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Thursday, May 12, 2005


Letters — I get letters. And some of them ask me for advice. Now generally I'm too busy living my own life for me to live yours for you, certainly on an unpaid basis. But on occasion I receive an inquiry so poignant that I feel a deep inner calling to respond as a service to the community — not to be confused with Community Service, which I am pleased to say I completed in the wake of what I now prefer to call simply the regrettable Milwaukee events. Readers whose queries appear in this space are of course free to disregard my counsel, just as in the final analysis we all have the right to confused, backward, even abject lives. In this regard I gladly offer myself as a role model. Dear Keith: My elderly father is being kept alive by artificial means: he takes heart medicine. Dad has no quality of life to speak of. He spends his waking hours watching a continuous loop of a 1996 episode of The McLaughlin Group, shouting obscenities whenever John McLaughlin talks over any of his guests. This means Dad has become pretty much a continuous fount of profanity. Plus, he has psoriosis, and uses salve. If he didn't use the salve, he would scratch. Maybe scratch himself to death. Where's the dignity in that? (That's just a rhetorical question — my advice-seeking question follows.) Last Thanksgiving, my father took one look at his TV dinner (which I took great pains not to thaw before cooking — not just because that's what the instructions said, but also, you know, as an attentive son) and proceeded to stab at an asparagus spear with his fork while shouting, "I hate asparagus, I've always hated asparagus, why do you keep giving me asparagus!" Naturally, I took this to mean: "I wouldn't want to live like a vegetable." It goes without saying this food group is what he has been reduced to by continuous exposure to Eleanor Cliff, plus the gooey indignity of the salve. When dad becomes history (the very thought fills me with grief etc.), I will inherit his sizeable fortune. One of my goals is to improve the quality of my life by buying a Porsche. But enough about me. My real concern is what's best for dad. Question: Would it be a "conflict of interest" for me to take away his medicine, which might be considered a feeding tube? —Broke in Bolinas Dear Broke: You're quite right to focus on the medicine — it prolongs your father's misery in the most insidious ways. In a recent poll of humanist ethicists (redundant!), a majority agreed that throwing an aging, obsolete (oops, there I go again) parent from a stone wall is more humane than a post-useful person having to endure endless iterations of John McLaughlin calling for the "exit question." The salve is but an additional ... indignity I think was your word. Speaking of exits, you will want to get a court to sign off before taking steps to ease your father's transition to a Cliff-free zone. Your concern about conflicts of interest is well taken, but you'll be pleased to learn that the Schiavo case established fairly wide latitude in this regard. For instance, consider an attorney who claims to hate religious zealots but who writes a book recounting tales of souls of disabled people who request that he help them slip their mortal coils. Furthermore, consider a superior court judge with longstanding ties to the hospice where Terri expired, which judge chooses not to consider afadavits of witnesses whose tiresome blathering about alternative diagnoses might slow the coil slipping process. And then, there's the odd timing of Michael Schiavo's attorney's campaign contribution to the judge in the case. If these interlocking relational factors don't constitute a conflict of interest, anything short of your taking a Scott Peterson approach on your dad's behalf is likely to find you on solid legal ground. Savvy? From your understandable reference to the Porsche (way cool wheels, dude) I discern that you may hope to cut costs. Accordingly, consider making use of a small claims court as a way to save both money and time. (I'm sure we can all agree from the Schiavo case: keeping the lawyers at a distance is best.) If you're lucky enough to live in Florida, you can speed things even further by stopping by a local public library and asking for an "E-Z Go" coupon. They'll explain how to proceed. Bring your library card for identification. (Note: An unresolved Florida technicality precludes the possibility of the compassionate termination of a blood relative until overdue library fees are paid in full. So be a good citizen: Fess up and pay up!) If you have any remaining questions, I suggest that you pick up a copy of Klaus von Bulow's spine-chilling yet tender memoir of his own years of existential inconvenience, With a Nudge and a Wink: Say No More, Sunny. Broke, my heart goes out to you. I used to drive a Ford Escort that burned oil. I also share your sentiments about asparagus. (Yecch!) However, in the interest of precision, let me be clear that I'm talking literally about that particular item of food. Please spread the word so as to reduce the chances that enthusiastic hospice workers might misinterpret my views about vegetables as an invitation to make an undesired house call. I'm not ready for any personal coil slipping at this time! — Keith