A Tribute to Wayne Bradley (1949-2021).

Wayne Bradley passed away on April 3rd of this year. He was informed by his GP in mid-March, after a consultation and imaging that he had a growth on his pancreas and nodules on his liver. Pancreatic cancer metastasized to the liver is absolutely unforgiving especially with a late diagnosis. It has the reputation of being a cancer that kills quickly. In Wayne’s case there was barely three weeks between diagnosis and his death at the hospice in Comox.

Wayne was two years and a day younger than me. We were both involved in social activism of one sort or another. You may have seen Wayne with Janet (his wife) selling coffee and chocolates at various events in the Valley. Carolyn and I were quiz masters at the Cumberland Forest Society’s trivia nights some time ago now, on one occasion, Wayne and Janet were there at the back of the hall with a table set up to sell World Community products. They only did the coffee and choc sales once at Trivia but had those sales regularly at Miners’ Memorial events such as Songs of the Workers.

The last time I spoke with Wayne was on our deck on the occasion of a Home and Garden Show in 2019. This was Carolyn’s last appearance in the Cumberland Forest Society Home and Garden Show. We sat around drinking tea and chatting. I was not doing well at that time and a diagnosis of multiple myeloma in October provided the reason for my ill health. I recall that Wayne was very keen to talk about electric vehicles. We were definitely interested in electric vehicles but were cautious about making that kind of investment one of the reasons being that the property was not wired for it. It is now, but we’ve moved on because of my cancer diagnosis and other reasons. 

My type of bone marrow cancer leaves me completely exhausted and dizzy. That, on top of the pandemic, made it so that we were pretty much in isolation. So the summer of 2019 was the last time we saw Wayne and Janet. We (our son-in-law) bought tickets to the World Community Film Festival this past February but that was an online event. 

Wayne suffered from abdominal, back pain and utter exhaustion in the last weeks of his life. That is common with pancreatic cancer, but Janet told me that strokes are also common with this disease. I had no idea. Wayne suffered a debilitating stroke on March 30th, and he was gone in just a few days.

Death in these circumstances is expected but still shocks. We all die, but the circumstances will have something to do with how well the family is prepared for a close relative dying. My type of cancer is treatable with chemotherapy and can go on for years, plenty of time to prepare for dying but when I die I’m sure it will still be a shocker for the family. Unlike myeloma, pancreatic cancer doesn’t generally allow for years of grieving. In a way that may be a blessing. 

Wayne was a great guy. He was committed to his community and worked tirelessly for the good of his community but also for communities far and wide, those involved in the coffee and chocolate trade. Janet was Wayne’s partner at World Community but both were involved in other initiatives over the years. They were seldom far from the action. 

Hearing of Wayne’s illness and death was certainly a shock. Cancer is often very difficult to diagnose and once diagnosed it’s often too late to do anything about it. According to Johns Hopkins Hospital, eighty percent of pancreatic cancer patients are diagnosed at Stage IV, when the prognosis is bleak. 

Wayne will be sorely missed by family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. He was a man of integrity, strength and determination. He was a good man.

I want my goddamned life back!

I may want it back, but of course I can’t have it back. I can never have it back at least not the way I lived it when I was fifty years old. We can’t live backwards on this planet. It’s just not possible to go back in time. Furthermore we can’t achieve the physical vigour at seventy that we had a forty. Cognitive vigour is another thing entirely, but I find that since my retirement, I’m just not as sharp as I used to be. Writing this blog helps me keep my cognitive skills in some state of repair, but it’s harder all the time to maintain a certain level of critical skill when the couch beckons. It’s perfectly okay to be lazy in old age although lazy has a moral connotation that doesn’t apply to inactivity in old age. Strangely enough, there is an expectation in our culture that the aged should be occupied at productive activity even in old age, or we should at least go golfing and volunteer at the local SPCA. I was caught up in this moral silliness for a while, but cancer soon disabused me of any expectation that I could stay active in old age. My mobility is highly compromised and was even before my cancer diagnosis. But that’s okay. I had my time being physically active and strong. Our lives are made up of stages. I’m on the last stage.

Every now and then I forget how old I am and the fact that I have cancer, arthritis, and degenerative disk syndrome. In this forgetful state I try to do things that I did easily when I was 30, 40, 50, or 60, even 65. For instance, today I got it into my head that I could still chop wood. Silly man. It was just one piece. I thought there would be no harm in that but Carolyn reminded me that I would pay for my silliness later, maybe tonight. The thing is that one of my chemo meds is a steroid called dexamethasone. I take it just before I go to the hospital for my Daratumumab infusion. It reduces pain and increases stamina. It also gives me the shakes and a false sense of capacity. That’s when I think I’m still physically capable of doing things like working in my shop or cutting woodblocks for printing. [I haven’t given up yet, damn it.]

So, that’s it. We all know that human life is finite. We speak as though we understand and accept that. But you know what? There is a ton of research that establishes beyond a doubt that we generally do not accept the finality of death. I’ve written about the denial of death over and over again for decades. But you don’t have to count on me for information and confirmation. Just consult the bible in your hotel room. Or just go to the religion section in your local library, although I’m reading a novel at the moment that deals with death avoidance in quite a non-religious, creative way. The novel (the last of three in a trilogy) is set on Mars sometime in the future. It’s called Blue Mars which follows Green Mars and Red Mars. About half way through the book one of the lead characters, Nirgal, who was born on Mars, takes a trip to Earth (Terra) and almost dies. To understand the quote below it’s important to know that Martian scientists had developed a longevity program that allowed people to live much longer than they would normally have. People would have to have this procedure involving stem cells and telomeres repeated at intervals. Some of the characters were a hundred and fifty years old and more.

“But Nirgal had seen Simon die even though Simon’s bones had been stuffed with Nirgal’s young marrow. He had felt his body unravel, felt the pain in his lungs, in every cell of him. He knew death was real. Immortality had not come to them, and never would. Delayed senescence, Sax called it. Delayed senescence, that was all it was; Nirgal knew that. And people saw that knowledge in him, and recoiled. He was unclean, and they looked away. It made him angry.”

from “Blue Mars (Mars Trilogy Book 3)” by Kim Stanley Robinson

So, even in this scientific, atheistic world, people longed for a longer, productive, and meaningful life and a painless senescence followed by immortality yet as Nirgal points out, ‘delayed senescence’ is all that people could hope for. Even if they lived to be a thousand years old, their lives were still finite, albeit much longer than what one could expect without the longevity treatment. As the quote highlights, people sensed that Nirgal knew about mortality and shunned him for it.

I understand senescence because that’s what I’m living now. It is not delayed for me. Chemotherapy is nothing more than a longevity treatment. As we undertake chemotherapy we expect to live longer (see my next blog post) but, as I’ve learned, the price of chemo for me is reduced capacity although that’s not true for everyone and for every kind of chemotherapy.

#78. LIFE vs My little life.

LIFE in capital letters is life writ large. It governs all manifestations of individual life. It goes on merrily as individuals live and die generation after generation. Ironically LIFE needs death to make more life. After all, we eat dead things, don’t we? Of course all plants and animals follow the same pattern. They come and go, often by being consumed by other living things. It’s almost March and the property here is getting ready to burst into life after the long period of die-off and dormancy that is winter. Flowers are appearing even with freezing temperatures.

The early ones are aconites, snow drops, early crocuses, and maybe violets. They express life briefly then give way to the grasses, the ferns and the flowers of spring. The pear, apple, plum and cherry trees will soon display their flowers in preparation for the fruit that will follow as long as the pollinators do their thing. The birds are into mating season and we’ll soon have baby robins, finches, nuthatches, flickers, thrushes, jays, hummingbirds, and chickadees hassling their parents, fluttering their wings and demanding food.

The sun is shining right now. It wasn’t supposed to according to the weather forecasters, but there ya go. Living and dying under the sun. That’s what’s going on. My adult life has been informed by the scholarship of life and death, that is, of life and death as considered by philosophers and scientists. The thought of my own dying hasn’t occupied very much of my time except when my mother, father, and sister Denise died, and then only briefly. Being diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer that is incurable but treatable, changed all of that. Myeloma kind of sets the stage for end-of-life considerations. There’s no escaping myeloma’s trajectory. It will kill me eventually if I don’t die of something else first. Now, I have a hard time not thinking about my dying.

For most of my teaching career I used Ernest Becker’s work (The Denial of Death, Escape From Evil) to discuss the role of the fear of death on our cultural institutions. The fear of death and the promise of immortality and their overriding presence in institutions such as patriarchy and misogyny have shaped our social relations and created the conditions necessary for human contest and eventually homicide on a grand scale and war.*Related to our fear of death is our propensity to cut deals with deities. Humans have invented thousands of gods (and related semi-gods or supernatural entities) over the millennia. We assign responsibility to those deities for natural disasters, crop success or failure, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, and the like. We even put faith in God for winning a football game or a war. We barter with the gods. We make sacrifices. We tell the gods: “Look, we are sacrificing this young woman for you by throwing her into this volcano, now you must reciprocate by ensuring our crops grow well next year.” A life bartered for more life. That’s largely the story of countless religious (and political) invocations over the millennia. Priests and politicians constantly urge us to make sacrifices so that the future will be better.

Modern medicine is an elaborate institution for the denial of death. It’s all about ‘saving’ lives, and it’s willing to go to extreme measures to accomplish that goal. Of course, ‘saving’ a life means little more than postponing a death. Obviously, I’m personally invested in modern medicine and pharmacology. I’m hoping that chemotherapy and radiation treatments will buy me time, effectively giving me more life and postponing my death. Chemotherapy and radiation treatments are not cheap. Just one of the drugs I’m taking will cost over $100,000. One of the pharmacists at the pharmacy in Victoria that dispenses the drugs I use told me over the phone recently that they have some million dollar patients out there, patients that have used these drugs for many years. I attend the Cancer Care Centre at the local hospital and I’m impressed by the technology and the expertise of the many staff nurses and doctors that work in that facility. That can’t be cheap either.

Modern medicine will go to great lengths and expense to treat patients hoping to extend their lives. It must do so otherwise it fails in its sacred mission to safeguard life and battle death, the ultimate enemy. As Becker notes, in our culture death and disease are the twin pillars of evil. Disease prevents us from enjoying the pleasures of life while death cuts them off summarily. So, we are willing to invest a great deal to save an individual life yet we are also willing to gleefully pile corpses in great heaps during war or in the context of ethnic cleansing, that vile excuse for murder, rape, and pillage as in Rwanda, 1994 or in any countless examples of such celebrated mass murders. We gladly kill for US, for our people because THEY(the enemy) are obviously responsible for our misfortune and distress. If we eliminate THEM our problems will be solved. That is the big lie. As Becker notes, we need a THEM with whom to enter into contests to show our prowess and to show our God (gods) how powerful and deserving of eternal life we are. Why do we spend so much time, energy, and money on organized sport? Sports reflect our constant need to show how deserving we are of life and more life. We win, we go to heaven. The gods are obviously on our side. We lose and we face shame and rejection. This analysis can easily be applied to American politics now too.

I’m rambling now. I guess I’m trying to avoid writing about the finitude of my life, my little life. In the face of LIFE and its overarching grip on the process of life and death, my little life doesn’t amount to much…but it’s all I’ve got really. Maybe I can celebrate my insignificance. Maybe I can celebrate the entirety of my life from beginning to end. In a way end is as necessary as beginning in the scheme of things. Let’s see what I can do with the little bit of life I have left.

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*The need for an opponent or an enemy (THEY) is based on our need to prove our worthiness in competition for the good things in life and for eternal life. The winner takes all! Very early on in human history, tribes split in two called moieties so that there would be contestants to beat proving the prowess of the winners and their qualifications for immortality.

#75. A Triple Whammy of Crap (and maybe a bit of good stuff too).

It’s been tough keeping my shit together over the past few weeks. I’m having trouble just sitting here composing this on my computer. Part of my problem is physical and part is a growing psychological ennui. I’m exhausted most of the time. Oh, I can get up and walk around a bit but sometimes that’s even too much.

Obviously myeloma has a lot to do with my unease even though I’m in remission, or I think I’m still in remission. I have a chat with my oncologist on the 22nd to confirm my status. It’s hard to know what to think anymore. My usual myeloma symptoms, peripheral neuropathy, itchiness, fatigue and weakness in my legs, are still evident, but now, I have something new to report to him.

I saw a dental specialist on December 21st. After I came to see him because of pain in my jaw, my regular dentist suggested I would probably need to have a tooth pulled and a cyst at the base of it cleaned out. Well, it turns out that the specialist I saw in Parksville figures that the pain and numbness in my jaw is not dentally related. It’s more likely myeloma induced and that the ‘cyst’ is more likely a lytic lesion. I’m still waiting for a call from him letting me know what the situation is. He has a connection with the BC Cancer Agency in Victoria so I expect he has better access than most of us to oncologists. I expect he’ll suggest radiation treatment, something we discussed on our December 21 consult, but my oncologist will decide on therapies.

Right now, I’m on a rollercoaster of symptoms and I can’t predict one day to the next how I’ll be or how much extra hydromorphone I’ll need to take to deal with the pain. My jaw is sucking up the hydromorphone, that’s for sure, but so is my back and a recurring, baffling pain in my left heel that forced me into a wheelchair at one point late last year. I can’t tell you how sick and tired I am of the pain. It leaves me physically and psychologically drained. Thank goodness I usually sleep quite well and Carolyn is envious of my ability to nap at a moment’s notice.

The title of this post is A Triple Whammy of Crap. Well, I’ve written about the pain and distress brought on by myeloma and its treatments. Myeloma and its related poop is the first part of my triple whammy. Now it’s time to move on to the other two elements of the triple whammy. First, a definition:

Triple Whammy

An online dictionary of idioms describes a triple whammy as “a combination of three different elements, circumstances, or actions that results in a particularly powerful force, outcome, or effect.”

I’ve already alluded to one element of my triple whammy, the myeloma and its treatments I deal with daily. The other two are the pandemic and American politics. So, myeloma, the pandemic (and associated restrictions) and American politics together contribute to generating in me a profound funk. With crap falling on us from all sides it’s hard to keep the smell of shit at bay.

The Pandemic

These days, we all have some sense of what it was like to live in 1918. The Spanish Flu was a powerful killer and didn’t discriminate except that wealthy people were better able to protect themselves from crowds than the poor could. That’s still the truth in 2021. The coronavirus COV-2 is adept at making many of us in the population very sick and puts a lot of pressure on the medical system as it forces hospitalizations.

One way the government and chief provincial medical officer in British Columbia have decided to combat COV-2 is by keeping us apart from each other so as to prevent the spread of the virus. Isolation is hardly ever good for a social species like us. There is a lot of evidence for what happens to people who are forced into isolation like solitary confinement in prison. They go wingy after a while. Children forced into isolation, say in an orphanage, die at much higher rate than children born and raised in poverty or in prison with their mothers.

So, in order to relieve the stress of isolation, people here find all kinds of ways of bending the rules, traveling to nearby destinations, or just getting on a plane to a warm destination because the government hasn’t outright banned travel, now has it? It just strongly recommends against it. Many politicians have decided to travel in any case, arguing that they haven’t broken any rules in doing so. Outraged commentators on social media have found all kinds of reasons to criticize them including their flouting of moral standards. Whatever.

I guess the bottom line here is that we are asked to wear masks and to keeping a physical distance from others whenever we step out of our homes. No hugs. For us that means no contact with our children and grandchildren. That sucks! We will follow the guidelines as we go along, but that doesn’t mean we’re happy about it.

American Politics

So, why would I include American politics as the last element in my triple whammy of crap? What the hell has American politics got to do with us? With me?

Well, apart from the fact that I have friends and relatives living in the United States and who have to live with the lies, the betrayals and the crap everyday, the profound disfunction of the American political system creates uncertainty for us, for all of us. The moral degeneracy in the US so easily spreads to the rest of us, especially those of us living close to the 49th parallel, and is impossible to avoid. The disrespect for democracy and the ready acceptance of oligarchy evident in the US could spread to us like a virus and infect our own fragile political systems.

Besides, the uncertainty is stressful as is the insanity. We get up in the morning not knowing what the hell Trump or his cronies in the Republican Divided Party are likely to conjure up and take up as a tool to wreck confidence in the American voting system or in any drive to greater social equality. I can tell you that I’ve had my critical judgments around the American voting system and the Electoral College in particular. That said, destroying the ship plank by plank as it sails off into the sunset may not be the best strategy for reform especially for everyone aboard.

Done.

Any one of the three elements of the triple whammy I outline above can cause inordinate stress (and does!) but the three of them together leaves a trail of discomfort and uncertainty multiplied threefold. We’ll carry on, but it’s not easy. Thankfully there are countervailing forces to help balance things out a bit.

A nap in the afternoon for one. An African violet blooming its little heart out in December and January for another.

I’ll be backing off writing here for a time. I’m not sure for how long. I’ve got to get a sense of balance back into my life (if I ever can). The truth is I’m 74 years old and sick with myeloma. Many days all I want to do is sleep.

Many people tell me that the power to heal is within me. I just need to harness it, to think positively, and to ignore negative influences in my life. At 74, that’s easier said than done. It’s usually younger, healthier people who urge me to get my power pack in motion. Of course, nobody messes with death, positive thinking or not.

#73. Surprises, Leo Panitch, and an African violet.

This will be a short pre-Christmas post, just to cheer you up a bit. The first part is a short comment on Leo Panitch, a Canadian scholar and academic most of you will never have heard of who died recently of Covid-19. The second part is a short update on my situation which keeps throwing up unwelcome surprises for us.

Leo Panitch (1945-2020)

Panitch was a Jewish kid from Winnipeg. I was a French Canadian kid from British Columbia (?), but we both were from working class families. Leo Panitch joined a panoply of incipient Marxist and leftist social scientists, many American, some draft-dodgers, who began to populate the halls of Canadian universities in the late 1960s, throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. He was one of the more thoughtful and moderate among them. He was a political economist, political scientist, and sociologist who wrote tons of books and articles on Marxist science relating to global economic development. I had a great deal of respect for his work. I ran into him a couple of times at conferences but we weren’t buddies or anything like that.

He died on Saturday, December 19th, 2020 of Covid-19. Just a short time before his death, he had contracted pneumonia, and even a bit earlier than that he had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma. He must have been in a highly weakened state when he succumbed to Covid-19. I have no idea how long he had myeloma before he finally got a diagnosis but that disease has a way of smacking one down, keeping one weak and off balance. It’s a disease that is not easy to detect and its symptoms mimic the symptoms of many other conditions. I have no idea how long I had had myeloma before getting a diagnosis but that’s just about how I felt in December last year as I embarked on months of chemotherapy.

Panitch and I had some things in common. Certainly, we had multiple myeloma in common. We were both scholars but he worked mainly in universities whereas I worked in colleges. We shared an intellectual tradition of critical inquiry into the rise of global capitalism. He wrote a great deal, works that I was able to use in my teaching. I got involved in television based teaching and published very little that could be considered scholarship. I focussed on teaching as he did. His eulogies note that his work as a teacher was his most satisfying. His students certainly considered him a great teacher. He will be sorely missed.

Me and Myeloma Now

A few days ago, maybe 10, I was sitting in my chair when I noticed my lower left jaw was hurting a bit. One of my teeth seemed a bit wobbly and weak. It was nothing much. It remained like that for a few days, but as it got closer to the weekend and the pain seemed to increase slightly I figured I had better try to get in to see my dentist. I didn’t want to be chasing after a dentist this week or next week either.

So, my dentist is a great guy. He’s been the family dentist for over thirty years. We know each other very well. After I had been diagnosed with myeloma last year my oncologist said I should make sure to get checked up by my dentist, so I did. He was very upset with the diagnosis and was super attentive. I didn’t hesitate to contact him last week so that if I needed a tooth extracted that could happen before the holidays.

I contacted his office on Thursday. By Friday afternoon, he had arranged for me to get a special imaging session set up at a local dental surgeon’s office. With that, I then had a consultation with my dentist himself on Friday afternoon. Using the x-ray images he determined that I had a tooth that was dead and a cyst just below it. Both would have to come out. At the same time, though, anticipating an extraction and possible problems with the cyst, he was able to call in some favours and got me into an office of dental surgery in Parksville sometime on Monday (yesterday). We got a call from Parksville on Monday morning asking if we could be there by 11:45. Yes, of course we could…even in the snow!

We just made it for 11:45, Carolyn driving carefully in the snow and slush as we passed four or five cars in the ditch. Turns out, this doctor in Parksville is a real star and was familiar with multiple myeloma. After talking for some time and going over my symptoms, especially the numbness in my jaw, and the location of the pain, we determined that the dark spot (typical of myeloma lesions) on the x-ray we had taken the day before was in all likelihood a myeloma lesion and had nothing to do with my teeth. Well, that changes everything, doesn’t it? I wasn’t expecting that.

I was expecting to go down there and come back with one less tooth. That was not to be. Instead, this doctor arranged to contact my oncologist in Victoria so that they could together decide what to do, if anything. I get blood tests on January 5th, and I have an appointment with my oncologist on January 22nd.

At this point I have no idea what to think. I should know in a month whether the myeloma has retuned or not. If not, that would be great! If it has returned, then we decide on a new course of chemotherapy. Not something I look forward to.

Whatever! Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays or any other greeting you may like!

We have high hopes for 2021. We need this virus to get lost but we don’t want to go back to things as they were. What do you want to keep from the past and what would you like to unload?

I love this little African violet we have in the bathroom. As you can see most of the flowers have died off quite some time ago. The plant was bare for a while. Then, all of a sudden, this flower emerges and it’s still blooming its head off. I like that. It’s been recently joined by another blossom! So cool.

Merry African Christmas!

#71 My Life With Multiple Myeloma

I just finished reading Deaf Sentence, a novel by David Lodge. Carolyn tells me it isn’t Lodge’s best work, but I quite enjoyed it. I really should review it sometime on Amazon. In any case, finishing a novel for me is quite something. I don’t usually read books until I go to bed, and that’s usually around 9 PM. At that point I may read a few pages, but usually I fall asleep after a few minutes with book still in hand or Kindle on but with light out. I was about half way through the book a couple of days ago after reading it for a couple of months. For some reason, I went to bed as usual but unlike most nights, there’s no way I could fall asleep. I had no hint of sleepiness. So, I started reading the book at around 9:15 and, except for pee breaks, I didn’t put the book down until 5 AM. Now that’s a marathon reading session for me. Completely unpredictable and not particularly welcome, but after I realized that there was no way I was going to sleep I relaxed and enjoyed the book. Finished it too!. Damn the clock!

In the book, when the main protagonist’s father dies at age 89, he takes it as an opportunity to muse about death in general. He quotes Wittgenstein, probably the most famous of all 20th Century philosophers who died in 1951, and who wrote: ” Death is not an event of life. You cannot experience it, you can only behold it happening to others with various degrees of pity and fear, knowing that one day it will happen to you.” Having myeloma I can assure you that death is never far from my mind.

Still, life goes on. I certainly don’t think about death all the time. Every once in a while I’ll remember that I have incurable cancer and I say to myself: “Yeah, I’m on my way out. But then I think I might not face death for another ten years. There have been many other myeloma patients who have lived over ten years. It’s not at all uncommon. I really don’t dwell on it. Dealing with pain on a daily basis takes up much more brain power than contemplating death. Thankfully, I have some dedicated palliative care docs who talk with me every week so as to constantly tweak my meds. It seems to be working better than it has been. I can usually sleep these days without taking ‘breakthrough’ hydromorphone. The gabapentin seems to be doing its job but I wouldn’t swear to that in court.

Most days I spend in my recliner although I do get up now and again for a bout of exercise. We have a semi-recumbent bike in my studio. I use that occasionally although it’s not my favourite way of getting exercise. I really enjoy walking on the River Walkway but I don’t get there that often. It may be that I’ll have to drive myself down there two or three times a week. Carolyn usually walks the dogs in the morning on the trails in Cumberland. I really can’t join her because of the distances she walks, the pain in my legs, and the uneven walking surfaces. I’m not complaining, just thinking out loud trying to figure out a way of getting a little more exercise without too much danger to myself or others. I drove the truck the other day without too much trouble so I think I can do it more regularly. Carolyn is doing an important job walking the mutts, so she needs to be free to do that. It’s true that I don’t need as much looking after than I did a few weeks ago. I still have moments of excruciating pain, but Carolyn can’t do anything about that. She is already very attentive and an excellent caregiver. I am so fortunate.

A few days ago, feeling chipper, I went out into the yard to do a few chores, like chop firewood. Yes, we still burn wood. In fact, we just got a new wood stove that is rated at 1.8 gr/hr. It’s a Pacific Energy wood stove made in Duncan, same brand as we had before, but with many upgrades from our old stove. You won’t see smoke coming out of our chimney 98% of the time, only for a few minutes when we first get it going in the morning. We burn only dry wood, down at least 14 months. We check the humidity of our firewood with a humidity gauge. I expect we’re among the most responsible wood stove users in the Valley. I’m sure people will still object to us burning firewood. So be it.

My recliner is close to the stove. I like it. Keeps me warm inside and out.

Tilly is getting so big. Seven months old, well over 70 pounds now. Not only that but she’s losing her puppy ways and is becoming a really sweet dog. Carolyn has posted recent pictures of her on Facebook. She’s big buddies with Cooper, the neighbour’s dog. He’s ‘intact’ and was getting very interested in Tilly’s butt so we thought it wise to have her spayed. She got through that very well. Now, she and Cooper fly around the yard wrestling and playing tug-o-war with a toy or a stick. They’ve destroyed so much of the garden with their antics but Carolyn just shrugs knowing that things will recover and will thrive come spring. We can only hope the dogs get more relaxed as time goes on and are less apt to run around the property like gilly-galoos. We expect they will get mellower and mellower as they age. That’s generally the way it works with dogs. Tilly always gets treats from me first thing in the morning. She might even get some later in the day if she’s a good dog, and she is most often a good dog. She gives us lots of kisses.

Tilly

#70 Fun With Meds.

I’m finally able to write a few paragraphs. My neck has been such a problem lately that I haven’t been able to write much or draw and paint much either. It’s because my neck gets spasms easily if I look down at the computer screen for too long. Ten minutes at a time is about all I can handle. However, I remembered that acetaminophen works quite well for neck pain. I took a couple last night for my arthritis and degenerative disks in my neck and that seemed to help. I took a couple at around 8 AM this morning and now, although I still have neck pain, it’s manageable. We’ll see how long it works. I want to go outside and play.

Funny how I used to take acetaminophen regularly for some kinds of pain and it worked marginally well. Then I forgot about it when I got into stronger meds after my cancer diagnosis. Hydromorphone is my go to pain reliever now, but I’m also taking a low dose of gabapentin on the advice of my palliative care docs.

Palliative care docs are specialists in pain management. They often get linked with end-of-life care, but their mandate is much broader than that and is tied to pain management generally. We talk every week, usually on Wednesdays always working to fine tune my meds to balance pain with my need to be able to do some activity. Of course, as my pain doc told me this week they could easily make me pain free. I’d be pretty much catatonic though so we’ll probably save that for when I’m closer to dying. No, the objective with my pain docs is to balance pain management with quality of life.

I must say that lately it’s been a bit of an odd dance. We tried nortriptyline but it made me excessively sleepy without doing much to lessen my pain levels. We tried a really low dose of gabapentin. That hasn’t seemed to have worked very well so we’re now increasing my dose of gabapentin to a bit of a higher dose to see if that makes a difference. That’s always on top of my basic hydromorphone slow release tablets that I take morning and evening.

I suggested to my pain doc yesterday that I should just go off of all pain meds to just see what happens. She said that I probably shouldn’t do that because the pain would be unbearable without some intervention. I have to agree, but it’s frustrating. It’s hard to know which med is doing what when I take a cocktail of meds. It would be simple to back off to just one med, but that wouldn’t work either because as I noted before, neurological pain is different from muscle pain with is different from bone pain, arthritis and disk disease. I need different meds for the various kinds of pain I have so a cocktail is required. Simple would be nice, but it’s not practical.

So, I sit here now banging away on my computer keyboard. My neck pain is manageable but really annoying. I’m hoping the increased dose of gabapentin will deal with the neurological pain I have in my legs, but we’ll see. It takes a while to kick in. I’ve had two MRIs this week. The first one was on Monday and imaged my lower back. The one yesterday was for my upper back and neck. I’m not sure how they may help with diagnosis or with determining what drugs will work for me, but at least they will give us a good baseline for subsequent tests.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the time I have left. I have incurable cancer so it’s like I’m on death row waiting to see if my next appeal (chemo course) works or not. I’m technically in remission right now. We’ll know in January how that’s going. I’m scheduled for blood tests on January 5th, the day after my 74th birthday. That will mark seven months that I’ve been off of chemotherapy. I hope those little bastard myeloma proteins take a long vacation and I can stay off of chemo for a while longer.

Inevitably though, chemo won’t work anymore and that will be that. Bring on the morphine and call in hospice and MAID people at that point. When I get to the point that I can’t DO anything anymore, I will probably welcome my exit from this mortal coil. The thing I regret is putting my family through a long, prolonged, slow exit. Maybe it would be better to pull the plug sooner than later. But I’m not ready to make that decision. So, we carry on, balancing meds, counting on chemo to beat back the myeloma proteins when they get out of hand, and hoping for the best.

I haven’t written at all about politics lately. I’m tempted to, but my neck pain may decide how much I can write, draw and paint. Politics is fun, but it’s not at the top of my list of priorities at the moment. Cancer has a way of focussing my attention narrowly on my life and possibility. I’m still interested in BC politics, Trump, etcetera, but they just aren’t centre of mind like they used to be for me when I was teaching. The pandemic is close to mind too, of course. I’d love to see my family as much as I can. Covid makes that impossible. Cancer and Covid are dominating my life right now. Not the best of scenarios, but I do have Carolyn to commiserate with and to share my Covid isolation.

I’m not sure how we can talk about happiness in the circumstances we are in. I’m not happy about any of this shit but that doesn’t help much either. It’s just that how in hell can anybody be happy right now?

#69 World Kindness Day – Yes, it is!

Yes, today is World Kindness Day, a holiday celebrated in many countries since 1998. It’s also Friday the 13th, but let’s ignore that for the moment. You’ll be pleased to know that there’s a World Kindness Movement too. It’s front and centre in the kindness celebrations that are held in many places around the globe today.

I promised one of my blog readers that I would write about kindness sometime. This is an opportune time to do so. She also wanted me to write about recognizing others, a gesture that gives their feelings a boost and their existence added social value. To be snubbed is to be humiliated, as is being chosen the last player for the pick-up soccer team on the neighbourhood pitch after school. We yearn to be recognized and not ignored. There is an element of kindness to acknowledging others in social situations or at any time for that matter.

But what is kindness? Miriam-Webster defines kindness thusly: “the quality or state of being kind”. Well, that helps a lot. So what is the definition of kind? Miriam-Webster replies: “a group united by common traits or interests.” But wait, this is the definition of kind as a noun as in ‘what kind of car do you drive?’ So, what is the definition of kind as an adjective? Miriam-Webster helps us out again: to be kind is to be of a sympathetic or helpful nature.

Well, okay then: to be kind is to be sympathetic or helpful. That’s generally how I would use the word. However we still have to reckon with the noun variation of the word. The image below is of Marvin Harris’ Our Kind, a book he published in 1989 as a project designed to help educate college students (among others) who, at the time, were unable to recognize the boundaries of the United States or know who’s side the Soviet Union was on during World War II. Our Kind is a compendium of what makes us human, of “the evolution of human life and culture” according to the cover.

Humans are of one kind in essential terms, we are one species after all, but we are still divided in a myriad of ways. We are one with our kin (a word akin to kind) but the further away we get from our kin (our sibs), the less we feel bound to be kind to people. Who are the people we can expect kindness from? People who are kin to begin with, then anyone we can define as part of a kin-like group, a group that can be defined socially, politically, geographically, or in whatever way we decide qualifies as a membership pass.

The reader who suggested this topic to me is genuinely concerned with the divisiveness and viciousness of much of what passes for social and political discourse these days. The lack of civility is glaring in some quarters to the point where conversation is impossible. Shouting replaces discourse.

Harris, in the 1980s, was dismayed at the low level of civility and kindness exhibited by a large percentage of the population. He doesn’t say it, but I will. There will be no possibility of kindness, sympathy, and civility enduring as basic human values until we break down our current social and political boundaries and accept each and every human being on this planet as one of ‘our kind.’

It’s as simple as that, but as complicated as that too. The reasons we divide ourselves so earnestly into political and social groups according to Ernest Becker is partly as the basis for competition, competition designed to separate the winners from the losers in the eyes of the gods.

At the moment we are witnessing massive cleavages in the fabric of American society, cleavages that seem to be politically defined around political parties, but which are essentially about who qualifies for assent into the realm of the few divinely chosen. The religious has infiltrated the political in American society to the point where ‘opponents’ are seen as evil incarnate and where anything less than total victory is unacceptable and will not be tolerated because the alternative is death.

I am not particularly optimistic about American politics or about global politics for that matter. I don’t know if there is the will necessary to unite people and to set aside divisions of politics, class, race and sex so as to see everyone qualify to be included in our kind.

There seems to be plenty of will for division with the vast majority of social institutions organized to divide. Are things as dire as I portray them here? No, they aren’t. After all there are strong unifying forces in the world too.

Maybe more on this later. I’ve written about this before if you care to peruse my archives you’ll see what I mean, but I’m also willing to explore more fully some of the themes introduced here, particularly those around competition and division. These have an ‘animal’ dimension as well as socio-religious ones.

# 66. Pain for Gain, Fall Colours in the Garden, and Under the Microscope.

Pain For Gain

Re: the art of tying knots on the scourge so as to experience the most exquisite pain so as to deny our bodies and bring us closer to God.

When I was twelve years old in 1959 my parents sent me off to a private Catholic boarding school in Edmonton, the Collège St. Jean. I boarded a CN train with some forty boys from British Columbia destined to make up a substantial minority of boarders at this school. No way I was going to be left behind. I’m sure I begged my parents to allow me to join my peers in Edmonton. The College was run by Oblate priests (Oblats de Marie Immaculée), a Catholic missionary order founded in France in 1816. 

In this post I don’t focus on my attendance at this school although that is a topic deserving of its own exploration. No. My interest here is to highlight aspects of the life and activities of one of the Brothers who worked at the College from its inception in 1908-11 until 1947, the year of his death. His name was Frère Antoine Kowalczyk. He was born in Poland in 1866, moved to Alberta in 1897 and died in Edmonton in 1947 after serving the College for some thirty-six years. During his tenure at the College he was one of two Oblate Brothers.

Oblate Brothers acted as custodians, gardeners and caretakers. They did the grunt work around the place along with a contingent of nuns from the congregation of Les Soeurs de la charité d’Evron who fed us, did our laundry (poor women), and looked after the infirmary. Oblate priests were our professors (with the odd exception) and served as the College administrators.

Brother Anthony (Frère Antoine) died in 1947, a few months after I was born so there was no chance I would ever meet him. The good Brother would not be alive to see the major expansion of the College in the 1950s, but the College did everything it could to keep his memory alive because Brother Anthony was special. Normally, he would have received a nice funeral and would be buried in the Oblate cemetery in St. Albert, not far from Edmonton, and then all but forgotten. That was not to be for Brother Anthony. Yes, he did have a nice funeral and yes, he is buried in St. Albert but he has not been forgotten.

Because of his exemplary life, Frère Antoine is being considered for sainthood and has been for quite some time. The local Catholics would love to have a real honest-to-goodness saint come out of their community. We all want our heroes. Brother Anthony was to become one of Edmonton’s Catholic heroes and saints-to-be.

I recall reading a number of extremely laudatory tracts about Frère Antoine when I was a student at the College and I still clearly remember the grotto that he built to the Virgin Mary which probably still stands next to the College’s administration building. Some of his personal effects were on display in the main College building. They are what interest me the most about Frère Antoine along with the efforts to have the Vatican declare him a saint.

The glass encased display of his personal effects included his rosary and breviary along with more mundane items such as his cassock, candle holders, and some tools. For me, the most striking item in the display was his scourge, the whip he used for self flagellation. When I first laid eyes on the scourge at age 12 or 13 I was astounded as to why anyone would want to inflict pain on themselves as Frère Antoine obviously had. How could that be? Pain was a bad thing, wasn’t it? Well, maybe not always.

Pain is important as a signal that something isn’t quite right in the body. People who cannot feel pain may hurt themselves in a myriad of ways without knowing it. The condition called congenital analgesia is extremely rare. Less rare is the situation in which people deliberately hurt themselves. People, mostly youths, cut themselves with razors, knives, and other sharp things for a myriad of reasons. I don’t think Brother Anthony whipped himself for the same reasons ‘cutters’ do.

For Brother Anthony, whipping himself or self-flagellation was a means of punishing or mortifying the flesh. Why? Because the flesh is weak now isn’t it? Succumbing to its many potential delights in eating, sex, and just plain moving is considered by Catholic theology as a (if not the) most important source of sin in the world. The seven deadly sins are, in fact, mostly about denying the pleasures of the flesh. After all, the flesh dies while the spirit lives for eternity as the story goes. Most religions in fact promote the spirit as the vehicle for eternal life. I guess it’s just an easy step from avoiding sin to actively ‘mortifying’ the flesh, that is to punish it physically for being the source of death.

But Brother Anthony wasn’t content with a wee bit of self-flagellation during Lent. He spent time with his scourge. What I remember of it, his scourge consisted of several leather strands with knots tied carefully at intervals to intensify the pain and help to cut the flesh. The story is that he whipped himself regularly as he fought with his devil flesh.

I refer to Brother Anthony here specifically because he is a flagellant of my past, but the institution of self-flagellation is not just a Catholic thing. It’s also a practice of Shia Islam and Judaism although in no religion is it standard practice. It’s generally practiced by the over-zealous as is certainly the case in the Philippines and elsewhere. Brother Anthony certainly was zealous and it strikes me that the aim to canonize him is partly based on his zeal.

Reading about the myriad ways in which people deliberately cause themselves pain has not led me to reconsider my attitudes towards pain. For me pain is not something I experience with joy. It is a reminder to me of the weakness of the flesh for sure and of my mortality. That’s fine. I accept that.

If there’s one thing that is common to all human culture it’s the denial of death, and consequently, the promotion of the spirit as the essence of being and as our way to immortality. That’s not a universal value to which I subscribe so my pain and I have to live with each other ’til death do us part.

Fall Colours in the Garden

Our garden is flush with colour from the earliest days of spring and well into the Fall. Now is the time for dying and dead leaves to put on a show, extending the dominance of colour before bare branches impart a new dynamic to the garden along with some evergreen trees and shrubs that are just that, ever green. Below you can see pictures of blueberry bushes in full Fall splendour along with some maples, red and Japanese, Virginia creeper, and sumac.

Under the Microscope

Nothing extra special about this set of images. The first one is of my blood. It’s red, not surprisingly. The blue is a photo of a rough blue paper. The other three are yellow and black. The multicoloured one is in fact black to the naked eye, black being the sum of all colours. The one with only red dots is a light yellow and the one with red and green dots is a darker yellow.

#65. Musings, Flowers, and In Memoriam.

Musings

It’s October 5th, 2020. That means it’s pretty much a year since I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. I expected that this month would be my last one in my first course of chemotherapy. As it turns out it was not my last month because I decided a couple of months ago to forgo my last two cycles of chemo treatments because of the neurological damage I was experiencing. Chemo was doing away with the myeloma protein in my blood but it was also killing me. That’s not good, so we decided to stop.

Who knows what happens now. I went to the lab last week for some blood tests in anticipation of visits with oncologists later this month. I have the results: they show that my Lambda Free Light Chains (a type of blood protein that is used as a marker for myeloma) are trending up, now out of the zone the medical profession has decided is the reference (some would say, normal) zone. That is not good news, in my opinion. The increase in my Lambda Free Light Chains hasn’t been dramatic, but it sure concerned me.

I contacted Dr. Malcolm Brigden’s office in Victoria. Brigden is the oncologist assigned to me by the BC Cancer Agency. His assistant, after consulting with the good doctor, advised that there was no clinical reason for me to have my meeting with said Dr. Brigden brought forward as I had requested because Light Chain numbers go up and down all the time.

That’s not what I’m seeing in the test results but I’m no oncologist. Still, I’m seeing a definite trend in one direction.

So we wait until October 21t to drive to Victoria for a fifteen minute appointment with said Dr. Brigden. The issue for me (for us, including the family) is where I’m at in terms of treatment. Brigden will decide what to do now that I’ve been off of chemotherapy for three months. He may decide to do nothing and wait for my next set of blood tests. He may decide to get me started on another course of chemo. I expect he’ll choose the former, that is he’ll choose to do nothing and wait for test results three months down the road. Whatever. I have some research to do about how Lambda Free Light Chains react in remission but before a new course of treatment is initiated. You may detect a note of cynicism in my composition here. If you did, you’d be right. I’ve read a fair bit about oncology, both the research and clinical aspects of it and I can’t help but feel that clinicians are all over the map in terms of treatment options and approaches. There are no real standards in the field. That is partly due to the idiopathic nature of myeloma. There is no one treatment option for patients in relapse.

I guess I need to be patient. I find patience a little difficult to achieve these days, but I need to cultivate a ‘letting go’ approach to this ‘problem.’

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In Memoriam. Thinking of you.

Sarah Kerr died on October 3rd after maybe six years of suffering with colon cancer. In 2018 she gave an interview to the Comox Valley Record in which she claims to have had over 60 chemo treatments over the previous five years. That’s just not the way it works for myeloma. I got one over the last year. In the same interview she reports on various different alternative therapies she tried including vitamin C infusions (@$200/week). Her quality of life was severely affected by her chemo treatments.I didn’t know Sarah very well. She was more of an acquaintance than a friend. I knew her from my pre-retirement North Island College days with Sarah making pots and just generally being around the Art Department. She was a Facebook friend too. We had a large number of FB friends in common.

The last time I spoke with Sarah was a few weeks ago on my way into the Cancer Care Centre at the hospital here. She was just heading out after a treatment. Neither of us had much time to chat. Sarah was obviously much distressed. I don’t know anything about colon cancer but I know she suffered tremendously from it. It was unrelenting. No more, Sarah.

Dennis Renaud died on September 30, 2020. He worked for many years at the Courtenay Return-it Centre. I got to know him a bit over the years partly because we were both French-Canadians from outside Quebec. He had Joseph in his name too. Many French-Canadians of a certain generation do. The women have Mary somewhere in their name.

The thing I noticed about Dennis was the way he worked. I’m always impressed by people who work in jobs that could be seen as extremely mundane and boring, but who seem to try to get the most out of every action they undertake as they work. It was obvious to me watching Dennis work that he was always looking for the most efficient way of moving cans and bottles along from the desk to the roller conveyers behind him. He could count bottle and cans very quickly and he never lost a beat. He was one of the most efficient workers I knew.

I didn’t know Dennis socially. He was a FB friend for some time, but he wasn’t that active on social media. In April of this year he was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. Five months later he was dead. He was two years younger than me. A good, former Catholic, sort of French Canadian kid, like me.

In a way I envy you Dennis. No lingering around with chemo treatment after chemo treatment with shit for quality of life. I think Sarah might just agree with me and in a way she might envy you too.

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Flowers.

I love begonias. Carolyn grew these in a hanging pot just outside the back door. I saw the every time I walked to the back yard, a half dozen times a day. These flowers are deadly difficult to render realistically. I need a lot more practice to do them well. I’m learning, though. In ‘nature’ there are no lines but drawing this flower requires that I draw lines. The trick is to make the lines disappear into the contours of the subject. It’s not possible with ink, at least it’s not easy. Besides I love the effect ink gives a piece and if I want to look at a begonia not translated via the synapses of my brain I just look at the photo. The begonia I draw tells me as much about my synapses and my brain as it does about the subject matter.

This is quite impressionistic. Definitely not ‘realistic.’

The begonias below, one behind the other are stunning in my mind.

I draw them using a .3 copic pen and then use watercolour on them. This time I use a wet watercolour technique. I haven’t finished this piece yet as you can see. The next one I do will be done with no ink, just watercolour directly on paper with no preparatory drawing. We’ll see how that goes.

And now just look at all the other beautiful flowers that are still blooming in the garden in early October!

If you feel so moved you might just want to ‘like’ my post!