I don’t intend to comment here. All I want to do is post websites or news sources that are talking about the possibility of civil war in the States. Most of the news sources revolve around a new book by Dr. Barbara Walter, a political scientist from California. Wade Davis from UBC comments. The last link questions a number of the assumptions of the people claiming a civil war is coming.
Our Vagarious Lives
Ah, the weather is still out to lunch. We are at least a month behind in the garden. The wisteria is not showing any signs of blooming. Just sticks up there. Last year at this time it was in full bloom with a small complement of leaves coming forth. Some plants, notably some ferns and, thankfully, the garlic seem to be quite happy.
So is the Japanese Butterbur. Within a month it went from three or four buttons at the bottom of the garden to what looks like giant rhubarb. The leaves are so heavy they fall back on themselves.
Spring time has always been considered a time of joy, growth, and possibility. And so it is. Like a baby born with all the potential of a lifetime ahead, the garden is looking to the future of the rest of the spring and the full delight and warmth of summer. Fall and Winter come inevitably. They tease us with beautiful garden colours and the bare branches of winter which then carries on for what some of us think is way too long. Spring does finally come around again and soothes us with hope. We commonly call what I’m talking about here as the cycle of the seasons. Of course, it’s not a cycle. It appears to be, but last spring is not this spring. It might be more accurate to talk about the spiral of seasons.
Like one year in the vast scheme of things, a human life is that time between our birth and our death. It’s finite. This is not a fact we find comfortable because, gee, we live through many springs, summers, falls, and winters. We are not just one-year wonders. That’s true, but the illusion of the cycle of seasons should not fool us into believing that this thing goes on forever.
To carry on with the analogy of the garden and human life, for me, winter is not coming, it’s here, even during the month of May. My leaves are falling, my bark is dry and cracking. There is no moving forward to a new spring for me. If that were to happen, it would defy all evolutionary logic. No, I have to be satisfied with my life as it is, and I am, even if I am in my ‘sunset’ years. I have an intelligent, talented, and beautiful wife and my daughters have taken after their mother. I have a loving family, and I live on a gorgeous garden thanks to Carolyn’s magical touch and hard work.
There’s one thing I agree with Sadhguru* about and that’s the idea that we had better enjoy life while we can, because we’ll be dead for a long time. Of course, many people are unhappy with the coming of winter, period, and they deny it by vacationing in Mexico or somewhere else near the equator or on the other side of the planet where summer coincides with our winter.
For a time as I read Sadhguru I had the sense that he really understood Evolution and Life, Science even. For example, when he argued that we don’t die, I thought maybe he referred to the (scientific) notion that every atom that makes up our body has always existed and always will. In that sense, ‘we’ are immortal. From my perspective, our consciousness is toast, but the little things that together constitute our bodies carry on. There is some disagreement about this, but the cells that make up our bodies get replaced at various rates for a very rough average of every seven years or so in total. Another strange factoid: we very likely breathe the same air molecules that Caesar exhaled during his last breath. Cool. But Sadhguru didn’t go there. He still insists on the survival of consciousness.
So, we exist at many ‘levels’: atomic, molecular, cellular, and organic. All of these together make it possible for us to have consciousness. Once our physical platform is gone our consciousness follows. I’d be glad to change my mind about this given scientific evidence to the contrary, but that is very unlikely.
So, what’s vagarious about our lives? Well, the dictionary defines vagarious as: “erratic and unpredictable in behaviour or direction.” Boy, is it ever. One day I’m able to walk long distances with Carolyn. The next day I can barely walk at all. I would not have predicted that. Cancer and old age gang up on me and don’t back off, ever. That’s life. There’s a slew of things I used to do effortlessly. Now, every once in a while I still think I can do things but after trying for a bit, I realize that I can’t go back in time. The trick for me is accepting my new age-appropriate capabilities. I’m living the life of a seventy-five year old, not a fifty-five year old. I must accept that and not sweat it. I’m getting it. It’s a process. It’s a good thing I have Carolyn and my family to remind me from time to time of my limitations. I need reminding.
I’m quite fond of metaphor and analogy as you are probably aware by now. Well, let’s pull out another one. Cancer is like cats as they play with us mice. There are many flavours of cat, some hunt mice and kill them quickly. Some play with their mice prey for some time before losing interest and finally killing them.
I have multiple myeloma. My cat analogue is one that likes to play with its prey. Little shit. It bats me around and chases me under the dresser where I get a bit of a respite knowing full well, Mr. Cat Myeloma is just out there, waiting for me to lose patience and make a run for it. I have absolutely no chance of escape. So be it. That damn cat will get me, no doubt, but not yet.
I love the garden. Carolyn has done an amazing job cultivating it, encouraging it, and never losing faith in it.
You never know, though. I may get it into my head that I can do things again that I used to do effortlessly. I may try. I can still handle a chainsaw. I got mine started a few days ago. I need to sharpen the blade. I think I can do that. Time to find out, but I do need to be cautious, now don’t I?
*I wrote about Sadhguru on my May 4th post: https://rogerjgalbert.com/2022/05/04/aw-come-on-lets-talk-about-death-some-more/
Some people might argue that as a Canadian I should mind my own business and refrain from commentating on American politics. I don’t buy that, obviously. There are whole university departments dedicated to commenting on politics both national and International. It would be a sad day when we were restricted to commenting on our own national issues. In any case, what’s happening in U.S. politics now is liable to affect us all sooner or later.
Robert Reich in an opinion piece in The Guardian argues that the second American Civil War is happening now. He proposes some evidence for this in his piece. It’s not hard to find.
The structure of the American political system itself was constructed via a series of compromises between the federal and state powers, between conservatives and liberals. The federal government consists of Congress with the House of Representatives and the Senate. They are the legislative branches of the state while the executive branch is the presidency. The Supreme Court is the third branch in this triangle of power and it is the judicial branch. Now, these three branches of government are supposed to mind their own business with Congress passing laws, the president enacting them and the Supreme Court deciding on the legality of Congressional and other actions brought to it. It’s much more complicated than that, but that’s its essence. The compromises that were negotiated were always to be temporary, only to last as long as better arrangements were negotiated. They never were.
Sadly, the three branches of government rarely mind their own business. Instead, they often choose to carry forward the political agenda of whatever group to which they adhere. This is the basis of Reich’s argument. The red states (dominated by Republican ‘lawmakers’) and blue states (dominated by Democratic ‘lawmakers’) are keen to serve their respective political agenda. No issue more clearly defines the differences between the Republicans and the Democrats than the access to abortion issue.
As Reich points out, the current Supreme Court seems to favour the abolition of abortion rights but what it actually does is turn the issue over to the states knowing full well that bonkers state legislators in Florida, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, et cetera, will criminalize abortion in all instances including when pregnancies arise from incest, rape, or ectopic pregnancies.
Republicans generally side with states’ rights against those of the federal government. It’s not a mystery why this is so. Red states in the graphic below are dominated by Republicans while the Blue states are dominated by Democrats. The Senate is composed of one hundred members, two from each state, so Wyoming with a population of 576,851 has the same number of senators as California with a population of 39,237,836 as of July 2021. Wyoming, according to the map below is a red state, that is one controlled by Republicans. You’ll note that red states dominate a large swath of the country while the blue states hug the coasts in the west, northwest and eastern seaboard. There is a distinct geographical identification of blue and red states. There are clearly more red states although they don’t represent a majority of the population.
Reich seems to be tired and almost resigned. I’ve been following his work for years and it seems to me that there is a certain air of defeat in his words.
Lawrence O’Donnell, the MSNBC host of The Last Word graphically represents what he sees as the breakup of the United States which he portrays by striking out
United before States of America in the screen behind him as he argues that the electoral college is subverting the will of the people in the US. In fact, the Electoral College confirmed Trump in 2016 even though he had clearly lost the popular vote. He argues that a minority in the US is now in control of government. His argument is one that is hard to contest given the overwhelming evidence in support of it.
I’m not an American but I am a sociologist and over the past few decades (1976-2012) while I was still working as a college instructor I told my students every semester that they should mark my words: the American Empire will collapse. It will do so by imploding, not by an external threat. Nothing lasts forever. The question is not whether or not it will collapse, but how and when. Internal contradictions that are leading to the collapse of the US Empire can be found in the falling rate of profit which has led many American corporations to move production facilities offshore and seek markets all over the world. Cars may be assembled in the US, but their parts are manufactured all over the world and shipped to the assembly plants using just-in-time manufacturing. Supply chain issues involve a major strain on warehouse-less production requiring parts arrive for assembly as they are needed. It’s a ‘skinny’ system with little room for error.
It will also collapse as a result of the unresolved social divisions that exist based on race, economic inequality, and gender. The religious right has been able to seize the reins of power, and is flexing its muscles at all levels of state and federal government. Reich sees the second civil war as being relatively peaceful. I can’t imagine the knuckle-draggers are going to allow that to happen. They revel in violence. Given the licence to rape and pillage they are now getting from Congress and the Supreme Court, and they most certainly will take advantage of it. This summer will be one to watch.
As Reich and others have pointed out, the Republican led resurgence of state power using the Supreme Court and Congress as weapons in the struggle is already tearing the country apart. The abortion issue will serve to exacerbate divisions and heat up tempers. There is no sign of compromise or respectful dialogue anywhere to be seen. I hope I’m wrong about that.
I look to our neighbours to the south and despair. Will future generations look back on present day America and ask: Is that what you all wanted: the destruction of the country you all purport to love? Seems insane. It probably is, and it may be too late to do anything about it. History will take its course.
[I suggested last month that I would stop blogging or change the way I use this blog. Well, because I generally enjoy writing, I decided to continue writing but not on a schedule and on topics I have not yet addressed. I’ve always been a fan of evolutionary theory in all disciplines so I’ll publish on that topic some, I’m sure. But the topics I have published on will likely continue to be on the list. Death and dying continue to preoccupy me as I get closer to having an immediate, personal relationship with them. I’ll write about them starting today. I’ll still write about my cancer journey too occasionally. It’s such a different experience than people with other kinds of cancer have.]
Death and More Death
Sherwin B. Nuland
I’ve got two books on death on the go right now. One I’ve already introduced on this blog. It’s by Sherwin B. Nuland and is called How We Die. It was a national best seller in the U.S. published in 1994. Nuland died in 2014. I wonder if his dying conforms to what he concluded in 1994. Probably does. Nuland was 83 when he died of prostate cancer after his mother and his brother had both died of colon cancer. That could not have been very pleasant. He was a clinical professor of surgery at Yale University until he retired in 2009. His obituary in the New York Times expresses this thought about Dr. Nuland and his death:
To Dr. Nuland, death was messy and frequently humiliating, and he believed that seeking the good death was pointless and an exercise in self-deception. He maintained that only an uncommon few, through a lucky confluence of circumstances, reached life’s end before the destructiveness of dying eroded their humanity.’I have not seen much dignity in the process by which we die,’ he wrote. ‘The quest to achieve true dignity fails when our bodies fail.’
And, of course, all bodies fail.
The second book I want to discuss in this blog post is one that was recommended to me by a person who called me out of the blue from the local hospice society.* It could not be further in spirit from Nuland’s book. So, the book this person recommended is called Death: An Inside Story. It’s characterized on the cover as “A book for all those who shall die.” The author goes by the name of Sadhguru (Sad guru). The book describes him as a yogi, mystic, and visionary. This is not the kind of book I normally read, but it comes highly recommended so why not?
Unlike Nuland, Sadhguru is a fan of good death. Chapter Six of his book is called Preparing for a Good Death. He writes in an idiom that is foreign to me although I have read a number of books by Indian writers in general, and also by Zen Buddhists. I have read very little Hinduism, and when I have the book has been by a Western commentator. I know people who frequent ashrams in North America, Europe, and India. They have various reasons for doing so. I won’t speculate on their motives. I can’t see myself doing that. So, when I read Sadhguru, I admit that I am doing so from a place of relative ignorance. If I ever attended an ashram I may have more insight into the ‘place’ that Sadhguru occupies in the world of intellect and inner peace. Still, I’m not at a complete loss when I read Sadhguru.
I can relate to some of what Sadhguru professes in his book, once I get past what I consider the idiomatic nature of much of what he has to say. His emphasis that death is a natural fact of life resonates with my view and jives with Nuland too. It’s not a defeat of life or a failure. His views on our place in the scheme of life and death over millions of years is not unlike my own. Where I depart from Sadhguru is in his matter of fact insistence that ghosts are real and that reincarnation is a thing. In a chapter called The Riddle of Reincarnation, Sadhuru maintains that when people have sex and create an embryo and a fetus, life begins only after forty to forty-eight days after conception. That’s when “Someone else who is ripe for that and is looking for a body comes and occupies it”. (287) I’m still wondering how I could interpret this idiomatically. He’s not saying that the occupation of an embryo by another being is conscious. Instead, he writes, it’s karmic.
One thing that Sadhguru, Nuland and I can agree with Ernest Becker on is that we constantly endeavour to deny death. We set up very imposing institutions designed to deny death. Nuland chastises modern medicine for doing just that. Sadhguru writes that
“One reason people can ignore death and continue to live on in their ignorance is simply that the religions of the world have spread all kinds of idiotic stories about life and death. They created some silly childish explanations for everything.” (5)
It may be that Sadhguru is not reflexive enough to recognize the religious aspects of his own work. I wonder how his discussions of his past lives and reincarnation differ from other religious denial mechanisms. He states bluntly that “people don’t die.” (13) Now, if I read that literally, it seems absolutely absurd. He follows that up by writing that:
“In a way, death is a fiction created by ignorant people. Death is a creation of the unaware, because if you are aware, it is life, life and life alone – moving from one dimension of Existence to another”.
However, if I read this idiomatically I see a truth there. It’s only absurd if we take his words literally. Of course people die, but the atoms and molecules that make us up have always existed and always will. When I eat a carrot, the carrot becomes me (what I don’t poop out of course) so that’s life moving from one form to another.
Over the millennia, all the organisms we eat and call food have been transformed into something else. Life is but a movement of matter and energy from one form to another.
In our case, as is the truth for all organisms on this planet, we are finite. We are like mushrooms that sprout on the mycelium we call Life. We find it normal that a mushroom grows then decays enriching the soil from which it emerged. It’s interesting that so many of us (I haven’t done any surveys) have such a hard time accepting that reality as our own. How do you see it? Come on, let’s start a dialogue.
I’m really doing an injustice to both Nuland and Sadhguru. It’s not nice to pick and choose bits and pieces of their work to build my own argument. I guess I’m not very nice. Frankly, there is no substitute for reading their books in their entirety to make up your own mind.
*Early on in my cancer diagnosis, in 2019 and early 2020, I visited the pain docs at the Comox Valley hospital and a couple of the docs actually came to the house for a visit. We discussed pain and Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID). I wasn’t quite ready for that yet, but the Hospice Society is great and they make sure that anybody on their list is contacted now and again. Eventually I will likely want their services.
April 29th, 2022
It’s still hovering around freezing in the mornings, but temperatures rise by early afternoon to hover around the 10 to 15˚C range. I usually get up around 7:30. By then the birds are well into their daily routine. The robins are pulling up moss to get at juicy grubs and worms. It’s great to see so many golden crowned sparrows and hummingbirds in the yard competing for access to the feeders. My recliner is in a position in the living room where I have a great view of bird activity in the front yard.
Years ago, Carolyn and I would get up, get ready for work, have breakfast and listen to the CBC morning program. Now we open our computers or other devices and immerse ourselves in the problems of the day as expressed by MSNBC, CBC News, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail, et cetera. Do this every morning and the only result will be a profound depression. I’m not suggesting that we should not check out internet news sources, but it’s imperative to keep their offerings in the right perspective. After all, they are all in the business of making money and that one characteristic of their existence should give up plenty of pause. Same goes for Facebook and its offspring Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.
This morning in my Pocket email (check it out) I got notice of an article in The Atlantic, a liberal magazine I’ve been reading on and off for many years. The article is called WHY THE PAST 10 YEARS OF AMERICAN LIFE HAVE BEEN UNIQUELY STUPID: It’s not just a phase.* The author is Jonathan Haidt.The (very long) article does a great job of dissecting the way social media have driven us into a number of hard social positions that make it increasingly difficult to engage with people we would not normally have anything to do with. I posted this paragraph from the article on Facebook:
“Mark Zuckerberg may not have wished for any of that. But by rewiring everything in a headlong rush for growth—with a naive conception of human psychology, little understanding of the intricacy of institutions, and no concern for external costs imposed on society—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a few other large platforms unwittingly dissolved the mortar of trust, belief in institutions, and shared stories that had held a large and diverse secular democracy together.”
Then I wrote:
“Yes, indeed. But I’m not sure I would hang out with a lot of people in any case, ones who still have Canadian flags on their pickups and shout ‘Freedom’ at us at every turn.”
I was being slightly provocative, wondering if the article was going to be right. It was, in spades. On my computer, there was no further comment from Facebook, but on my phone I get several follow up suggestions: Totally agree!!! You got that right!!! I know right!! And Most definitely.
These ‘suggestions’ for follow up comments make it easy to agree with me with very little effort. This, according to the article fosters a sense of us versus them, hardening social positions and creating even more division than already exists in our lives. Facebook could easily have provided comment suggestions like: Are you sure?!!! Is this what you really think?!! Maybe we should do a bit more investigating!!! Or something along those lines.
It’s obvious that Facebook’s design is conducive to producing, over the past ten years, a decline in social consensus and civility. It seems we are having a more difficult time than every just being civil to each other…on the roads, in the grocery stores, and online. I’m picking on Facebook, but other platforms are just as guilty as Facebook of undermining our sense of democracy and encouraging an increasing acceptance of autocracy and oligarchy.
Haidt argues that there is no malice in what social media are doing except that they are following the drive for profit. The article argues that: “ Shortly after its “Like” button began to produce data about what best ‘engaged’ its users, Facebook developed algorithms to bring each user the content most likely to generate a ‘like’ or some other interaction, eventually including the ‘share’ as well. Later research showed that posts that trigger emotions––especially anger at out-groups––are the most likely to be shared.” And the more shares, the more money for Facebook.
I think it’s time we got a lot more savvy about how easily we can be manipulated into producing exactly the kinds of inputs on Facebook that make people increasingly impatient, angry and intolerant, precisely those kinds of emotions that create an environment where money can be most easily accumulated for Facebook itself.
I strongly recommend the Haidt article. You can read it on The Atlantic website. I think you can read up to five articles before having to pay…but don’t quote me on that. If Haidt is right we’re in for a rough ride over the next few years.
Before wrapping up this post, I do want to tell you that in the proper spirit of sociological research I’ve been watching several YouTube channels of people doing things like boat building, auto repair and restoration, industrial mechanics, woodworking, and that sort of thing. I suspect given the many clues they give me that they are most likely Trump supporters or the equivalent. Yet none of them talk politics, at least not directly, and they all offer interesting content that is unrelated to politics. My point is that people are multidimensional. We need to remind ourselves all the time that there is always a point of potential contact between people if we look for it. Still, I worry about Haidt’s findings. I reckon that he’s probably correct and that saddens me no end.
* (Illustrations by Nicolás Ortega.)
I’m finding it fascinating how I’m so unable to write at the moment. Well, of course I can write, but I’m flummoxed when it comes to writing a coherent blog post. My age may have something to do with it, but there’s more to it than that. In the past couple of weeks I’ve started writing a blog post four times and for pity’s sake, I can’t complete even one. I guess I’m losing it. That’s not something I want to accept, but as we get older we all lose multiple abilities. It’s inevitable. Eventually we lose all ability. That’s when we die. Dead people don’t have abilities.
In some ways, I think I’m getting gun shy. People are dying all around me and I’m just here waiting for the sniper to pick me off. I’m keeping my head down, but that strategy will only be good for a time. The Sniper in Charge (SIC) will find me. I have no idea how long it will take for her/him to find me, but it will happen. That has me distracted, very distracted. You may find that this blog post reflects that distraction. It’s anything but coherent. But here goes anyway.
I learned the other day from a very young blogger and her father that mindset is everything in life. To some extent I agree. It’s self defeating to go into a project with the attitude that “I can’t do that.” Of course most of us can do that. Yes, we can. But that attitude is contingent on age and other characteristics we have that may make it impossible to have a ‘can do’ attitude. No matter how much I may want to, making babies is not possible anymore for Carolyn and I. We are both beyond that project.
The young person I’m referring to here is female. She and her sister operate a small sawmill as part of the family’s logging, lumber, and firewood business. They are both still teens and are very active in life outside of their work. In many ways, they are exceptional. They work in a family business. I don’t know how common that is these days but they may very well be the only young women in North America operating a sawmill of any size. Most people would consider that Man’s work. Her father declared in an interview she did with him in a recent blog post that they come from a Judaeo-Christian tradition and are actively Christian, in that they pray to God and all that. That fact gives them access to a whole community of like-minded people giving them wide acceptance in the community for their business and other activities. That’s just life for them. I’m sure they don’t see their faith and status as God-fearing White Folk giving them any kind of advantage in life. They would argue that they have just made the right decisions in life and people who make the right decisions in life create advantage for themselves by their very actions. There are various interpretations as to the accuracy of this kind of view, but it seems to work for them. It doesn’t work for a very substantial part of the population as sociology has clearly demonstrated over decades of research.
Well, I guess mindset is important for me too. I can either whine and complain about the fact I have a cancer that won’t go away and will eventually kill me, or I can just get on with things and ignore my ultimate demise. I’ve commented on a recent post that death is akin to a wall. I see it clearly on the horizon, but why focus on it? Actually, it’s hard not to focus on it, but it doesn’t make sense to do nothing else. It certainly is distracting, however.
I just captured a carpenter ant. I’ve got it on my side table under a shot glass. I can observe it moving about. It really wants to get out of this predicament and constantly looks for ways out. When I tap the glass it goes absolutely still. It’s a winged ant which means that it is at a stage in its life when it is bound to search out a new home. At this time of year they come out of the woodwork, literally. This ant seems very confused. This small prison it’s in is thwarting its destiny, which is, along with its buddies, to eat our house, which is made of wood, so lunch is served. However, I’m not particular enamoured with its destiny because we have conflicting interests. So, what should I do with this ant? I could easily kill it, or keep it imprisoned until it dies, or I could release it so that it can start munching on my house. Even if I release it outside, it’s still liable to find a spot to have a nibble. Obviously it cannot eat us out of house and home, but we know from past experience that it can, along with its buddies, cause a lot of damage. So what do I do?
Help me out here. What should I do?
I told you last post that I would be giving up on my blog. That’s still the case. I’ll likely wrap it up by the end of this month at least in its current format, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve stopped thinking or wanting to write. When my readership fell below fifty views after a post, I decided that maybe it wasn’t worth the hassle of thinking about writing every week. Of course, some people might argue that if I have only one reader that should be enough for me. There’s an argument that can be made both ways. Who knows, things change.
So, what should I be thinking and writing about now? As I get ever closer to death, it’s hard not to think about death and dying. My sister-in-law who was a couple of years younger than me, died recently. It seems like someone in my immediate circle of friends and family is dying every month. Such is life when one gets to a certain age. Of course, it’s not only older people who die. A forty-nine year old doctor in my Family Clinic died recently of heart failure. However, it’s certainly true that most Canadians, in any case, die at an advanced age. That will be me for sure because I’m already most of the way there.
Lately I’ve been trying to create a metaphor for the dying process. I think I’ve come up with one that makes sense. It’s probably not new to me, either. It’s the image of a wall, maybe a stone wall that can be seen in the distance just beyond a large, open field. In our younger days, the wall is low and hardly visible. We only pay attention to it fleetingly, maybe when we visit someone in the hospital, when we leave a funeral or witness a fatal car crash. Our physical vulnerability is only too obvious at these times. The truth is that we would have a hard time living our lives if we did not ignore the wall most of the time. Some people actually convince themselves that the wall doesn’t even exist and that even if it did, we could walk right through it. The thing is the wall is always there. As we get older the wall gets more visible. It gets bigger, thicker and broader and we begin to see individual stones in it. It begins to draw our attention more frequently. We seem to be getting closer to it and in fact we are.
My wall is clearly visible to me now. It’s so big, I can’t see much beyond it. Earlier in my life I could see mountains on the other side of it. Not anymore. Now, the wall demands my attention. It will not allow me to turn away from it. In a sense it’s a beautiful, solid wall. It’s obvious that much care was taken in its construction spanning the whole evolutionary time on this planet. Everyone has to come to the wall. No one is allowed to pass through it.
The denial of the existence of this wall is the essence of Ernest Becker’s work. My early posts on this blog consist of an exposition of Becker’s work and his contribution to understanding the denial of death. His last book, one that he had no hand in publishing because he was dead, was rightly entitled Escape From Evil. The evil that Becker writes about is death and disease. This book is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the power of denial in our lives because it’s a power that has determined so much of the death and destruction this planet has experienced with Homo sapiens at the centre of it.
Let’s now explore that denial a bit from a different perspective than I would have normally used. First up is how our social world seems to be coming apart at the seams with the war in the Ukraine, growing authoritarian at home and the pandemic that doesn’t seem to want to go away. I’m talking about the discombobulation of our social world and our reactions to it. Later I write about misogyny and evolution with a nod to Aristotle, the consummate misogynist and other philosophers of his time and ilk. But first, discombobulation.
This is my drawing of discombobulation. It’s my personal visual statement of my reaction to the Kurt Vonnegut world we live in today.
The word discombobulation is an old word from the 19th Century that shouldn’t be forgotten because it so expresses the sense that not much makes much sense anymore. The world really hasn’t ever made much sense if one considers humanity’s millennia-old legacy of war and brutality combined with a huge dose of goodwill and caring underlying much of human history. It seems as though every generation has to learn this truth on its own never learning from history. I’ve spent my whole adult life in a quest to unravel this discombobulation. I think I have things more or less worked out (with the help of a lot of people now dead who were much smarter than me), but I can’t seem to communicate that to enough other people for my knowledge to make much sense. At least I feel that way sometimes. I may be like the proverbial falling tree in the forest with no one around to hear it fall. What does it matter? Well, it does matter to me. Sometimes I think of my writing as a drop in the bucket of cultural commentary, but it’s still a contribution.
That said, it’s a contribution that will leave many people behind. Admittedly, reading my blog posts requires a modicum of literacy. I don’t speak to a Grade 8 audience. That in itself will limit the influence of my work. My personal intellectual voyage can never be yours, but we must learn from each other otherwise the discombobulation wins. Patently, there are many people (No, I haven’t done a survey although others have) who are incapable of hearing what I have to say because they have been captured by an ideology that is inherently contradictory in itself but still seems to speak to their individual lives somehow. I’m talking about people who deny that we are inherently social and dependent on each other not only in our families and other intimate relationships, but in a collective sense with people we don’t know personally but who, combined, hugely affect the world we live in.*
I’m referring here to people who see taxes and government as an infringement on their freedom, whatever that means. They have no idea themselves what ‘freedom’ means, and it’s almost embarrassing if you dare ask them what they mean by it because their answers are naive to the extreme and essentially childish. In other aspects of their lives they may be competent enough, but when it comes to thinking about their place in the world and their responsibility to others, they just have no idea, except to spout platitudes they have absorbed by watching too much Fox News or have been absorbed by concentrating on their belly buttons for too long. I’m no big fan of much of what government does, but I’m not willing to chuck out the baby with the bathwater either.
Recently, Carolyn and I listened to a CBC Ideas podcast on The Authoritarian Personality. The people who fit this profile are the people I’m talking about. The Authoritarian Personality is an idea popularized after the Second World War by Theodore Adorno and others to try to explain why people are attracted to fascist leaders. The book is available to be borrowed for free at the Internet Archive but it’s been revived and republished with an introduction by Peter Gordon of the Frankfurt School and is available on Amazon in various formats, including as an eBook, but it ain’t cheap. The book was first published in 1969 but was in writing for some time before that while the research for it was being conducted in California. The book itself and the blazing controversy surrounding it can be seen at the Internet Archive by simply typing in The Authoritarian Personality in the search function and looking around. Some of the reactions to the book are a full example of discombobulation. In fact, I would argue that the book is itself a treatise on cultural discombobulation as are reactions to it. We live in a discombobulated world but there’s nothing new about that.
So, I’m thinking that this post is long enough. I have probably another 5 or 6 thousand words I want to get out of my system at the moment but I think I need to break those up into manageable chunks. Therefore, I’ll leave this post as it is but I’ll carry on writing about the other topics in the title of this post and present them to you as soon as I get them fleshed out with good references, etcetera. Besides, it’s six o’clock in the morning and I’ve been writing since two thirty. Yesterday I went back to the hospital to get back on my chemo regime. The dexamethasone I took yesterday won’t let me sleep anyway, so instead of fretting that I can’t sleep, I might as well write, but enough for tonight…it’s getting light out and the coffee beckons.
*This is a disparate group of people from grocery store clerks and managers, to cops, to delivery drivers, to municipal workers, librarians, veterinarians, road crews, mechanics, garbage (solid waste) collectors, baristas, Hydro crews, emergency personnel of all kinds, Hospital workers including medical doctors, nurses, technicians, etcetera. I mean anyone you come into contact with on a daily basis and who provides you with a service you depend on. Just think about it. You are massively dependent on others, even people in China and other Asian countries who make your T-shirts, jeans, phones and computers for you, and on the people who work on the planes and boats that get those products to you. How can anyone deny that? But they do because to recognize this fact they would have to accept that their individualism is contingent and not absolute. We are not free to do whatever we want. Let’s just get over that silly notion. I used to challenge my students to unplug their homes, and I mean in every way: cut off water, electricity, the internet, waste collection, everything. Do that for a few days and then let’s discuss how independent and ‘free’ you are.
So, in the next couple of days I’ll make a final decision but as it stands, I’ll be shutting down this blog in the next month. I may shift my attention to another blog I have, a free one, but I have yet to determine that too.
Thanks to those of you who have been loyal readers over the past few years.
All the best,
My last post was twenty days ago. I used to put them out every week, but things change.
When I started writing this blog in 2012, the year I retired from teaching at the College (NIC) I was focussed on working through my relationship with Ernest Becker’s books The Denial of Death and Escape From Evil. For me these books contained some profound truths about us humans, how we relate to life and death, how we organize our societies as competitions for God’s attention. It’s interesting that we created God as a projection of human values, a projection that we then use as a means of judging our actions to determine just how worthy we are of eternal life. We even, according to Becker and other cultural anthropologists, divided our social groups into moieties (halves) to set up the competitive structure by which we could establish winners and losers for God’s favour, which is nothing less than immortality. Countries and Nations are the logical expression of this thesis.
We also, over the millennia, elevated man (that is, not woman) to the predominant social position. It took millennia to do that, but once the idea stuck, it got so strongly entrenched that it became normal. The idea that men were somehow superior to women infiltrated all aspects of culture. Women were, for all intents and purposes, relegated to slave status, gatherers of food, and bearers of children. The perfectly natural womanly monthly experience called menstruation where menses (blood and other matter) are released from the uterus was held against women. Blood reminds men of dying. When men fall in combat or by accident, they bleed and they die. Men don’t like that. So women bleeding regularly could not be good either. It is a huge reminder of death. So, many cultures isolate menstruating women, treat them with contempt and shun them. By extension, men could pretend that they were more ‘spiritual’ than women. Women were biological, men spiritual. Men were clean, woman dirty. This could not be more clearly demonstrated than in childbirth, a very messy and bloody process, proceeded by months of lessened capacity and followed by the need to nurture infants, a relationship of dependency that created an avenue for men to assert dominance. These tropes still survive to this day, in some ways stronger than ever.
I’m still captivated by the ideas I gleaned from Becker, but after I was diagnosed first with pernicious anemia (in the 1990s) and then with multiple myeloma (in October, 2019) my focus changed, and this blog became a chronicle of my life with chronic pain and cancer. Old age, of course, plays a predominant role in my life, how I feel, and how much energy I can devote to any particular task. I don’t think anyone can understand the effects of old age on the body, energy levels and strength, until it becomes personal. I promised myself for decades that once I retired, I would do all the things I had no time to do as a working person. That was true for a time, but when I hit 70, things changed, and they continue to change. From now on I cannot expect things to improve. All I can do is adjust to my changing body with its lower levels of energy, suppleness, and strength. I think my mind is still capable of some surprises. That may be delusional on my part, but that’s fine. I guess I have the right to some minor delusions.
So, I may be afflicted with cancer and old age, but I was trained in the social sciences and they still have a strong hold on my mind. I still think that we, as men and women, need to reconcile many powerful forces that dominate our lives. One of them is misogyny, the curse that lives deep in our psyches but is not based in biology. But what of basic biology? Well, let’s explore that a bit here.
At the end of my last post I said I would discuss penises and clitorises, so here we are:
Penises and Clitorises.
Most of us have one or the other. The fact is that they are very similar in structure and function. As the long quote below maintains, at the sixth week of gestation we all have clitorises. That’s not quite right. We all have a precursor to both the clitoris and the penis. That is, penises and clitorises arise from the same tissue in the early embryo. So, the pleasure men derive from penile stimulation is the same as women derive from clitoral stimulation. Depending on the chromosomal and hormonal environment we become either female of male, or both, or neither. To say that men and women are opposite sexes is profoundly misleading. We are not, as Alice Dreger so aptly points out in her book I introduce below.
For many years I studied love and sex and taught College courses on the topic just before I retired in 2012. It’s a truism to say that the sex act is a social act so it’s clear that we are social animals right from the start. Like for most animals, our sex lives and our social lives are strikingly interconnected.
The pleasure we derive from intercourse, and especially from genital stimulation of any kind, including from masturbation, has profound social implications, but not all of us are capable of deriving pleasure from genital stimulation, the source of sexual pleasure. That follows from the fact that humans come in so many sizes and shapes. We vary in a hundred different ways including when it comes to our sexual organs.
Before the sixth week of gestation (more or less) we are sexually undifferentiated meaning that there’s no way to tell whether an embryo is male or female. After the fourteenth week and the androgens kick in we begin to display our sexual organs.
There is so much information available on this topic on the internet that I don’t even want to go there. A huge number of popular sites exist along with a large number of scientific ones. I just finished reading a (Kindle) book called Hermaphodites and the Medical Invention of Sex, by Alice Dreger (1998). The book explores the way things don’t always go as we expect in the womb. Yes, the vast majority of us either end up male or female, but that dichotomy isn’t as clear cut as it seems. A visual inspection of external sex organs may lead to the belief that a person is either male or female, but looks can be deceiving and it’s impossible to look inside the brain at the hypothalamus and the sexually dimorphic nucleus (SDN) to determine maleness or femaleness as the brain evaluates it. The quote below is from a popular website. It can give you some idea of what’s available now on the internet since Dreger published her book in 1998. It addresses a point I made earlier about our embryonic selves:
Everyone starts the same in utero.
What determines whether you’re born cis-male or cis-female are your XX or XY sex chromosomes. The XX pair is cis-female and the XY pair is cis-male. During gestation (the time between conception and birth), the genes on the sex chromosomes are expressed and the fetus becomes cis-male, cis-female, or (in some instances) intersex. These sexual differences are expressed as the penis and testes (cis-male), the vulva and vagina (cis-female), or some combination of the two structures (intersex).
However, in the first six weeks of a pregnancy, before the genes in these chromosomes are expressed, all budding fetuses actually begin as cis-female, meaning that everyone begins their development in the womb with a clitoris. (Wow, right?!) Then, one of two things happens due to “a low level of the hormone testosterone [being] released,” this structure grows into a penis, says Laurie Mintz, Ph.D. licensed psychologist, certified sex therapist and author of Becoming Cliterate. Or “when testosterone is absent, the tissues develop into a vulva (including the clitoris) and vagina.”*
[Check out this YouTube event for the experience of a transgendered man. Born a ‘girl’ he never fit in and was always a man in his mind: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nOmstbKVebM.%5D
So, enough for now. I still want to explore further the idea of sexual reproduction going back to early eukaryotic cells and the consequences for evolution of sexual reproduction. I also have a number of other related topics I want to explore along with continuing a chronicle of life with myeloma. Later.
Sometimes I think that it would be good if life were simpler. For me, it’s anything but simple. Maybe my expectations are too high. Maybe I’m not being realistic. Maybe if I relaxed a little, all would be better. Maybe. Yet, the complexity just seems to expand, to encompass everything, no matter what I do, or don’t do.
I’ve been off chemo meds for about five weeks, and I have until the end of March before I go back on them. At least that’s the current plan. There was never a plan for long-term withdrawal from my chemo meds. I haven’t had my blood tested for a few weeks, and it will be another three weeks before I get tested again. I’m of two minds about that. It’s quite possible that the bloodwork will show that myeloma has again taken up full-blown residence in my blood and bone marrow. It may also be that it shows that I’m still okay. It’s always a crap shoot and somewhat tense for that reason.
More concerning for me is the fact that since my withdrawal from hydromorphone I’ve been in a lot of pain. It hasn’t attenuated much at all. I’ve been able to walk a bit two or three times a week, but any walking I’ve done has been painful. I generally walk around two kilometres, and that takes me half an hour. Not a blistering pace.
Because of the incessant pain I’m in I’ve had to backtrack and reconsider my decision to cease taking opioids. I took a slow release capsule this morning as a test and I have felt some relief. It may be that I’m dreaming in technicolour if I think that I can manage without pain meds.
Speaking with my GP/oncologist last week was enlightening. He doesn’t think that the pain I’m having has anything to do with my B12 deficiency, opioid withdrawal or myeloma. He thinks it’s attributable to chronic pain, something I’ve experienced for decades. (I’m not sure I completely agree with him on that.) Thinking back over the past thirty years and it’s clear to me that I’ve had periods before I was diagnosed with myeloma or pernicious anemia when I’ve experienced extreme pain and other very strange symptoms like having a yeasty odour and having my skin welt up after drawing a dull object over it with not a lot of pressure.* In the mid-nineties I had a period of debilitating fatigue to the point where I could barely function. I was also depressed at that time, with good reason to be.
The chronic pain that I’ve experienced throughout most of my life is associated as much as I can tell, with the consequences of surgeries I’ve had. The two main ones are a laminectomy (disc removal) and a nephrectomy (kidney removal). As well, I’ve had the odd accident on my bike and some running-related injuries. My neck has been a source of a lot of pain over the years brought on mainly by years of hunching over a computer terminal. I envy people who go through life with very little or no pain. There aren’t many of those in my family. I have siblings with MS and fibromyalgia. I have quite a few relatives with autoimmune diseases. It seems to run in the family. We’re also a long-lived bunch. That might be good, but it might not be so good too: all the more time to suffer from debilitating pain.
The biggest and most distressing challenge I face right now is the weakness in my legs but I may get control over that with a low dose of hydromorphone and gabapentin. I need to move around. That’s a prerequisite for continuing to be able to move around. Being sedentary breeds inactivity and makes it harder and harder to get any exercise. Exercise hurts! Walking two kilometres brings on a lot of pain. Damn!
And with the price of gas now, I think driving may be an even bigger pain in the ass than I’m feeling now in my ‘lower’ back. I feel that driving into Courtenay for a walk on the River Walkway is a bit frivolous when gas is $2 a litre. I can always walk around Cumberland for free.
Tomorrow should be better for me in terms of pain. I expect I’ll walk a couple of kilometres tomorrow morning. The weather is supposed to be good. From Thursday on for at least a week it’s supposed to be rainy and cold. No reason not to walk, but it is less pleasant and I like pleasant these days.
If you didn’t notice, and to end today’s musings, the title of this post works for some things, but not for life itself. Life never goes backwards, no matter how much we wish that it were so, no matter how many anti-ageing creams we use.
My next post will be on why the penis and clitoris are such wondrous things and why they have so much in common.
*This is the strangest phenomenon. I would drag the handle of a kitchen knife over my arm and it would welt up for maybe three hours afterwards along the path of the draw. Has that ever happened to you? I’d like to know if you’ve ever experienced this.