In May of 2021, I had my worst day ever. Sitting in a doctor’s office, I received a grim cancer diagnosis. Since then, I have submitted to a series of tests, procedures, and treatments ranging from the mildly inconvenient to the slightly invasive to the utterly humiliating. “Doesn’t it make you angry?” my friends often ask. The reality of my medical condition actually doesn’t—I mean, what are you going to do? But what does make me angry is that, even in this dire context, I cannot escape the world of crap.

Cheap, hollow, and meaningless stuff has infiltrated even the most private parts of our lives. I could not appreciate this when I was healthy.

I at first enjoyed a wry detachment from useless, throw-away, and shoddy consumer goods because I wrote an entire book about them, called Crap: A History of Cheap Stuff in America (2020). Through that process I developed what can only be described as a love-hate relationship with my subject. The book considers absurd products such as Baconizers, monogrammed trashcans, plastic patties of novelty dog vomit, and a whole host of other useless things—Banana Dogs, boob-shaped beer coozies, hydraulic potato peelers—that have often done little beyond contributing to the garbage patches that swirl in the sea. Crap details Americans’ centuries-long conflicted feelings about cheap stuff, as they at once welcomed the democratizing forces of mass consumption and decried the corrosive effects of nihilist materialism.

In the book, I define “crap” as an object’s existential state of being rather than by the thing itself. While some qualities of crap are relative and historically-contingent—what is crappy to me might not be crappy to you, and certain kinds of once-lavishly unnecessary things (like answering machines) have become essential now—crap is fundamentally dishonest, as are the advertising appeals that make it so attractive. Gadgets, for example, tend to over-promise on functionality—what I refer to as “extravagant futility”—and often create more rather than less work for us. Low-priced goods found at the dollar store are often no bargain at all because they are cheap in both price and quality. Once these goods stop working or fall apart, they are sent to the landfill and must be purchased again. The success of mass-produced “collectibles,” which will never appreciate in value, relies on cadres of passionate collectors who assume they are making wise investments. Freebies that we receive through product purchases are not gifts at all, but rather expedient ways for faceless companies to insert themselves into our lives and create a false sense that they really care.

At heart, crappy things promise more than they deliver. They are inherently dishonest in the ways they are made and promoted. I chose this word out of dozens of potential others—junk, trash, stuff, kitsch, tchotchkes—because “crap” alone both suggests the full scope of this kind of stuff and also succinctly captures the cynical, degraded, and often degrading aspects of these things—as well as the false sentiments inherent to them. 

Now, post-cancer diagnosis, I am awash in a sea of medical-related crap. Case in point: I find myself in yet another exceptionally unremarkable exam room, spoken to by yet another unfamiliar nurse about my treatment. Like so many others, she, too, comes bearing the glossy literature of industrialized medicine, a genre which has become all-too familiar to me. This is late capitalism’s medicalized equivalent of the smooth and persuasive tongue of Lou Bookman, a skilled sidewalk pitchman portrayed in an early episode of The Twilight Zone whom we meet in Crap’s Introduction. Bookman’s ability to rhapsodize about everything from ordinary sewing thread to artificial silk neckties enables him to enchant even Mr. Death, who has come for our affable protagonist but is too distracted by the pitch to successfully carry out his duties.

Much like a spokesperson enticingly presenting a new product to a prospective customer, the nurse puts before me no mere flaccid folder of reading material, but a substantial portfolio sealed with a neat velcro button. This particular example of therapeutic propaganda hawks the SmartPort Plastic Implantable Port with Vortex Technology. On the brochure’s glossy surface, my eyes meet the chosen representatives heralding this device. They are a generically attractive older couple, all veneered smiles and perfect skin which, I take it, embody the rejuvenating qualities I’m supposed to associate with the product. (Indeed, the fine print on the back tells me that, as models, they are “included for illustrative purposes only.”)

Americans have conflicted feelings about cheap stuff. We at once welcome the democratizing forces of mass consumption and decry the corrosive effects of nihilist materialism.

With cool efficiency, the nurse opens the portfolio for the big reveal, which is my own SmartPort Plastic Implantable Port with Vortex Technology ID, the size of a credit card; apparently now a central part of my new identity as a Sick Person, I am advised to always carry it with me. The nurse then points to something even more conspicuously showcased in the packet, which it has been specifically designed to accommodate. This is a rubber bracelet embossed with the product name on one side in white against sky blue, while the other side carries the model number. As it often does, my face must betray the sneering thought bubble above my head—Another fucking rubber bracelet are you kidding me?—because the nurse quickly adds, “You don’t have to wear it,” and snaps the portfolio shut. In that moment, my mind flashes to the free stuff I talk about in Crap. Insincere, give-aways, I argue, disguise the imperative of capitalist gain in the form of the gift; they are gifts with ulterior motives. If, like this rubber bracelet, they are imprinted with company names and logos, then those same consumers who wear such swag become de facto brand ambassadors. (One of the first, if not the first, rubber advocacy bracelet was the bright yellow version promoted by Nike in 2004 to raise money for the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which supports cancer survivors. Since its launch, some tens of millions of yellow bracelets have been sold, encircling the wrists of people who, in part through this merchandise, continue to fashion their identities, even as survivors, through cancer and the Livestrong brand.)

Although grateful to the company for developing a device that will markedly improve my quality of life, I am angered by the very existence of this particular bit of cheap give-away and confounded by its incongruity in this particular therapeutic context. For those lucky enough not to know, a port is a small plastic device about the size of an earbud that is attached to a catheter snaking subdermally to the jugular; it provides a ready access site for IVs administering medication into the bloodstream. The one I’ve just had surgically installed is placed in a pocket under my skin, just below my collarbone and above my right breast. Although the rubber bracelet heralding the port is crap, I certainly hope that the piece of medical technology now inside of me is not.

Currently, the only healthy thing about me remains my robust distaste for the empty gestures that things like this corporate “gift” and its ilk—the trite rubber bracelet in particular—actually signify. But in this case, my anger toward this object is more diffuse and far-ranging. The bracelet isn’t just a piece of crap, a signifier of allegiance to a certain kind of glib cancer advocacy, or a metaphor for the Medical Industrial Complex. It is a concrete representation of the extent to which cheap, hollow, and meaningless stuff has infiltrated even the most private parts of our lives, bearing down onto, and burrowing into, our most vulnerable selves, where it is especially insidious and inviting. There was no way I could truly appreciate this aspect when, as a Well Person, I wrote my book.

This bracelet answers the problem that a lot of makers of medical devices face regarding brand identity and marketing. Because their products often live inside of people’s bodies, their consumption isn’t, to their manufacturers, conspicuous enough. This rubber bracelet adopts the familiar material trope that accompanies so many other trite “raising awareness” campaigns in order to raise awareness about its very own product. Here, it implicates me in its advertising because having their device inside me isn’t enough. The port could’ve, I suppose, been designed with topographic branding, so that its logo would appear in high relief on my overstretched skin, like the raised scar tissue of a literal brand, or a 3-D Izod label that I couldn’t remove. It’s a brilliant concept that perhaps was enthusiastically workshopped by their marketing department. But because of where the port sits, it would remain concealed beneath shirts and other articles of clothing, frustrating any overt attempts at creating brand awareness through the product itself.

Sickness offers countless opportunities for advertising tie-ins.

For now, the rubber bracelet is the best the company can do, and it disgusts me. It is not enough that my medical trauma has provided an opportunity for the company to implant its device inside of me, but they can insinuate themselves even further by throwing in a tacky give-away they want me to wear on my wrist. Marketing expert Henry Bunting, an early-twentieth-century advocate of freebies who features prominently in Crap, understood that even the cheapest items that were given away “promiscuously” enabled producers to instill in their often anonymous consumers an ill-defined sense of “goodwill.” Capturing the profound contradictions of give-aways, Bunting referred to them as “business intimacies” and correctly assumed that most of his imagined patrons would welcome such crappy stuff with open arms. Unlike them, however, my affections for the makers of my port cannot be so easily bought with their cheap rubber bracelet. Fortunately for them, I had no choice in the matter, which makes their gratuitously crappy swag so much more of an affront.

As I mentioned, messengers for the Medical Industrial Complex, whether well-intentioned nurses or calculating sales reps, tend to deliver their information in the shiniest possible forms. What I can count on amidst this sea of uncertainty is knowing that I’ll be presented with slickly-produced folders, booklets, and pamphlets, all heavily focus-grouped by specialized marketing departments and teams of consultants. Without exception, the publications they produce employ a color palette of white, cool sky blue, and soothing gray text—aggressively banal and neutral suggestions of medical purity, sterility, and earnestness, imbued with the inevitable overtones of “wellness.” Featuring stock images of Beautiful People Living Their Best Lives Despite The Odds, the literature adopts a tone of canned intimacy: “chemotherapy and you”; “advanced directives—it’s up to you”; “You are unique and so is your cancer”; and so on. The “you” here includes me, of course, but also all the other Sick recipients of this medicalized information. It’s about me, but it’s also about creating among us a sense that we now belong to a new and clear consumer cohort who, as we adapt to our new diagnoses, must also adopt new rituals in this novel—to us, at least—market space.

Certainly Sick People are not the only consumer targets for glitzy cancer campaigns. All this glossy literature and slick marketing pervades the culture itself and is aimed not only at care-givers but also at the general public. Its alibi is “Raising Awareness.”

When you are a Sick Person you become suddenly aware of and highly attuned to the information streams intended for you and not some other poor schmuck. I am struck in particular by a seemingly innocuous magazine ad I come upon (in the oncologist’s waiting room, no less). A circle occupies the center of the page, made up of vignettes of Hollywood stars: Matt Damon, Sofia Vergara, Reese Witherspoon, Mark Harmon, and others, ranging from the clearly famous to the “famous-ish.” Models of physical perfection, they are all donning versions of S↑2C t-shirts, the sexed-up logoed shorthand of the Stand Up to Cancer campaign. The affiliated website offers me additional merchandise options, including (and on sale this month!), more t-shirts, naturally, custom sneakers, baseball caps, three different styles of gold-toned “powerful strength” necklaces featuring the ↑ sign, fake tattoos, dog leashes, and more. So. Much. More.

People are taken in by cancer merchandise because it is so readily available, so well comports with our culture’s all-consuming ethos, and is an expedient way for people to feel like they are doing something by making purchases.

The ad seemingly promotes the Stand Up to Cancer initiative, but is a bait-and-switch. It does not meaningfully further actual medical research, but instead promotes the brand of S↑2C itself and, by positive association, the celebrities. These beautiful people living their beautiful, healthy (and wealthy) lives will “for one night” “stand together” to. . . Raise money? Raise awareness? Entertain us? Further promote themselves by attaching their brands to this cause? Their intentions are never quite clarified, so we’re left to presume their intentions are sincere rather than self-serving.

But the ad is actually a double bait-and-switch. For example, we see Matt Damon holding a card declaring, “I stand up for”; digitally inserted into a white rectangle below is the word “Dad.” It’s brilliant in that my attention is no longer focused on my challenges but on those of this celebrity. I’m supposed to feel sorry not for Damon’s father, who is present in name only as an added prop for a photo shoot, but for Damon, who has been saddled with a Sick Person in his life. The artful sleight-of-hand makes us pity not “Dad,” but Damon himself. He and his famous compatriots are heroically “Standing ↑ 2C” in the uncomplicated and beautifully airbrushed way that befits all celebrity brands of late capitalism. What it neatly obscures, of course, is the messiness of actual sickness and disease. If they’re anything like me, other Sick People aren’t standing up to cancer so much as “sitting their asses on the couch, perhaps drinking too much beer, compulsively shopping, sometimes puking, working the occasional crossword puzzle, and binge-watching streaming television series” for cancer.

The upshot is that we’re supposed to buy into the narrative that these healthy demi-gods are somehow fighting for us rather than engaging in opportunistic promotional efforts for themselves. What is more, their presence in these marketing efforts provides a key incentive to purchase all that S↑2C crap. This is not because of the cause itself, but because it bears the endorsement of the celebrities we worship: we buy the Cancer Survivor hoodies, World Cancer Day plastic rainbow beaded bracelets (lord help me), logoed sneakers, and coffee mugs because of them. The note at the bottom of the S↑2C official website should make this obvious: “Stand Up To Cancer is a division of the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF).” It is the perfect late-capitalist promotional opportunity not just for the stars themselves, but the larger project of Hollywood’s celebrity-making, in addition to the companies who tag themselves as both co-sponsors of and media outlets for the event. In fact, this one-page magazine ad carries some forty-six different logos, ranging from MLB to Starz. All these affiliations help them sell their merch.

S↑2C lasts just one night. But, fortunately for those in the racket, Sickness offers countless other opportunities for advertising tie-ins. Breast Cancer Awareness, for instance, lasts the entire month of October and is inescapable due to its insinuation into all media, including extended segments on the Today Show, which of course is airing in the oncologist’s waiting room, and ads such as Ralph Lauren’s Pink Pony apparel campaign in the magazine I’m reading at the same time. Attention is always deflected away from us degraded Sick People who might harsh the vibe and tarnish the brand. We hear instead about “heroic” survivors and their long-suffering “husbands, wives, mothers and fathers, sisters, brothers, and friends.” “We are all affected,” the pink pony reminds us, united whether in sickness or status-seeking, by mass consumption. (Here, I cannot add much to Barbara Ehrenreich’s savagely incisive essay “Welcome to Cancerland,” which first appeared in Harper’s in 2001.) This advertising strategy, like so many other forms of packaged philanthropy, is false and insincere, its intentions crappy.

Perhaps the most notorious champion of such craptivism in the name of cancer “awareness” is the Susan G. Komen Foundation. Indiscriminate in its associations, it has partnered with companies such as Kentucky Fried Chicken, Mike’s Hard Lemonade, and the NFL. Komen also issues a “Pink Ribbon Banking Credit Card,” which offers cash back on qualifying purchases. (The Komen Foundation’s website specifies that it receives 8 cents for every $100 spent in the cardholder’s first three months.) Raising ire from other philanthropic organizations, Komen has also laid claim to the phrase “For the Cure” and vexingly withdrew its support for Planned Parenthood a decade ago. Critics, who accuse the organization of “pinkwashing,” claim that Komen is more interested in marketing cancer through its various branding campaigns than actually promoting women’s health, reducing carcinogens in the environment, and sincerely trying to cure a disease that will affect, according to the Komen website, one in every eight women in the United States. Indeed, it’s hard to argue against this, given that Komen’s distinctive pink (Pantone 232 C, to be exact) is splashed on everything from baseball players’ elbow pads to the industrial drill bits used in fracking. I probably don’t even need to mention that Komen’s own webstore sells pink ribbon-embellished terry cloth robes, fanny packs, stickers, wine tumblers, go-cups, and blue tooth speakers. One must wonder if cancer has simply become a convenient opportunity for Komen to cash in on the disease by hawking these branded products in the name of philanthropy. If so, it is just one more example of the fundamental dishonesty at the root of crap and its purveyors.

Cancer-themed merchandise, however crappy, is solidly tangible and unchanging in ways that our bodies, which have profoundly betrayed us, are clearly not.

It shouldn’t be surprising that so many people are taken in by cancer merchandise—whether high-end polo shirts or stuffed bears with pink ribbon hearts—because it is so readily available, so well comports with our culture’s all-consuming ethos, and is an expedient way for people to feel like they are doing something by making purchases. This is especially true for breast cancer pink, which, like the malignant cells themselves, has become metastatic and undifferentiated, invading everything from sneakers to golf tees to insulated coffee cups.

Despite their crappiness, which is born of deeply cynical attempts to profit from Sickness, the materiality of these objects—and their close affiliation with the body—imbues them with a gravitas and importance that is yet another contradiction of crap. Rubber bracelets stacked on one’s wrist like trophies become signifiers of membership in a tribe, as do ribbon-shaped charms encrusted with pink Swarovski crystals. Totemic, stuffed animals bring messages of good cheer, support, and consolation that sit equally comfortably on one’s tchotchke shelf or in one’s lap.

Whether pins, t-shirts, or portable water bottles, these objects also help people craft new identities, particularly if they choose to proudly embrace their illness as a badge of honor rather than hide their status as one of The Sick. These things can also be talismans and fetishes that we endow with magical properties. Placing them close to our bodies, we hope they will help us heal. But they can also be like rosaries—objects we pray with and meditate over, bringing a sense of order and ritual to what has become the disordered, disorienting, and unpredictable life of the Sick Person.

A life lived day-to-day is a life with a limited future. Chronic planners and forward-thinkers and move-aheaders like me must now attach asterisks to all commitments, or not make them at all; there is no satisfaction in crossing things off your list if you no longer are confident in compiling the list in the first place. And so the charms/talismans/fetishes, call them what you will, provide a reliable and comprehendible materiality that is precisely the opposite of the elusive efficacies offered by the drugs and the treatments, with their admixtures of obscure ingredients and potentially toxic side-effects. Cancer-themed merchandise, however crappy, is solidly tangible and unchanging in ways that our bodies, which have profoundly betrayed us, are clearly not. What is more, consumers who are not Sick People also buy these commodities of compassion, because they think their dollars are making a difference, their purchases literally contributing to cancer prevention and cure. This is often not the case: many people selling this stuff are simply grifters and fraudsters who divert millions of dollars away from charitable efforts to line their own pockets.

Many enterprises walk a fine line between creating, servicing, and exploiting Sick People as consumers by selling palliative products which are often crappy. They offer false hope, much like traveling medicine men selling their miraculous panaceas back in the day. Take, for instance, the myriad wig shops and cosmetics companies dedicated to helping women manage their appearance during chemotherapy treatments that are notoriously hard on one’s body and looks. (To be sure, treatments are equally hard on men’s and women’s bodies; but because women continue in large part to be judged and valued by their appearance, we feel this impact more deeply and personally, and come to see ourselves as objects of disease rather than desire.)

Many enterprises walk a fine line between creating, servicing, and exploiting Sick People as consumers by selling palliative products which are often crappy.

Even I reluctantly succumb to these pressures and realities. I not only want to keep my illness as private as possible for as long as possible, but also want to shield people from the unwelcome surprise of seeing me without hair. I have always harbored a slight distrust for people wearing hair pieces but have resigned myself to the wig as a prophylactic measure for others, a way to manage and mitigate their possible discomfort. Fortunately, my insurance company will reimburse me for this “full cranial prosthesis.”

With that intent, I ask a good friend to go wig shopping with me the weekend before my first chemo treatment. We patronize an establishment in South Jersey that specializes in catering to women with cancer. The proprietrix, whom I’ll call Maeve, is a middle-aged, slim, earth-mother-type who rocks a healthy head of bright red Farrah Fawcett tresses. (Hard to tell whether it is real or one of her wigs. And is she trolling me with that hair?) She is also clad in a tie-dyed floor-length caftan that sets off her white stretch pants underneath—it’s Jersey, after all—and she exudes a deft mix of business-like efficiency and gentle compassion that doesn’t strike me as overly cloying or pitying but enterprising. I appreciate this very much. The first thing I say when I sit in her styling chair is, “Look, I’m not going to wear this thing very much, and I get my hair cut at a barbershop.”  Despite that, she’s able to find something that approximates my hair color and “style,” if you can call it that. It is, thankfully, not overly pouffed or fancy. I’m told that it doesn’t look very wiggy and, in fact, my intrepid companion remarks as tactfully as possible that it looks like my real hair “on a very good hair day,” meaning, of course, it looks better than my real hair on any day. Fair enough. I have named it The Gremlin and have worn it zero times since losing my hair; but perched atop a ceramic bust of Elvis near my desk, it has become my own personal cancer fetish object and a reminder of the ridiculously surreal journey this continues to be. Because I don’t wear The Gremlin, I have an excuse to engage in other forms of conspicuous consumption in service of my bald head, buying insanely expensive custom-made fedoras crafted in Germany that I wear for public appearances. More humble but more valued handmade caps knitted by my friends with love and care—definitely not crap—keep me warm and protected when indoors.

Before Maeve gently wraps The Gremlin in leopard-print tissue paper and places it in a handled bag and takes my payment, she suggests other options in the suite of cosmetic cancer products. And here’s where things get even more dicey. This is a land of the known unknowns. We’ve all heard stories about the hair loss, the vomiting, the fatigue. The known unknowns make me, like so many others, vulnerable to persuasive appeals. Having not only taught but written extensively in my book about medical hucksterism, I should know better. I’m slightly ashamed for even considering these things. And yet.

Among other products, I can (and should!) buy “certified organic” Lash & Brow Conditioning Gel whose Breakthrough technology “may” help maintain lashes and brows during chemotherapy. My impending hideousness is embedded in the promotional literature, making it so exquisitely persuasive. “How much for the gel?” I ask. A mascara-sized tube is a whopping $49.95 and there’s no time to think about it since it must be applied, apparently, before the first round of chemotherapy—or what I have taken to calling “the poisoning”—even begins. The Gremlin, I’m told, should also have its own wig stand, and its own shampoo ($25 a bottle), and conditioner (I didn’t ask). Maeve also offers me the special Scalp Shampoo and Conditioning Agent to pre-treat the hair that I will no longer have so that it will be inclined to grow back. I should also probably get some special headbands to help the wig fit better. She suggests I also consider scalp nourishing scarves, and maybe a baseball cap with hair attached to “just throw on” if I’m running to the store. It reminds me, uneasily, of the Flair Hair Visor, a toupee attached to a golf visor originally sold through the SkyMall catalog. Promoted as a gift “for those who have everything,” I invited my readers to laugh about its absurdity in Crap’s Epilogue. All Maeve’s upselling would have cost me another two hundred bucks, easy. I manage to resist, but I imagine many other patrons—who don’t have “everything,” only fear, anxiety, and dread—cannot. And I cannot blame them.

There are countless ancillary products beyond the medical that we are often urgently encouraged to consume before we die.

I realize this woman has a business to run and that some of her products might actually work. But, given my militantly low tolerance for bullshit, I can’t help but see the predatory aspect of it, however gauzily wrapped in the vocabulary and signifiers of Femininity, Strength, Solidarity, Battling Cancer ™, to take advantage of women and our desperate need for hope and desire for dignity in these most fragile moments. Although I would prefer not to, I have to count myself as a member of this same consuming class of Sick People, despite the fact that I’ve spent the last decade researching and writing about bogus consumer products. I just might be a slightly more jaded consumer in this space where illness meets aesthetics meets identity; but I am a consumer, a mark, nonetheless.

Sick People and our loved ones have become a clearly distinct group of consumers in our own right. Available for purchase are, of course, the various medical “therapies”—often as barbaric and debilitating as the diseases themselves—that are purportedly meant to keep us alive. What we’re buying is the hope to live another day, and for a longer future without that asterisk.

I have to wonder, more cynically, whether we are also kept alive through a never-ending series of “heroic interventions” so that we can continue being loyal consumers as Sick People. After all, the longer I live, the more opportunities medical device companies will have to make me a user of their products and place additional crappy branded bracelets around my wrist, dubious charitable organizations will be able to “raise my awareness” through so many crappy charms and impotent talismans, and celebrities will be able to enjoy the benefits of their relative health by dint of being obviously Not Sick People.

A dead consumer is no consumer at all. And yet there seems no end to the collective of Sick People consumers even as individuals perish—if the crowded way stations in which I sit, awaiting the next scan or poisoning or doctor’s appointment, are any indication. And there are countless ancillary products beyond the medical that we are often urgently encouraged to consume before we die. And so much of it is crappy, whether we’re talking about a bright yellow Livestrong bracelet, a stuffed teddy bearing a pink heart, or a green ribbon liver cancer magnet for our car’s bumper. A psychologist in a recent cancer support session advising us on how to deal with “intense emotions” even suggested buying plastic heart-shaped buttons on Etsy as a form of self-care. So. Much. Crap: in sickness and in health and pushed by everyone from the big merch companies headquartered in China to professional therapists at my own hospital.

The only observation I can make, and a fairly obvious one at that, is that the Crap Industrial Complex described throughout my book has no shame and no limits. It is also something I have really only come to truly appreciate now, since I no longer have the luxury of the historian’s knowing detachment but am myself at the vortex of the crappy trash gyre. There are always opportunities to sell more crap, even and perhaps especially to the vulnerable, the sick, and the bereaved. This, not the disease, makes me angry on my own behalf and on behalf of the collective of Sick People.

Faceless companies insert themselves into our lives and create a false sense that they really care. There are always opportunities to sell more crap, even and perhaps especially to the vulnerable, the sick, and the bereaved.

Where do we draw the line between crap and quality, faith and fact, science and skepticism? Sometimes, I see my very own doctors, in whom I have no choice but to place my trust, as the modern incarnations of Lou Bookman and his silver-tongued brethren. After all, they also skillfully hawk their medical procedures, devices, and elixirs by touting the barbaric (chemo! radiation!) and the exotic (genomic testing! immunotherapy!) to gawping rubes like me who very much want to believe. Need to believe. Am I simply choosing among the modern versions of nineteenth-century Electro-Galvanic Belts and Cosmetic Face Gloves which promised healthful “renovation” and a restoration of “vital energy and physical power,” I wonder?

As with all the best bullshit, these ambassadors of the glossy literature imply but don’t actually make concrete promises about the good lives or extended lives that might result. Maybe I’m like Mr. Death, whose story opens my book. At first, he considers Lou Bookman’s come-ons with the bemused skepticism they deserve. Ultimately, however, he ends up being seduced by the pitchman’s artful persuasion, pleading in the shadowy night, “I’ll take all you have!” Whether or not the dark magic of twenty-first-century medicine will be my salvation—and right now I’ll take all it has to offer—I know I’ll be able to shuffle off this mortal coil without having that cheap rubber give-away bracelet snugly encircled around my wrist.