The Kindness of Evolution.

Lately I’ve been reading books by Kim Stanley Robinson. He’s a contemporary science fiction writer who ranges freely into dystopia and utopia. I first read his Mars Trilogy and I’m now following that up with New York 2140. Imagine New York fifty feet deeper in water than it is now. Half the buildings in Lower Manhattan are partially submerged and roads are now canals. Flooding has not stopped the rapaciousness of capitalism, however, which has gotten worse in the next one hundred years. It may just get its comeuppance though. Robinson’s work, although not high literature, is prescient in my estimation and is a fun read.

Most people would consider the drowning of coastal cities a disaster, and it undoubtedly is, but we don’t have to wait until 2140 to find out what coastal flooding can do. We’re getting a taste of it now. We’re also getting a taste of what fire can do as well as tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanoes, etcetera. Reading the news these days, and you’ll be introduced to fires in British Columbia, dams bursting in China, and floods ravaging Germany. So, disasters are not uncommon, and the News media are only too happy to tell you all about them. 

Still, we don’t seem to be able to get prepared for natural disasters so as to mitigate the worst of the damage they cause. Recently, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, opined that they would have to do better in the future regarding disaster preparation. I might note that disaster preparedness is only going to happen if there is money to be made in doing it. That may seem cynical, but history bears me out, I think. 

One thing we have to recognize is that there are many kinds of disasters, and they don’t all unfold at the same rate. A volcano usually happens at a very fast pace, but climate change, which must be considered a high magnitude disaster, unfolds are a glacial pace although some of its effects unfold as quickly as any natural disaster because, in effect, that’s what they are.

Something very interesting about human psychology is the surprise or denial we all experience in the face of disaster. Flooding? Well, we didn’t expect that now did we. Cancer? Surprise, surprise! Why me? Climate change? Nah, it ain’t happening. 

Robinson has an explanation for our reactions to disaster or catastrophe:

“…you can’t really imagine a catastrophe will hit you until it does. People just don’t have that kind of mental capacity. If you did, you would be stricken paralytic with fear at all times, because there are some guaranteed catastrophes bearing down on you that you aren’t going to be able to avoid (i.e. death), so evolution has kindly given you a strategically located mental blind spot, an inability to imagine future disasters in any way you can really believe, so that you can continue to function, as pointless as that may be. It is an aporia, as the Greeks and intellectuals among us would say, a “not-seeing.” So, nice. Useful. Except when disastrously bad.” (from “New York 2140” by Kim Stanley Robinson)

So, Robinson argues that natural selection has kindly provided us with a “strategically located mental blind spot” when it comes to disasters, including death. Death for all of us is the ultimate, unmitigated disaster, but we deny that it’s coming, or we just turn the other way and hope for the best. We just can’t believe or accept that a disaster is happening. I expect that other species have much the same reaction to disaster that we do. It would be impossible to be anticipating disaster all the time. As Robinson points out above, if that were the case “you would be stricken paralytic with fear at all times”. 

As Robert Sapolsky notes in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers*, zebras are stricken with fear when they are chased by a lion, but if they avoid getting killed, they return to grazing on the riverbank as if nothing had happened. Humans, on the other hand, can imagine future catastrophe, but not in a way we can really believe. For example, as I drive down the highway, I don’t expect that around every curve an oncoming car will skid into my lane and crash into me head-on. If that were the case, I think I’d have to give up driving. Same goes for death. If I thought about my death every minute of every day, I would be unable to function in life. 

Thanks to evolution, we have a “mental blind spot” when it comes to catastrophes and disasters. Life would be impossible without it. Still, we must deal with the generalized anxiety that the possibility of disaster engenders, hence our proneness for getting ulcers and/or visiting psychiatrists.

*Sapolsky, Robert. 2004. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, New York: Henry Holt.

And the beat goes on…

Yes, it does. Sonny and Cher knew what they were singing about what seems like a lifetime ago now. I don’t know why, but the fact that Sonny died slammed up against a tree on a ski slope in Lake Tahoe the day after my birthday (January 5th) 1998 has my current attention. I guess it’s because his is a good example of a quick, unpredictable, death. Sonny had no time to sweat it. Death just happened to Sonny. No time to ruminate about it. Go Sonny go! I must confess that in some ways I envy Sonny his quick release.

Moving on, in my last post I told you that there was no longer any trace of multiple myeloma in my blood. I’m happy about that, but I must attach a disclaimer to that fact. The multiple myeloma will return. As I’ve repeated over and over, multiple myeloma is incurable although it is treatable. My oncologists have suggested to me that myeloma is a lot like type 2 diabetes in the way that it is treated by the medical profession. 

So, I can reasonably expect to make it to my eightieth birthday, although, frankly, longevity is not the holy grail here. And, of course, the six years from now until my eightieth year are not years owed to me. They are purely hypothetical time, years I might live, and years I might not. Moreover, as far as I know, after I’m dead, I won’t be able to regret anything about my life, how I lived it and for how long. “I” will not be so it’s ridiculous to speculate on what “I” might do after “I” am no longer. After I’m dead, “I” enter my immortality stage. 

I was not going to explore the whole business of mortality in this post, but I changed my mind. Bear with me. I just want to introduce here some ideas that I’ll come back to it in an upcoming post. These are not simple concepts to grasp, but, if you make the effort, it may help you understand life and death as I see them. So, here we go:

Humans are mortal, but only as long as we’re alive. To be blunt about it, it’s only when we are alive that we can die. Once we die, we are no longer mortal, we now become immortal, that is, we no longer change, and we consist only of what others remember of us. Our lives are complete. Simply put, immortal means not mortal. Well, once we’re dead, we are no longer mortal, by definition. We’ve arrived! We’ve become immortal! That doesn’t mean that we will live on forever in some form or other as defined by most of the religions that exist on this planet. No. “We” exist, after our deaths, only in the minds of others. 

My definition of immortality is clearly not the one espoused by most religions. The Abrahamic religions, for example, get around the problem of death by coming up with the idea of the soul. According to Christianity, the soul is the immortal aspect of human existence and is continuous before and after death. The body may return to the planetary store of compounds, atoms, and molecules, but the soul, well, the soul lives on in some kind of ill-defined relationship with a deity, “God” in the case of Christianity.  My definition of immortality does not acknowledge the bicameral nature of the person as consisting of body and soul. I see no evidence for the existence of a soul. Therefore, it does not ‘fit’ into any explanatory scheme I concoct. 

I could go on and on about death and dying as most of you well know, and as I promised I’ll get back to it in a subsequent post, but for now I’ll drop the philosophizing about immortality, death and dying and take up an issue that I’m currently faced with given the fact that we’ve tamed my myeloma. 

A few months ago, while I was still struggling with active myeloma, the pain in my bones was severe, and it was compounded by peripheral neuropathic pain. At that time a priority for me was pain relief. It still is to a large extent, but now, my priority is to see how far I can go in weaning myself off pain medications that were crucial for me for the time I was under the full effect of myeloma.  Now, I’m on two prescription pain medications and I take acetaminophen when I think of it. I was on three prescription pain meds until just recently, but I quit one of the medications cold turkey. Along with several annoying side effects, one of the more insidious side effects of that medication is dry mouth. My sense of taste was affected. I could barely taste some of my favourite foods and some I could not taste at all. I was anxious to try life without this med and as it turns out I’m quite confident that I’ll be fine without it. 

That leaves me with two pain meds. Gabapentin is a med I take for neuropathic pain. I’m currently cutting back on it to see how it goes. I’m not going cold turkey on Gabapentin, but I am determined to eliminate it from my pantheon of drugs. Hydromorphone is the drug that is the backbone of my pain treatment. I take it in slow-release form twice a day to deal with the daily predictable pain I get from myeloma’s excavations of my femurs as well as from sciatica and degenerative disk disease. I can also take hydromorphone in what’s called a pain breakthrough mode. That is, if the slow-release form of hydromorphone isn’t doing the job, I can take a more fast-acting form of the drug in any amount I feel is needed. I have taken breakthrough hydromorphone, but only sporadically, and as a last resort. I take as little of this drug that I feel will do the job. Taking more than a few milligrams of breakthrough hydromorphone leaves me hallucinating, not something I enjoy.  

The problem is that I’m seventy-four and at my age, the degenerative process is well under way. There’s no stopping it, and it’s not satisfied until it’s done. At my age, just about everybody has back pain and sciatica. These are conditions endemic to the species. It serves us right to have evolved from an arboreal species to one that is bipedal and an upright walker. Monkeys don’t have back problems. 

So, my challenge at the moment is to reduce my intake of pain meds to the point where I get pain relief without experiencing all the negative side effects of the various meds involved. So far so good. We’ll see how it goes.

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I’m writing this post on one of the hottest days of the year so far with tomorrow promising to be even hotter yet. Thankfully we have air conditioning, so the house is staying at a very acceptable 24.5˚C. Outside today, according to our weather station, the temperature has topped out at around 40˚C. Tomorrow, the prognosticators have promised us temperatures of 40˚C at mid-afternoon, so the beat goes on. 

I’m not complaining about the weather. The weather is what it is. It doesn’t respond to our needs, but instead requires that we respond to it if we’re not happy with it. Good luck with that. On to the next post now. Maybe I’ll take less time to get it out than it took me to get this one out. No promises. 

Check out this article Carolyn found for me. It’s a great discussion of chronic pain:

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/jun/28/sufferers-of-chronic-pain-have-long-been-told-its-all-in-their-head-we-now-know-thats-wrong?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

# 87. The Last Post in a Series.

Last Friday morning, we (Carolyn and I) had a meeting with my oncology consultant, Dr. Nicol Macpherson, at the BC Cancer Agency in Victoria. We meet with the oncologist in Victoria maybe three times a year. The rest of the time we have a local GP who specializes in cancer treatment. Our local GP oncologist is Dr. Bakshi. We’re quite happy with the service we get from the BCCA and from the local staff of nurses and Dr. Bakshi at the Cancer Care Centre at the Comox Valley Hospital. The meeting with Dr. Macpherson this morning was especially eventful. 

I knew that I was doing well with the chemotherapy and monoclonal antibody treatments I am getting. I started my current regime in mid-February of this year and the progress I made in a month was nothing short of stunning. We keep an eye on my frequent lab tests by logging into an Island Health website called MyHealth. On that site I get to see all the results of my lab tests, imaging results, and upcoming appointments. Obviously, we need to know what we’re looking at when we check out my blood serum profile including my paraprotein and Kappa Free Light Chain numbers which are of particular interest in my case. After some research and consultation, we now have a grip on what the lab results mean for my myeloma activity although the information is always incomplete and must be interpreted fully by someone who has better access than we do to the numbers. That someone is Dr. Macpherson in Victoria although Dr. Bakshi must also have access to my numbers, and my GP is probably copied on all the documentation coming from the hospital here and from Victoria. Now for the fun part:

So, Macpherson told us this past Friday morning that there is no trace of myeloma protein in my blood at the moment. No trace at all. He expects that that will be the case for the foreseeable future, years probably. 

We have been hoping for this result, but we had a bit of a setback late last year and early this year so we were doubtful that the zero myeloma protein in my blood would be an ongoing condition. It now appears that it is. The next few weeks will give us a definitive answer, but the situation looks very good. I have to keep reminding myself that myeloma is incurable but treatable. At the moment I’m in full remission. Inevitably the myeloma will make a comeback. We don’t know when, and that’s the frustrating part of this narrative. Still, we are in a good place right now and probably for some time to come. 

The situation with my cancer being resolved for the time being, I’ve had to rethink the focus of this blog. I have published well over four hundred posts but only eighty-seven addressing explicitly my experience with myeloma. Given the current situation I’ve decided to close the series of posts dedicated to myeloma and open up the blog for other topics and commentaries on current affairs, life and death. I started this blog in 2012, the year I retired. That’s quite some time. Maybe I’ll aim for a thousand posts. There’s no purpose in doing so but I can set up an arbitrary goal if I want. Whatever. 

Sometimes I’m tempted to shut the thing down completely but then I get the itch to write a commentary about current affairs, to get something off my chest, or just to post pictures of the beauty that surrounds me on our property here in Cumberland. We’re approaching the summer solstice. This time of year often brings unsettled weather and exponential growth in the garden which actually needs more heat and sun to ripen fruit and get the lilies to bloom. The lilies are coming up now, slowly, but soon they will colour the garden with splashes of red, yellow, orange, and white. The rhododendrons are still in bloom, at least some of them, but the dogwood and the wisteria have pretty much shed their blossoms and are moving on to create more branch and leaf structure. The weather prognosticators are suggesting that a warm, sunny trend is on the menu for next week. If that happens, we will again be able to sit out by the pond or on the deck next to the water feature there, drink tea and read. We will eat out on the deck again in warm comfort. 

Life is the weirdest thing, and I don’t mean just as it applies to humans. It seems a little perverse to me, actually. The whole thing does. The birth, growth, maturation, and then decay seem to be a waste of experience and a slap in the face to beauty which it prepares to annihilate in a short time in the last quarter of life. It celebrates renewal but only on the destruction of what went before. The death of one generation means life for the next one. For us humans the process of life is particularly insulting in that it promotes the growth and accumulation of knowledge, of piles of household goods, and property in general just as it prepares to shut it all down and make fodder out of it. Of what use is that? None that I can surmise. But, in any case, let’s not glorify usefulness. 

The concepts of use and purpose don’t apply to life or they apply completely to it. Death is necessary as a base for life. No death, no life. So, ultimately the purpose of death is to act as a basis for life. Life, in the spring, likes nothing more than a pile of shit or manure to drive new growth along. That may be true, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it. My death is not far off. According to the statistics, I have maybe five more years before I reach the average length of life in Canada for males. Given the success we’re having with chemotherapy and monoclonal antibodies I could just reach the average lifespan. Eventually, myeloma may well kill me, but whatever, something has to do the deed. I need to die, we all do, to make room for future life. Bring it on.

A picture containing tree, plant, flower, arranged

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A nice picture of white, red, and orange lilies to end with.

#86. ???????

I woke up this morning at seven twenty three and got out of bed at seven twenty eight. In that five minutes between seven twenty three and seven twenty eight I had a couple of thinks1. These were little thinks, nothing momentous or earth-shattering. They were thinks about what I would do today. I decided on a couple of things to work on, writing a blog post is one and the other is going down to my studio to continue a clean up I started some time ago in preparation for some work I want to do.

Today is the day after my Daratumumab infusion at the hospital. That’s a bi-monthly event for me. We get to the hospital for a nine o’clock appointment. I grab a coffee after being logged in at the Wellness Centre then make my way to the Cancer Care Centre. After getting settled in they hook me up to an IV drip and then call the pharmacy to tell them I’ve arrived and that they can prep the Dara. Yesterday it took over an hour for the pharmacy to get the Dara to the Cancer Care Centre. I waited patiently but with a little frustration, I must admit. After about ten fifteen they released the Dara starting the infusion. I read my book for a bit but soon fell asleep. I woke up at eleven forty five. Cool. The infusion was almost done. It generally takes about one and a half hours. At about twelve twenty, Carolyn picked me up and we came home.

Along with the Dara, as you well know, I take dexamethasone and lenalidomide. These are the chemo drugs. Dara is not a chemo drug, but a monoclonal antibody. Click on the word Daratumumab in the paragraph above for some good information about Dara. Dex and Lena are very different drugs that do different things in the blood. Dexamethasone is a steroid and has some annoying side effects like interfering with sleep. That it did last night. I slept in fits and starts and got maybe four hours of sleep total. I won’t get much sleep until Monday.

My life these days is organized around my chemotherapy. Of course, my Dara infusions predominate, but the dex has the most immediate and dramatic effects aside from the hydromorphone. I most often go to bed before nine o’clock in the evening. I rarely go to sleep right away, however. Yesterday, I did fall asleep after going to bed at eight thirty. I woke up about forty-five minutes later with a start. I had gone to sleep with the cat laying between my legs. I dreamt that the cat had been joined by my brother. I woke up with nobody on the bed with me. I was startled when I woke up but relieved too because I find it uncomfortable to have the cat sleep with me. I mean, I could easily get her off the bed, but I’m a sucker for the cat. She rules.

A preoccupation I have these days relates to the purpose of life and how to determine what to do with the time I have left to live. I have all kinds of time every day to think about things so off I go. Obviously there will be some physical restrictions that hamper the kinds of activities I can do; after all, I am seventy-four years old. One serious big think I’m having these days is coming to grips with the kinds of activities I am still capable of doing amongst the many I did during my younger years. I don’t want to simply lay back and avoid any activities that would require of me exertion that might tire me or leave me incapable of doing anything for a couple of days afterwards. I’m still strong enough, but I’m not as well coordinated as I used to be. I’m learning that I have to strike a balance between what I want to do and what I’m really capable of doing. There is a slew of activities I did when I was younger that are beyond me now. I have to be realistic about these things. I cranked up the chainsaw the other day and chopped a bit of wood. That was fine. I could do that. But what I want to do in terms of sculpture would require that I use saws and chisels for a sustained period of time. I don’t know if I have the sustainability to sculpt, but I know I can paint and draw. Whether I have the desire to do these things is another question.

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1 This is a verb being used as a noun, but it’s probably not original.

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