How to Sell Guns (and Why!)

(A letter from Senior Diabolic Marketing Executive Gobblescrew to Junior Demonic Marketing Executive Wormscrub—with apologies to C. S. Lewis)

My dear Wormscrub,

Just to sum up—you asked how we foment hatred among humans, so that as many as possible come to us in the end. I explained that one important tactic is to make sure a few of them are much more powerful than all the rest. This guarantees that the vast majority will fear/hate/emulate the powerful few, while the powerful few will reciprocally fear/hate/despise the majority. I also mentioned that, strange though it appears to us, power among most modern humans is represented by money.

You were puzzled about how we get humans to hand their own money to other humans who already have most of the money and power. From my reply, you now know that the answer is marketing—we coach a few humans in how to get everyone else to buy things they don’t really need. And you already know this means that what you’re really selling is not the product itself, but feelings—especially the potent duo of fantasy and fear. Then you camouflage your work with plenty of tried-and-true add-ons, like ad-hominem attacks, either/or fallacies, bandwagon appeals, the strike-out tactic, and other proven techniques.

This letter will give you a practical example of how to do this, showcasing the work of Gall, one of my best (former) students. You’ll learn a lot! 

The AR-15 rifle is once again under fire by gun banners—who ignore the fact that rifles of any kind are seldom used in crime, and seem to despise anyone who dares to own one. Many who are ignorant on firearms even consider the gun a “weapon of war,” suitable for nothing but murder and mayhem.

Tactic: Mostly ad hominem and “straw man.” Convince your audience that anyone who thinks they don’t need this item (a) is ignorant, and (b) despises them. That way, you can make sure your audience never listens to any of the opposition’s real arguments, and you’ve created a safe space for your salesmanship. Calling those people a simplistic name, like “gun-banners,” helps too. It fosters that helpful us-vs-them mentality that ensures we can get people to react with strong negative emotions, never engaging their heads or their hearts. And it doesn’t hurt to equate gun ownership with defiant courage. Gall’s off to a great start!

That couldn’t be further from the truth. Fact is, the AR-15-type rifle is the most popular rifle in America for many reasons.

Tactic: The “bandwagon” argument—tell people that everyone else loves this, so they should too. In fact, what makes any item “the most popular” is usually marketing, not the intrinsic value of the product. So “popular” doesn’t mean “best,” it just means “best-advertised.” A double bonus for Gall, for using the simple fact of previous sales success to justify future sales!


Gun-banners would have you believe the AR-15 isn’t useful for home defense, but they couldn’t be more wrong. NRA commentator and former Navy SEAL Dom Raso, who now trains individuals in self-defense, said it best: “For the vast majority of the people I work with, there is no better firearm to defend their homes against realistic threats than an AR-15 semi-automatic. It’s easy to learn and easy to use. It’s accurate. It’s reliable.” 

Tactic 1: Fear/reassurance. Arouse primitive emotions, especially the sensation of being attacked, and then show the reader how to become strong enough to handle any challenge. It’s basically the same as 1950s comic-book ads for programs to make “98-lb weaklings” into fearless he-men. A classic! And in this newer version, it doesn’t even have to work!

Tactic 2: Appeal to a presumed authority. It helps to have a mutual-benefit relationship with that person. This guy has parlayed his Navy experience into building a company that sells military-style weapons to civilians, so you know you can rely on him for marketing backup.

Tactic 3: Use scary phrases like “realistic threat.” Not, of course, to limit your market to the few those words will apply to! It would be disastrous to get people to think about the chances an armed intruder will really burst into their homes. So don’t! But the mere use of such words will subtly convey the idea to every reader that he or she is threatened. Plant the idea, and let it grow in the dark, unexamined.

NB: For us, the really unwelcome “intruder” is always clear thinking. Make sure no one tries to picture what would actually happen if an armed assailant broke into their house. Of course most humans can’t even keep their reading glasses handy—let alone have a weapon within reach for every unexpected situation. And if they kept it loaded and ready to go within the house, of course the person most likely to be shot would be a member of the household, not a burglar or assassin; so again, always be sure to keep cold hard numbers in a locked cabinet, out of reach of anyone with a bank account. Got that? Good! Moving on!


If you can find a rifle out there that’s more fun than the AR-15 to take to the range and punch some holes in paper, I’m not sure what it would be. From short-range plinking to longer-range precision shooting, the gun is easy to shoot—and easy to hit targets with. And, as you know, nothing’s more fun than hitting what you shoot at.

Tactic: Gall’s using a risky argument; there’s a real chance someone will start laughing. Even gun enthusiasts can probably think quite quickly of several things that are more fun than target shooting. But Gall does a good job of creating a sense of camaraderie (“as you know”) while suggesting that the AR-15 is just a harmless recreational device (“plink”), and that removing it from the market would be downright mean-spirited. Hey, who wants to be a spoilsport?

A particularly neat touch is the way Gall manages to argue both that these rifles are cute toys, and that they are satisfyingly deadly weapons for serious situations.

So far, we’ve been looking at how merely good salesmanship works. Great salesmanship turns your existing customers into an unpaid sales force. Let’s see how it works.


With simple operation and very low recoil, there’s no better rifle to teach youngsters the skill of accurate rifle shooting. The fact that shooting this rifle is easy and tons of fun also makes it great for starting out new shooters, regardless of age. I’ve yet to take a beginner—young or old—out to shoot an AR-15 without them getting a huge smile on their face after the first magazine.

Teaching children to use assault rifles for fun is a beautiful bonding experience! Of course most humans would recoil if they really read what this says (though we’ve brought a few of them around to our own viewpoint). So Gall uses words like “simple” and “youngsters” and “tons of fun” and “huge smile” to focus their minds firmly on the enjoyment. They won’t even notice they’re developing warm, positive feelings around associating children with military-style gunfire.


The AR-15 and its big brother, the AR-10, are excellent hunting rifles. AR-15s in 5.56/.223 are perfect for varmints and predator hunting, and with the proper ammunition can make a great deer rifle. Of course, the AR-15 is also chambered in a number of other more powerful cartridges for big game, and the .308-chambered AR-10 is a deer hunting favorite for many. Don’t buy the gun-banner lie that the AR-15 can’t be a good hunting rifle. 

This one is a nice solid back-to-basics example. Textbook stuff.

Tactic 1: Use lots of glowing, emotive terms (excellent, perfect, proper, great, powerful, big, favorite, good). That way, the lack of facts won’t be evident.

Tactic 2: Include the bandwagon argument that “many” people like to use the rifle this way.

Tactic 3: Fuzzy logic. Make sure to blur the distinction between a gun that “can be” a hunting rifle, and a gun that is a legitimate hunting need. This is a bit like saying that because a Humvee can be used to take kids to school, it’s the best vehicle for that job. So you can’t say it directly, but you can certainly suggest it to people whose brains you’ve primed to eagerly accept the images you introduce.

Tactic 4: Ad hominem. In case your reader is tempted to wonder exactly how a rifle developed for helping soldiers survive battlefield situations is also “perfect” for a solo activity that traditionally places a high value on stealth and efficiency rather than sheer firepower, remind the reader that anyone who disagrees with you is a liar.

Gall wins a bonus for nice, tight grouping on the target!


If you like to tinker, the AR-15 is the rifle for you. Aftermarket parts and upgrades are readily available from hundreds of sources, and the gun’s easily understandable operation system makes it simple to work on. If you can’t build one of these rifles on your kitchen table with just a few specialized tools (legally, of course), you probably skipped shop class in high school. Installing new stocks, triggers, hand guards, pistol grips and other parts is also a breeze. 

This is one of the bits that pushed Gall into the very top of his class. A+ material here!

Tactic: Nudge-nudge, wink-wink. Use cute, cozy phrasing (“tinker,” “kitchen table,” “shop class”) even as you indicate that you’re marketing this gun to people interested in making it much more destructive than it already is. (But “legally, of course”!)

The focus on aftermarket upgrades is key to further enriching the gun folks, creating that wide inter-group gap that is so important to our own work. They need to ensure that the already-sold item generates a further revenue stream for the maker, just like all those electronic devices that need constant upgrades, ports, drives, and plug-ins. Still, that’s untapped potential if buyers aren’t convinced. Gall transitions elegantly from assuring them that this, as it stands, is the best gun they could possibly have, to convincing them that it could be much better… with just a bit more outlay.

But my favorite feature of this particular section is the way Gall smoothly pivots from the notion that the AR-15 is a harmless tool, to the covert reminder that it’s also a potentially illegal weapon of mass destruction. This use of the “strike-through” tactic enables him to market it not only to genuinely law-abiding hunters and target shooters but also—and publicly, in the same paragraph!—to terrorists, bunker-building conspiracy theorists, and unstable teens. In fact, Gall’s deliberate introduction of the idea of illegality under cover of legality even enables law-abiding buyers to enjoy a teensy dash of bad-assery. You won’t be able to do as well as this on your first few tries, but practice makes perfect!

Farm/Ranch Use

The AR-15 is an excellent all-around rifle for farmers and ranchers to carry in their trucks for predator control or other utilitarian uses. Excellent accuracy combined with good magazine capacity is enough to put the hurt on a pack of coyotes preying on calves or lambs—or on wild hogs tearing up your alfalfa or wheat field. An AR-15 is also handy for farmers and ranchers to have on hand in remote areas should they run into those who would do ill to them.

Tactic 1: Fantasy. Romanticize the product! Works every time. Here it’s done “Marlboro-man” style, by conjuring up images of 10-gallon hats and brawny pickup trucks. (The demons in charge of cigarette marketing did some awesomely plutonic work. Study it!)

Dazzling your readers is important, because of course they aren’t ever going to encounter a horde of wild hogs or defend a calf from coyotes at all, let alone while carrying this gun. What you need to sell them is the image of themselves as heroic defenders. So let’s see how to bring in some more techniques to accomplish that…

Tactic 2: Fear. Create images of destructive predators roaming in packs, and outlaws lurking in the sagebrush. Get the reader to picture himself as the protector of helpless livestock, and then to picture himself winning a battle against bad guys thanks to his trusty rifle. It won’t hurt if, subliminally, he’s associating the predators with groups of people we’ve trained him to distrust; this way, he can picture himself in this situation even if he’s never seen a ranch. And that really helps with our main objective: sowing hatred as widely and efficiently as possible.

(Your reader isn’t ready yet for the thought that the most destructive predator is the unbalanced person carrying this rifle into a school, church, hospital, or concert venue. Wait for it…)

Tactic 3: Gall’s expert use of jocular quasi-military understatement like “put the hurt on” and “do ill to” encourages the reader to think of himself as the kind of guy who is laconic and unruffled in the face of deadly danger. Remember—just because you’re using fear to sell your product doesn’t mean you want people to think of themselves as fearful! Make them think that the more money they spend on self-defense, the braver they are. We know that focusing on self-defense all the time makes people more scared, but we’ve taken good care that they don’t!

Competitive Shooting

The AR-15 platform is excellent for a variety of competitive shooting sports. As a 3-gun competitor, I see hundreds of people shoot AR-15s safely and accurately on a regular basis. Banning ownership of AR-15-type rifles for law-abiding Americans would be devastating to 3-gun—the fastest growing shooting sport in the country right now. 

Tactic: Bandwagon, of course! What’s popular is naturally good, and threatening it is naturally bad. Deploying a couple more loaded words like “law-abiding” and “devastating” doesn’t hurt, as long as no one notices their illogical application.

Disaster Preparedness

I’m not someone who believes in an impending doomsday scenario where we will all find ourselves in a critical survival situation sometime soon. But I’m also not one who thinks that couldn’t happen. I don’t see how any survival situation wouldn’t be made better by having an AR-15 or two on hand. In fact, the AR-15 might just be the perfect SHTF firearm. 

Another really expert use of one of my favorite techniques. No matter whether you call it paralepsis or “the strike-through tactic”—it’s a winner! On the surface, Gall has cast doubt on the doomsday scenario (so no one can accuse him of being a nutcase). At the same time, by simply mentioning that scenario, he has reminded people who do believe in it that they need to stock up. (On guns, of course. It’s not our job to remind them that bottled water, canned food, and space blankets are better survival-kit supplies than a surplus of firearms–because naturally, their survival is not our goal.)

Bringing Women Into Shooting 

Women are currently the fastest-growing demographic in the shooting sports, and the AR-15 is doubtless one of the reasons why. Women love the “cool factor” of the AR just as much as men do. And those with zero shooting experience—who might harbor some fear of rifle shooting because of a rifle’s perceived “kick”—quickly learn that the soft-recoiling AR-15 is not only a pleasure to shoot, but fun to customize just the way they want it.  

Tactic: a variation on the bandwagon tactic—whatever men are doing, women should get to do too, and anything that is “fast-growing” must be desirable! And “desirable” is a key word here, because now we are selling guns with sex (just check out some of the images associated with this line of thought).

This part is really crucial. When we’ve helped gun-makers enrich themselves by saturating their original market, it’s time to help them keep widening that power gap by marketing to the rest of the world. (Guys must never notice that with one breath we sell them this weapon as a way to feel like he-men, and in the next breath we teach them to distribute it to kids and women. If they noticed, they’d realize the common factor is sales—not their precious identity!) This works just like the good old days of “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” when we got women to think smoking was a sign of liberation. Fortunately, we’ve made sure women have forgotten how that worked out for them!

America’s Rifle 

While those who hate guns would have you think the AR-15 is nothing more than a murder machine, in truth it’s the musket of our day—everyman’s rifle, proudly owned by patriotic men and women of all ages, colors and interests. As Dom Raso said in his recent video: “I guarantee you, if the Founding Fathers would have known this gun was going to be invented, they wouldn’t have rewritten the Second Amendment, they would have fortified it in stone. Because they knew the only way for us to stay free is by having whatever guns the bad guys have. This firearm gives average people the advantage they so desperately need and deserve to protect their life, liberty and happiness.” 

Regardless of why we, as Americans, choose to own AR-15 rifles, we will always face the scoffers—Second Amendment deniers who would be happy to take away our right to own any gun. In the end, we don’t need to puzzle for answers to anyone who rudely asks us, “Why do you need an AR-15?” Instead, we should simply ask our own question: “Why should the government be able to deny us the constitutionally protected right to own one?” 

In the final sprint, pour it on.

Name-calling is tried and true: “scoffers” and “deniers” want to take away all guns. (Note that Gall is careful not to say anyone is trying to ban all guns, because they aren’t; but of course you can say anything you like about what other people want to do, without fear of being proven wrong—good job!) Invoke that important word “choice,” the friend of all marketers whose product is both optional and dangerous. And then assert that it’s rude to ask your neighbor why they need an assault rifle. By this time your readers will hardly boggle at even that ridiculous claim. (Aren’t humans fun?)

Owning an AR-15 is as uniquely American as baseball, apple pie and the Second Amendment. It’s a classic example of American exceptionalism, independence and ingenuity—all the things that make us the land of the free and home of the brave.

Tactic: Jingoism. Appeal to nationalistic fervor: our team, rah rah! Say it loudly enough and often enough, and you can actually convince humans (at least, once you’ve simultaneously scared them into believing someone’s out to get them, and confused them into believing you’re on their side, instead of in their wallet) that a weapon meant for killing dozens of people in one burst is a warm, innocent celebration of American culture, on a par with Fourth-of-July family barbecues.

True to his name, Gall takes it to another level by going on to suggest that the uniquely high rate of gun deaths is a patriotic sacrifice on the altar of American uniqueness. Convince Americans it’s actually good that they’re especially likely to die of gunshot wounds! This is how we get them to ignore all those people who keep yammering on that America is the only country in the world where 10 people out of every 100,000 die of gunshot wounds every year. What really matters is that America is the best market in the world for gun manufacturers. Now that Gall has made Americans proud of that, they will defend to the death our right to increase power imbalance by helping some humans make excess money off of their deaths.

As you know, Gall has been reassigned to other work, and this careful review is your springboard as you take on his account. See what you can make of it!

Your ever-hungry uncle,



You’ve been doing a great job! I particularly like the way you took Gall’s work about arming apparently unlikely groups like women and children, and expanded it to arming teachers, of all people. You’re off and running! In a few more years, having convinced everyone that teachers need guns, you’ll be ready to start convincing them that elementary school children need to come to school armed, in case a deranged teacher starts to spray the classroom. Just make sure they don’t see that conclusion coming before they’re ready to reach it “on their own”!

The great thing about this particular account is that you get to multiply hatred both by increasing that wealth gap, and by creating an armed standoff amongst virtually all the citizens of an entire nation that is theoretically not even at war.

Keep working. Your continued existence depends on it.

(Have you thought of doctors yet?)


Propaganda is defined by the tactic, not the target

Recently I read two seemingly very different posts. One was forwarded in an email from a relative. It’s a 1200-word rephrasing of the now-famous question, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” The other, linked from a Facebook site, urged liberals to stop trying to understand rural white Christians, whom it portrayed as irredeemable bigots.

The emailed essay was written for an intensely conservative online “magazine” with a stable of 4,228 writers (this particular author has contributed 178 posts). It came out a few days after the “shithole” remark went public, and is based on the writer’s one-year experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal nearly 50 years ago. She starts out by describing widespread public defecation, and ends by echoing the President’s question, why would we want people from there to come here? (Her answer is that “liberals” are “pushing the lie that Western civilization is no better than a third-world country” because they want to “destroy America as we know it.”) In between, she describes Senegal as a place of universal endemic corruption, where duty to one’s own family overrides all other ethical or humanitarian considerations—so that it is culturally “normal” to ignore suffering strangers, or to rob and neglect those one is hired to care for.

The other piece has been circulating on liberal sites since it was written, shortly before the 2016 election, by an anonymous blogger who says he grew up in conservative rural America. He asserts that rural white Christians are irremediably racist and anti-intellectual by virtue of their religious teachings, their suspicion of education, and their heavy reliance on in-group messaging. Their economic and social problems are the result of their own shortcomings. He passionately urges members of the open-minded, educated, intelligent “liberal coastal elites” to stop trying to understand rural Christians: it’s futile.

These superficially opposite messages use the same playbook.

  • The writer claims personal experience of a group most readers won’t know well, and proposes himself/herself as a uniquely qualified interpreter of that group (“THEM”).
  • THEY are defined by a triad of religion, race, and region. Rural, white, and Christian are synonymous. Senegalese is synonymous with Muslim and villager. Each package is monolithic. If you know one thing about them, you know all you need, because the rest ineluctably follows.
  • THEY are bad. (Bigoted, closed-minded, stupid, filthy, corrupt, casually cruel… the specific charges are based on whatever stereotypes of that group prevail within the writer’s target audience.)
  • THEIR badness is baked into THEIR culture. THEY have chosen to be this way. In no way is any of it OUR fault, and there is nothing at all WE can do about it.
  • WE, on the other hand, are good. (Open-minded, educated, clean, honorable, humane…) Goodness is baked into OUR culture. WE don’t have to work at it or change anything. In fact, WE’d better not! That’s enemy talk!
  • THEIR badness menaces OUR goodness.
  • Fear THEM! Stay far away from THEM!

This is propaganda.

It’s easy to spot the destructive fallacies in views we disapprove of. We need to recognize logically and ethically indefensible arguments even when they come from those who claim to share our own views.

Propaganda rejects groups of people—not actions or beliefs. It does not fight tyranny, ignorance, disease, bigotry, or cruelty; it pins those labels onto a specific demographic, and then tells us to fight that entire group as if we were fighting evil itself.

Propaganda claims to defend grand values, but it is merely a manipulative technique, not a message. Just as a hammer’s purpose is to pound nails, the purpose of propaganda is to urge its audience to distrust as many other human beings as possible. Recognize it not by the group it targets, but by how it affects its listeners.

A road paved with stones that say things like “fear others” and “understanding is futile” and “outreach is dangerous” leads to no place I want to go.




Shocked, I Tell You


After the election I noticed that my black friends and colleagues were less astonished and indignant than my white liberal friends, though no less dismayed. This has led me to four thoughts.

First: Oh, right. This is an America black people recognize. Obama might have been President, but the governor of Mississippi still doesn’t give a rodent’s rear for the black population of this state whose flag still flaunts the Confederate emblem. Dylann Roof was pre-Trump, not a newcomer, and black parents around the country have been teaching kindergarten kids how not to get shot by the cops for decades now. I suppose it makes a change from teaching them to get off the sidewalk, but not that much of a change.

It’s just (some) white liberals who are all shocked. (So yes, I felt kind of naïve.)

Second: African Americans have a lot to teach the rest of America about being in it for the long haul. The rest of us have a lot to learn about how to stay sane, how to set goals, and how to organize to meet them. This is a ground war.

Third: Lots of white liberals are mentioning how hard it is to stay healthy and productive in this political climate. All that extra time and energy consumed in reading and responding to the news, organizing an event or two or three–late to work, short on sleep, distraught and furious and scared… Welcome to the world many Americans have lived in all along. Those of us who thought we didn’t have to worry about our government actively attacking us and our friends and families—let’s use this experience to help us begin to understand how discrimination can systematically undermine the emotional and physical health of entire communities.

Fourth: After the election I heard / read some harsh language from liberals about groups that “should have” been more active, more politically engaged, more effective in getting out the vote. Setting aside the many other reasons this complaint is unjust, I’ll just say, I’ll be using my newfound sense of weary Sisyphean struggle and looming threat to help me think about what it feels like to be still protesting this same old stuff that you protested when you were younger, that your parents protested, that your grandparents protested, and that has been killing your family and friends since, oh, maybe 1700, give or take a century. No one group can do all the heavy lifting for themselves and then be told on top of that that they should have been helping someone else, too.

To those reading this who are African American, or belong to other groups that have been threatened and marginalized and dispossessed and killed all along—to whom this is not a new situation—I apologize for every time I’ve complained about my recent burden of insecurity, because complaining about it implied that I had assumed that I should forever belong to a protected group, and that fighting injustice was something I did on other people’s behalf, for extra credit. I was wrong. So I’m starting a local chapter of SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice).

Letter to an Oncologist

You sat next to your patient, looking at her latest results. Half to yourself, you asked, “Is it time to despair?”


It has been a tough cancer to predict and a tough one to treat. Every time you thought that you were one jump ahead, it popped up in a completely different corner, grinning at you. Now, shockingly, despite the successful surgery, here it is: brutally gnawing on her spine.

Is it time to despair?

It depends on what you hope for.

We can “despair” of finding a parking spot in time for our meeting, or of getting the life partner we want. Small or large, that’s localized despair, wearing a lowercase “d”. When we realize a specific hope will not be realized, we replace that hope—maybe after a dark pause—with another one: there are other fish in the sea…

Despair, with a big “D,” means the loss of Hope with a big “H.” It’s not the realization that the particular outcome we sought is no longer on the table, but our descent into the icy spiritual crevasse of believing that we have run out of things to hope for.

As an oncologist, what you hope for is a cure, or at the very least a long remission. And there you sit, only a year or so after the first diagnosis, looking at the evidence that “cure” and even “long remission” are words whose time is running out.

So: is it time to despair?

If all you have to offer her is the chance to watch her children grow up, then it is time for you to despair. Because you no longer believe you can give her that.

But your despair is not hers. Do not assume your tunnel vision must be mirrored in her. She still has so much to hope for: treatment for the debilitating spinal injury, and vigilant reduction of the new and looming tumors. The precious seasons: how many? Summertime in her childhood family home. Her children’s next accomplishments, or the next laugh at their silliness. Time to plan ahead; time for family and friends to show their love; time for her to plant something that will live for years in her garden. Energy to write, and to pursue her vocation. The ongoing development of wisdom and insight. A clear enough understanding of her medical situation so that she can weigh her options, and decide wisely when to seize an opportunity. And, who knows when, a quiet end, free from horror.

Reshape your own hope into a new one: the hope that you can support those footsteps. Offer the generous heat of your commitment. Share with her your own knowledge, experience, compassion, and perspective. Tell her and her husband what they might expect, what you think her symptoms mean, whether there is a way to mitigate them. Listen to them. Respect their journey. Help them as they decide whether it’s time for a new therapy, or time for a trip to France, or time to call Hospice.

Is it time to despair?

Only if you all you ever had to offer her was a cure.

Do you value your own knowledge and spirit so little?

Books on Death and Loss: My List

I am a compulsive reader. Ed and I re-read the Aubrey-Maturin series together during the nine weeks between his diagnosis and his death. For the next nine weeks, though, I don’t think I read a single book, for probably the first time since before I could read at all. I’d pick one up, put it down…

When I finally became able to read again, I alternated between re-reading familiar detective stories, and seeking out books about death, dying, and loss. I needed to see what others had experienced and what kind of sense they made of it. I wanted to be accompanied by people who had been down this path. I wanted to fit our experiences into a wider picture–whether it was as specific as the modern American medicalization of cancer, or as broad as how humans grieve. As I read I sometimes nodded, sometimes shook my head and argued, sometimes put the book down to cry. When I finished I would go looking haphazardly for the next book.

In case someone else needs such a list, here are the ones I’ve read in the past 10 months or so. (I’ve left out a couple of would-be inspirational volumes in which I could not discern practical information or a gut-level response to death.)

  • Kitchen Table Wisdom (Remen)
  • When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Kushner)–for some reason I’d assumed this would be sappy or simplistic. It’s not. The author is a rabbi whose son was born with a progressive, fatal condition.
  • Moving Forward on Your Own: A Financial Guidebook for Widows (Rehl)–realistic and practical.
  • Healing after Loss: Daily Meditations for Working through Grief (Hickman)–the author’s teenage daughter died in a summer vacation accident.
  • For Widows Only! (Estlund)–the author’s husband died beside her unexpectedly one night, and she wrote this book to help other widows navigate their path.
  • This is How: Surviving What You Think You Can’t (Burroughs)–the author has been abandoned, abused, and addicted, and has watched those closest to him die of AIDS.
  • Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (Bridges)–interesting theoretical perspective.
  • The Way of Transition (Bridges)–what he wrote after his theory met the fact of his wife’s death.
  • A Grief Observed (Lewis)–written by C. S. Lewis after his wife died.
  • Being Mortal (Gawande)–a discussion of how American medicine handles old age and death.
  • The Angel in My Pocket (Forbes)–about the author’s struggle to handle the sudden death of her young daughter.
  • The Year of Magical Thinking (Didion)–a memoir of the year after Joan Didion’s husband of many decades fell over dead at dinnertime one night.
  • How We Die (Nuland)–Dr. Nuland’s perspective is both personal, based on deaths within his own family from his childhood onwards, and professional: writing a couple of decades before Gawande, he tackles the same issues of the medicalization of death and dying.
  • Complications (Gawande)–not directly about death, but about decision making and the medical field.
  • H is for Hawk (MacDonald)–an account of the author’s reaction to her father’s abrupt death (an accomplished falconer, she got a goshawk). T. H. White is involved.

Of course, On Death and Dying belongs here. For some reason I haven’t finished it yet.

And one more thing: poetry. Written on the Sky, translated by Rexroth, a tiny volume you can carry in a pocket or purse, given to me by a good friend. Good Poems and Good Poems for Hard Times, edited by Garrison Keillor. Individual poems sent to me by hand, by friends and sisters: “A Brief for the Defense” by Jack Gilbert. “A Prayer in Springtime” by Robert Frost. Of course “Funeral Blues” by Auden.

And the hidden $$$ costs…

We know that chemo is paid for by insurance, mostly. But what are the side effects of that payment?

My husband and I worked for the same employer. Around the time of his diagnosis and treatment, two or three other people at our workplace also had catastrophic illnesses. One of our strongest benefits was a good insurance plan, but in the last week of June–one month after Ed’s death–all employees were notified that due to dramatically rising insurance costs, our insurance carrier would change, effective July 1st.

The new insurance plans have high deductibles, high out-of-pocket payments, and numerous exclusions. Our daughter’s medicine, for example, used to cost us $300 a year; now it is $1400 a year. So at the moment when our household income was halved and we were still negotiating the payment of our original medical bills, our insurance was taken over by a new company that took no cognizance of what we had paid in the first half of the year–more than doubling the year’s deductible and out-of-pocket costs–and that pays relatively little of our ongoing expenses. This has happened to every one of my colleagues, and they have suffered this loss in large part because of my husband’s last-ditch, ineffectual, extremely costly chemo treatments.

It’s seen as somehow obscene to weigh the financial costs of desperate remedies. Who cares what it costs? Is there any price to be put on a human life? Surely not. If the chance at six more months of life costs a million dollars, shouldn’t we spend the money?

But if the attempt to gain six more months of life ends up as the tipping point that spills every one of your coworkers into losing a good insurance plan… what then?

We need to think about these questions. It’s horrible to have cancer, to die of cancer, to lose a family member to cancer. It’s tempting to say we can’t put a dollar sign on the individual’s right to treatment. But the dollar sign is there, and it carries real consequences for other people’s welfare. We should not pursue desperate and costly remedies with such tunnel vision that we don’t see the implications for those around us.

And yet…

First, of course, when I say “chemo” I’m using shorthand for our own relationship to treatment. Not everyone’s experience is futile or destructive. My husband was not diagnosed with cancer until he was riddled with pervasive, long-standing metastases and his primary tumor was (in retrospect it becomes clear) a decade-old monster. Attempting to push back the tide at that point is a very different project from embarking on treatment after, say, the discovery of a single pea-sized nodule or a bad colonoscopy result.

But the overall point is the same: chemotherapy comes with more subtle side effects than nausea and hair loss. Doctors and patients and families should be alert to the emotional ones: the temptations to duck thinking about death, to relegate treatment to a clipboard schedule, to abdicate personal responsibility and difficult emotional tasks, because … CHEMO. The diagnostic skills to recognize those side effects are needed, along with the ability to prescribe for them. This prescription is one everyone involved should take, and the doses have names like “pulling together” and “listening” and “being present in the moment”–because … LIFE and DEATH.

Chemo’s Side Effect #4: Muddying the Waters

Chemotherapy’s ugly side effects–nerve damage, mental confusion, exhaustion and sickness–gave us a set of alternative reasons for my husband’s symptoms, blurring the outlines of the cancer and focusing our attention on explanations that felt manageable. As long as Ed’s physical weakness and shocking weight loss might be side effects of the regimen, they need not be attributed to cancer’s greedy growth. If we could call the fuzzing of his beautiful clear mind “chemo brain”, then we could also envision him outliving that side effect for a little while before the inevitable final onslaught of the returning disease. If we could blame chemotherapy for tingling fingers, a dragging foot, encroaching feebleness, edema—then we were still navigating within medical territory. Without the distractions of chemo, each symptom would have been a lightning flash starkly revealing the landscape of death.

Chemo’s Side Effect #3: Procrastination

“Procrastination is the thief of time,” wrote Edward Young, and an Anglo-Saxon proverb predicts a solitary deathbed for the one who fails to grab life’s chances.

How is this relevant to chemo? Doing chemo buys time. You pay in present suffering for the chance at more life. Right?

But undergoing chemo is not like working out in order to get fit, or spending a grueling weekend collecting documents so you can get your taxes done on time. It can seem a lot more like cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Because Ed was doing chemo—and in spite of the fact that it was never envisioned as a curative regimen—we could not start hospice care. On a deeper level, because we were doing chemo, we postponed discussing death and its implications at all: not simply because we couldn’t have hospice care yet, but because as long as Ed was being aggressively treated, there was a sort of pact that it was not yet time to confront the imminence of his death.

But the monsters don’t stop coming nearer because you shut your eyes.

Chemotherapy is meant to postpone death. But instead it can postpone preparing to die. If death ambushes you while you are trying to forestall it, then it might be said you’ve failed in the attempt to lay claim to your life—not because you are going to die after all, though that’s true, but because you never have the chance to lay claim to your own death.

This is a real loss. To lose the chance to think about mortality. To miss the last flight home, not just because chemo makes it hard to travel, but because chemo lets you pretend you’ll catch another flight later. To wait until it’s too late, as some people do, to say “goodbye” or “I love you” or “I’m sorry.” To never complete the practical tasks and unfinished business (does anyone else know where your passwords are?) that you have been putting off until After Chemo.

My husband didn’t have a “bucket list” of events and exploits to accomplish; he just wanted more of his useful, quiet, family-oriented life. Chemo encouraged him to think he might have it back for at least a little while. Focusing our gaze on that distant mirage, we walked through the last weeks of his life without recognizing them.