condescending and - in the opinion of more than one reader - more than slightly inappropriate attack on Ms. Adams - all in apparent response to the rather harsh treament his wife had received to her own piece:

When the Times received its own  bundle of angry e-mails and other responses to Keller, B.'s column and its Ombudsman Margaret Sullivan sought input from Keller regarding them, he told her in part:       
Some of the reaction (especially on Twitter, which as a medium encourages reflexes rather than reflection) has been raw, and some (especially in comments posted to the article online, where there is space for nuance) has been thoughtful and valuable. I tried to be clear in the column that I respect Lisa Adams’s choices, and I meant it. I wish every cancer victim could have those options – to fight with all the resources of medicine, or not. By living her disease in such a public way, by turning her hospital room into a classroom, she invites us to think about and debate some big, contentious issues.
I think some readers have misread my point, and some – the most vociferous – seem to believe that anything short of an unqualified “right on, Lisa!” is inhumane or sacrilegious. But I’ve heard from readers who understood the point and found it worth grappling with.

No better way to convince people who are complaining about your status as a patronizing, condescending, insensitive douchebag than the one hundred or so words he opted to employ.  Talk about making one's point for them and doing so emphatically. 

I feel constrained to point out the following - lest anyone mistake my position here for some sort of anti-New York Times bias.  I am in fact a registered Republican but not only do I not have an "anti-Times" bias, there are few journalistic institutions in this country that I have as much regard for as I do the Times.  An argument can be made that if more time was spent reading the New York Times and less time was spent watching the life-like exploits of the Kardashians or the Duck Dynasty clan our collective IQ would rise perceptibly. 

A lifetime ago, when my father was an educator working in New York City he taught Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. Mr. Sulzberger has been the Publisher of the Times since 1992.  He succeeded his father in that position.  I shall defer to my oldest brother Bill on this but I believe that he and Mr. Sulzberger were either classmates or at the very least contemporaries at the school where my father taught.   As a general rule, I enjoy being able to mention in casual conversation that Dad once taught the Publisher of the New York Times.  Gives the old man a little street cred and even we are almost three and one half decades removed from his death, a little street cred is always a valuable commodity.

More recently and more significantly to me, roughly a quarter-century ago Mom was in very dire financial straits.  Her aunt had died and Mom had been left a rather significant inheritance - in addition to being appointed the Executrix of the Estate.  However, Aunt Nancy died in New York and Mom, knowing nothing about the workings of New York's probate system, found herself being run ragged by the attorney who somehow controlled the process.  He was bleeding the Estate dry and was thwarting Mom's efforts at every turn to get the matter through probate so that the Estate's assets could be disbursed in accordance with Aunt Nancy's wishes. 

This prick had Mom over a barrel - until she sat down and wrote Mr. Sulzberger a letter.  She told him who she was and asked for any help he might be able to provide her.  He called her when he received his letter.  He told her that he had considered himself to be forever in Dad's debt for being the teacher he had been to him.  He told her to rest easy.  He would take care of it.  Less than thirty days after he telephoned her, the matter was resolved in its entirety.  All of her loved ones who Aunt Nancy had wanted taken care of were taken care of, including Mom.  Mr. Sulzberger will always have a place on my Favorite Persons list.  He helped save Mom when - truth be told - no one else could.  And he did it when he had absolutely no obligation to do so.  I have not forgotten it.  I shall never forget it.      

So, in addition to being enthusiastic fans of the New York Times, Bill Keller and I have one other thing in common - whether he realizes it or not.  It is not the place of either of us to tell total strangers how to deal with their own illness.  Moreover it is not the place of either of us to tell total strangers how to live their lives.  As a parent that privilege is reserved solely for our children and then only until they reach the age where they move into their own homes.  We still try to tell them how to live their lives to be sure but now, protected by the dual defenses of distance and invisibility (we can talk to them but not see them), their ability to flip us the bird while smiling and then go off on their merry way increases one thousand fold. 

I know not what the future holds either for Mr. Kessler or Ms. Adams as each deals with their respective illness.  I know however that each absolutely has the right to share their journey with whomever they choose.  And the great thing about the forum each has chosen is that no one who does not want to know what is happening ever has to know.  Neither is going door-to-door like a crazed Fuller Brush man spreading the word.  If you do not want to know, then opt out.  Your right to be free from hearing what either is saying is trumped today - and every day for that matter - by the right each of them possesses to say it.  One might have expected that two people who earn their living in the world of journalism might have a keener appreciation for another's freedom of speech and freedom of expression.   

Those of us who opt in to reading what Mr. Kessler and/or Ms. Adams is up to shall be just fine without a third-party attempting to police our right to do so.  I promise.....

....and for whatever it is worth, Thornton Mellon does too. 


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