I arrived at my friend’s party. A few hours later she died, exactly as planned.

I’ve never known exactly when a friend is going to die — until today. It’s a Sunday morning in late July, and I’m struggling to put on my friend Betsy’s red Donna Karan wrap dress. I’m definitely doing it wrong. I can tell because Betsy groans with frustration.

She’s unable to talk because she’s in the final stages of ALS, a neurodegenerative disease that is slowly depriving her of the power to move, speak, eat, and breathe. She tries to explain how to wear this fabulous, complex frock by nodding out the letters of the alphabet, literally spelling it out for me. I guess, in a game of involuntary charades.

"A…B."

"B! Bow? You want me to tie a bow right here?"

No.

"A… B."

"Backward? Oh. It’s on backward."

After 10 minutes of trial and error, I get her approval. I’m wearing the dress properly. I’m ready for the party. A few hours later, she will die, exactly as planned.


Courtesy of Kestrin Pantera

The wrap dress, as Betsy instructs me (left), and its original incarnation at the Getty (right).

Betsy had ALS — and she decided to put California’s new End of Life Options Act to use

Let me explain.

On June 9, 2016, the End of Life Options Act, a law that allows terminally ill adults to take an aid-in-dying medication, went into effect in California. Three weeks later I got an email from Betsy, an artist at the end of a three-year battle with ALS. The subject line read, "Planet Earth." She wrote that she was "preparing her departure," which she called "yet another great adventure." She’d met with doctors, filed paperwork, and picked the date when she could self-administer the drug. It would be July 24. Sunset. She called it her "Rebirth Ceremony."

Her phrasing made it sound as if I’d been invited to a swinging shindig.

A number of thoughts flew through my mind, "I’m not worthy," chief among them. But if your name makes that list, there is only one answer. I RSVP’d as if it were Sunday brunch. "I’m in!"

We soon received rules of conduct, subject line, "The Party": 1) No crying in front of Betsy, 2) only joyful and light interactions, and 3) Betsy may cry in front of us. There was a schedule, much like a wedding itinerary, which included happy hour cocktails leading up to Sunday’s Rebirth Ceremony. There was even a rehearsal dinner (well, pizza and a Jodorowsky movie) the night before. I locked in for a mind-bending weekend in Ojai.

A cursory internet search did not give me any answers as to whether this was the first assisted suicide in California — but it certainly gave many vehement arguments against what I was about to do.

The arguments against assisted suicide

It hadn’t occurred to me that assisted suicide could be wrong, because it was clearly what Betsy wanted. I knew what it was like to watch someone slowly and painfully expire. When my father-in-law died of cancer, we clung to his precious last moments of consciousness, fearful the palliative drugs would take him away too soon. In retrospect, his suffering could have been avoided if he’d taken the drugs sooner.

But now I was reading this was a "slippery slope." Poor people may be socially pressured into death, to spare their family resources. Insurance companies might withhold treatment from someone with low odds of survival because it’s cheaper to simply let them die.

I already had nerves, but now they were amplified. According to one blog, I should "protest what she was attempting, in order to give her strength to live on." Maybe if her friends refused to let her die, she would write a book, become the next Stephen Hawking? Were we making a huge mistake?

Betsy’s ALS diagnosis was the least interesting thing about her

My friends and I rented a house in Ojai, close to Betsy’s, for the weekend. We understood our job was to have as much fun as possible, so she experienced authentic joy in her final hours. All jokes must be actually funny, all laughter legit. We would not eff this up.

Our combined anxiety vibrated as we numbly ate breakfast before heading to Betsy’s house.

As we ate, a quiet man named Mat whom I’d known for years but never really talked to, spoke up. He told us, shy at first, that his dad died of ALS when he was 16. Of course, there was no End of Life Option Act then. The "natural way" to go from ALS is suffocation or choking. Mat’s father did not want either. One day, Mat’s father said goodbye to his kids. They told him they loved him and weren’t allowed to see him again. He stopped eating. The "most painless and swiftest" way to go took six days.

Mat was grateful Betsy could depart painlessly and surrounded by loved ones. During a visit earlier in the year, he asked Betsy if it was hard to plan her own death. She smiled and responded, "Dying is easy. Try living in this body. That’s hard." After that, I didn’t look back.

Betsy’s ALS diagnosis was the least interesting thing about her: She was a brilliant, motorcycle-driving, world-traveling pioneer of laser-cutting sculpture — who just happened to be a statuesque beauty with a keen sense of style.

We dressed to the nines for her Rebirth Ceremony. On a scale of "natural" to "drag queen," I was a solid Liza Minnelli.

I reviewed what I knew would happen: At 4 pm, we would have tamales. From 5 to 7 pm we would drink cocktails while picking out Betsy souvenirs from her remaining belongings — "everything must go." Around 7, Betsy would don a ceremonial Japanese robe and go up the hill by her house. There we would gather as she took a Jell-O-based concoction of pentobarbital and morphine, a barbiturate similar to what Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland took at the time of their accidental deaths. Old Hollywood style.

The drug had to be self-administered, and there was a lot of it. She had to stay strong enough to move her hand to her mouth and swallow the entire dose. She would go into a coma in five minutes, and then it would take one to 48 hours to reach her final destination. Would she get it all down? Would it stay down?

"I am so ready to leave this body"

When we arrived at Betsy’s house she was laughing, surrounded by friends who hugged her and took photos. Her relatives, a Catholic nurse among them, were curious how we "young people" felt about the whole thing. Girded by Mat’s story, we focused on the positives. One friend brought balloons altered to read, "Happy Re-Birthday." Betsy’s photographer friend documented everything like a wedding.


Niels Alpert

Happy re-birthday balloons.

Betsy wanted her things to "live on through us," so a fashion show emerged as we tried on her clothes. I found a red dress from her performance art piece at the Getty Museum, a stunning number so complicated I asked her professional stylist friend Amanda for help. Amanda was stumped too, and we realized if we didn’t ask Betsy how it worked before 7 pm, we’d never figure it out.

Gandalf said, "It doesn’t matter how much time you have, it’s what you do with it." When Betsy had exactly two hours left, she spent 10 minutes explaining out how the hell to put on a wrap dress.

Betsy’s suffering was palpable beneath the joy. Layers of fatigue and disappointment hid behind her eyes as she tried to communicate. Days earlier she’d texted a friend, "I am so ready to leave this body."

What happens at an assisted suicide party

An hour before the ceremony, she answered some questions I’d emailed her earlier. We sat together as she spoke and spelled out answers, with the help of a translator. To someone with a terminal illness who is considering suicide, she advised, "know yourself and your strengths" and "leverage your resources to create a positive experience."

How did she curate a guest list for "the most exclusive party of the century"? She originally only wanted five people. But once her caregiver typed up the email, it expanded to 30 loved ones who inspired her — she didn’t think we’d come. It was only after being flooded with RSVPs she thought, "Well, I guess we’ll get tamales." As we spoke, Mat, who was an architect, periodically checked in to clarify the "floor plan" of the ceremony site, ensuring that everything was just so. He wore a kimono top she’d bought on a trip to Japan. She loved it.

Around 6 pm we were asked to step outside so Betsy’s family could have some alone time. It was golden hour, the sun low in the sky. A Tesla Model X with "Falcon wing" doors was at the ready to transport her to the ceremony site. Betsy’s father stepped outside and thanked us for coming. Nothing will ever prepare you for the face of a man about to lose his daughter. His strength and love, as he was relentlessly tested by his artist daughter, until the very end. It was heartbreaking.

We were instructed to walk up the hill to a vista where white shade tents, a massage table, and an altar stood before white folding chairs — once again, like a wedding. We hiked up a perilously steep snakehole-filled hill, decked out in glorious Betsy attire, and prevented one another from "stealing the show" by falling off the cliff.

She was lifted into the Tesla X, laughing with joy as the Falcon doors closed, radiant in her blue and white robe. Despite our collective uncertainty, we cheered her on as she was wheeled into the ceremony site. Lots of hooting and hollering, as if she’d just kissed the bride.

She lay on the massage table as soothing chime music played. Caretakers futzed over her hair but kept getting it wrong until she mumbled, "Amanda!" Her stylist friend came and lovingly finger-combed her hair until it was perfect and tied her kimono sash into a pristine bow. She looked like the famous Millais "Ophelia" painting.

"You’re beautiful. See you later."

There was an awkward pause in which we heard the medicine was delayed due to "technical issues." In this extended silence, sniffles from the crowd betrayed us – we had broken the first rule of the day: No crying in front of Betsy. I looked around at the tear-streaked cheeks of 30 friends trying to keep it together. The sun glowed gently on Betsy’s face. Her caregiver arrived with the medicine, and we were instructed to leave so she could consume the entire dose without distraction. I walked past Betsy, smiled, and said, "You’re beautiful. See you later." Her face was full of tears.

We walked down the hill and heard a primal scream.

My first thought was that Betsy was mad at us for crying and making her sad. Another friend thought she was unleashing her rage and frustration at this disease that robbed her of everything she had. A third said there was no way she was physically capable of making the sound — it was someone else. Regardless of what it meant, it was a reflection. Death has no answers, it just holds up a mirror and asks who you are and who you want to be.

Back at the house, we sat on the porch in the twilight. Most cried. A few chanted ohms, in hopes it might "energetically" help her take the medicine.

After about 15 minutes, we got an update: She’d successfully taken all the medicine and was in a coma. The doctor said her heart was strong. It would be many hours, possibly a day, before she passed. Guests dispersed, and she was moved into the house. Per her request — and only after the doctor assured us we couldn’t possibly wake her — her friend and I rubbed frankincense and various oils on her hands and feet. As I touched her, she made a joyful sigh and smiled from another dimension.

It was time to leave her family in peace. We walked outside and gazed at the stars. Before we made it to the car, her brother-in-law came out and told us she had passed. It was 10:35 pm.

We were there for her, but also for ourselves.

I got to be there for a friend. Mat got to see ALS end better for Betsy than it did for his father. Others were there out of love, curiosity, a fascination with mortality, a sense of being part of history. All of the above.

I can’t help but wonder what could have been if my father-in-law had an end-of-life option. It’s not for everyone, but for Betsy it was the best path. Does the law change the way we die? Maybe. While it provides the opportunity to spare horrific suffering, others must be protected from the "slippery slope." It’s an option that must never be offered, only demanded as a last resort.

Surrounded by devoted family, friends, and former lovers adorned in her fabulous clothes, Betsy gave a carefully art-directed glimpse into life’s most mystifying and inevitable moment. I’m glad I got to be there.

Kestrin Pantera is a writer/director whom the New York Times called "a force." Her award-winning feature film, Let’s Ruin It With Babies, headlined several international film festivals and had a limited theatrical release in 2014. It is available worldwide through many platforms including Amazon, iTunes, and BluRay/DVD, and is distributed by Devolver Digital and Indie Rights.

This article is adapted from a post that originally ran on Medium.

First Person is Vox’s home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstperson@vox.com.

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Create a Dashboard That Displays All Your Fitbit Data on a Single Screen

Fitbit’s alone won’t make you healthy, but the more you see the data, the better understanding you can have of what you need to do. Over at Initial State, they made a guide that creates a big dashboard of all your Fitbit data so you can easily see it visualized.

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The project here takes data from your Fitbit, runs it through the web automation service If This Then That, then outputs that data using the Maker channel option and data analytics site, Initial State. It’s a pretty simple project, and the end result is a little more accessible than opening up the Fitbit app. Head over to Initial State for the guide.

Easily View and Compare Fitbit Data Trends | Initial State

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Preserving Wine Diversity: Selection Massale

The term Selection Massale or Massal Selection refers to the “old way” of propagating vineyards. The technique is being brought back into use because of its potentially profound benefits for high quality wine. This advanced article discusses a possible future in viticulture.

What is Selection Massale?

Selection Massale (aka Massal Selection) is a French wine growing term for the practice of replanting new vineyards with cuttings from exceptional old vines from the same (or nearby) property. Massal Selection is what they call the “old way” of propagating vineyards that’s been replaced with vine clone nurseries. However, several state-of-the-art vineyards are changing their planting methods back to Massal Selection due to its long-term benefits of increasing individuality and uniqueness in wine.

Selection Massale aka Massal Selection vs Clonal Selection in Vineyards

Why is Massal Selection Important?

To understand why Massal Selection is important, first let’s take into account the current popular planting method: Clonal Selection. This method was popularized in the 1960’s and 1970’s when vine diseases were rampant (in fact, they still are). Scientists at UC Davis figured out how to heat treat imported vine cuttings to “clean” them. The vines were then registered as clones and propagated at nurseries and sold all over the US as the wines we know today (Pinot Noir Clone 777, Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 6, etc). UC Davis still runs one of the top clonal selection programs in the world.

You might be thinking: Might this cause too much uniformity? How is it possible to have success growing the same clone in highly different regions? Well, when you dig down to the core of the issue, viticulturists are starting to think you’re onto something. Here’s a delightful example:

cabernet-sauvignon-is-made-1650s

Cabernet Sauvignon owes its existence to Massal Selection

Unlike humans who are stuck with a set of DNA for life (actually, this might even be wrong ), plants mutate with great ease. Plant mutations happen as a form of survival and plants will also cross with one another quite naturally and spontaneously. This is what happened sometime during the 1600’s in the greater Bordeaux/Aquitaine area when a natural cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc created Cabernet Sauvignon. Wine growers must have noticed the exceptional taste of this random vine occurrence and with Massal Selection, it was propagated. Today, Cabernet Sauvignon is the world’s most planted vine.

How is Massal Selection done?

Massal Selection isn’t easy, but the long term benefit is a vineyard unique to its terroir. Here is an example of how vineyards are accomplishing Selection Massale:

The owner of Bordeaux’s Lynch Bages, Jean-Michel Cazes, describes in an article at The Wine Cellar Insider that he started observing vines in 50+ year-old parcels on his estate (starting in 2005). His team took cuttings of exceptional older vines and created a “bank” of thousands of genetically different Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot vines. New vineyards were replanted with this genetically diverse material. The 2011 vintage marks the major shift from Clonal Selection to Massal Selection at Château Lynch Bages

While the vineyards now look less uniform and yields are slightly lower, Cazes believes that these vineyards reflect a more true terroir at Château Lynch Bages. The genetic diversity also has the added benefit of reducing catastrophic diseases.

Last Word: A little bit of old and new

While our genius science from the past has increased availability and uniformity in our foods, we’re starting to see some drawbacks with monocropping, genetic modification, and techniques like clonal selection. As we move forward, perhaps our next stage of understanding will be recognizing why some ancient practices work and what we can do to keep them alive.

Wine Folly – Learn about wine.

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Howard Stern, Interviewer Extraordinaire

Stars have been invited on the air by Mr. Stern for nearly as long as he’s been in radio, but most kept their distance. “The show had a reputation for being nutty and off the wall and people didn’t want to be associated with it,” said Jackie Martling, known as the Jokeman, who left the show in 2001, after nearly 20 years. “Once they got there, they found out that the bark was much worse than the bite.”

There were exceptions. Back in 1983, when Mr. Stern worked at WNBC, his interview with Gilda Radner ended with her in tears. At the time, Mr. Stern lacked the emotional I.Q. to pick up signals that his guest was unnerved, until it was too late. Most interviews ended amicably, but you often had the sense that Mr. Stern was more interested in entertaining himself and his crew than making guests look good. Then there were the A-listers that he probably assumed would never appear on his show and whom he didn’t mind ridiculing, in absentia.

“I didn’t think you guys liked me,” Madonna said on the air last year, explaining why she had avoided the show for so long. “You said bad things about me.”

Mr. Stern explained to her: “I used to say bad things about everyone. I was angry, quite frankly. I was an angry young man.”

Mr. Stern still claims on the show to be an anxious mess, but he sounds calmer and more content. He plainly roots for all his guests and his questions reflect sensitivities unimaginable even a few years ago. Recently, he asked Tina Fey if “Who are you wearing?” is a sexist question to ask women red-carpeting at the Oscars. (Nah, she said.) Lena Dunham called him “an outspoken feminist” on “The Tonight Show.”

This is the same guy who, for years, traded misogynistic quips with anyone who was game, including, Donald J. Trump. In a 2005 phone interview, the two rated the looks of the cast of “Desperate Housewives.”

“Would you go out with Marcia Cross,” Mr. Trump asked, “or would you turn gay, Howard?”

“She’s got a good body,” he answered. “Just put a bag over her head.”

Pinpointing when Mr. Stern started his deep interview phase isn’t easy. It certainly was after he joined Sirius and it has intensified in the last two and a half years, according to his longtime producer, Gary Dell’Abate.

“We never sat down and said, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’” he said. “It was organic. The caliber of guests got a little better, Howard’s research got a little better, publicists out there started saying, ‘Wow, that was a great interview.’”

Friends and fans attribute Mr. Stern’s evolution in large part to his marriage, in 2008, to Beth Ostrosky Stern, a former model who not only has left him lovestruck, but turned him into an animal rescue advocate. Serving as a judge on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent,” which he did for four years, also proved that his days as an outsider scrabbling for mainstream credibility were behind him.

Photo

Mr. Stern with Steven Tyler.

“For a long time, he was an underdog, he was always fighting the establishment,” Mr. Probst said. “Being a judge on ‘America’s Got Talent’ said to him, ‘You are deserving, you are legitimate.’ I think it is one reason Howard said to himself, ‘O.K., people really do like me. People really respect me.’ And maybe that chip on his shoulder is gone.”

Therapy has also been key. For years, Mr. Stern was in four-times-a-week psychoanalysis, as he frequently reminds listeners. (He’s since cut back.) Not only has this given him a modicum of inner peace, it has provided him with a set of tools that he uses on guests the way a well-equipped safecracker opens a vault.

To the extent that Mr. Stern has competitors it is the short list of shows that interview celebrities at length. That includes public radio’s “Fresh Air,” though its host, Terry Gross, has only a fraction of the appetite for the intensely personal questions that are Mr. Stern’s bailiwick. (When was the last time she asked a pop star about groupies?) His nearest rival is perhaps WTF, the podcast of comedian Marc Maron, who fearlessly plumbs the psyches of his guests and has a special fascination with the way parents warp their children.

The difference between the two hosts is stylistic. When Mr. Stern sounds like a shrink, he has the physician’s discipline to keep the conversation about the patient. Mr. Maron is more like a fellow neurotic who wants to compare notes in the waiting room. Much of his show is the host elaborating on his own struggles, which by now are pretty familiar.

If Mr. Stern has a weakness as an interviewer it’s his tendency to interrupt guests, who sometimes seem one second of quiet away from a breakthrough. This occasionally gives the show an almost prosecutorial pace, and suggests he doesn’t fully trust his audience’s attention span. And in rare instances when a guest isn’t willing to bare all — Stevie Wonder comes to mind — Mr. Stern can take a little too long to grasp that sex and personal income questions aren’t working.

Most of the time, though, Mr. Stern probes exactly where you would if you had the nerve. He asked Bryan Cranston if he wished there had been “nitty-gritty sex scenes” in “Breaking Bad.” (Answer: yes.)

Photo

Mr. Stern with Katherine Heigl.

He gave Katherine Heigl time to describe getting snubbed at a restaurant by her “Knocked Up” co-star Seth Rogen because she had poor-mouthed the movie in a Vanity Fair interview.

These in-depth interviews are also strategic, as Mr. Stern has intuited that outrageousness won’t suffice on satellite radio, a realm without limits, and therefore a place where nothing is outrageous. Keep in mind that Mr. Stern could once cause a stir by referring to masturbation on the radio.

No set schedule is kept for interviews, which Mr. Stern conducts Monday through Wednesday, the only days he now works, after a contract renegotiation in 2011. To prepare, he and a couple staffers will read and compile notes over the course of days. Mr. Stern might strategize for as long as a week, figuring out what he would want to hear if he were listening. Right before the interview begins, a point man will read aloud the team’s collective jottings.

“And then it just sticks in my head and I memorize it,” Mr. Stern said. “I don’t love the process. I get very anxious and uncomfortable because I want it to be so good. I want the audience to enjoy it, I want the performer to feel comfortable. It’s a whole psycho deal.”

While chunks of the show are more grown up than ever, sex and strippers remain a preoccupation. The Wack Pack, an unpaid and rotating cast of eccentrics, still have plenty of time to heckle one another and the staff, though some have been rechristened with less offensive names. (Wendy the Retard is now Wendy the Slow Adult, for instance.) Prank phone calls remain a staple. Not long ago, a Hillary Clinton sound-alike called a skywriting company and asked if it would spell out a derogatory slogan about Bernie Sanders’s bathroom habits.

Still, the show now includes enough lengthy interviews, delving into enough serious topics, to annoy some longtime fans. They fume on Reddit. They also call the show. Mr. Stern will occasionally put them on the air and let them vent. Enough with the talk about regrets and depression, they will say. We want naked women.

Continue reading the main story

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