#78 LIFE vs My Little Life

[I posted this in February, 2021. I’m re-posting because I think it expresses how I’m feeling right now about life and death. I will follow up with another commentary in a couple of days if all goes well.]

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.

Seizures! What else now?

After at least two consultations with nurses and an oncologist, my GP has decided that I’ve probably had a couple of seizures over the past few months. Great.

Lately, after an internet conversation with one of my blog readers I wrote to them about how fully my life had become medicalized. See if you agree with me: I take a bunch of pills morning and evening to deal with cancer and pain. I go to the hospital twice a month for bloodwork and a two-hour infusion of Daratumumab. Monday we went to Nanaimo so that I could get a corticosteroid (dexamethasone) injected into my seventh cervical vertebrae to deal with the chronic pain in my neck; Tuesday morning I had an appointment with my GP for a prescription renewal, and to discuss a plan to send me to Nanaimo again, this time for an EEG if the CT scan I got Tuesday evening showed nothing. In fact, it did show nothing that could explain the two seizures I’ve had over the past few months, one very recently, so off to Nanaimo I go.

The thing is, if they find an abnormality in my brain using the EEG, they will simply want to put me on another drug, an anti-seizure drug. I’m already pickled in meds so why not another one?

My life seems to be driven by medical issues. I’m not alone in this, of course. Many of us have a close personal involvement with medicine, whether in the form of physicians, specialists, pharmaceuticals, hospitals, and various other medically-related bureaucracies like our Health Authorities in British Columbia, possibly all of the above. They should actually be called Sickness Authorities because that’s what they deal in, sickness. 

The provincial budget allocates billions of dollars for illness related issues. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how many billions of dollars because they get spread out over several spending categories. For instance, the Ministry of Health is projected to spend approximately $25.5 billion in 2022-23 of an estimated $71 billion in total budgetary expenses. There’s another approximately $8.6 billion for infrastructure related to health. I assume the new Dementia Village in Comox falls under this category. Aging and dementia are health issues, apparently.

So, tons of money is spent every year on health issues. I account for some of that, I certainly do. The Daratumumab I get by infusion every month costs a reputed $10,000 a pop. Now that’s a big investment in my being. I’m not sure it’s justified, but it happens because of an overarching ethic dominated by the fear of death and the perceived sanctity of life. As Ernest Becker points out in Escape From Evil, the twin pillars of evil for us humans are death and disease. We do everything we can to fight them. Obviously we fail completely in dealing with death, and fighting disease is often a losing battle too. So, what are we doing? What’s the point? What if we had no ‘industrial’ medicine? Humans lived on this planet for millions of years without doctors, hospitals, and pharmaceutics? Why do we spend so much on them now? 

I can safely conclude that part of the motivation for spending such inordinate amounts of money on ‘health’ is to keep the workforce working and reliable day after day, week after week, year after year. Industry requires consistent effort from the workforce, especially from those workers with technical or managerial skills. Another motivation is the transfer of power from workers to managers, in the case of health, from us ordinary folk to the specialist professionals, doctors. 

Since the 19th Century and the advent of scientific management, the control of commodity production has fallen on the managerial class. Workers have been stripped of all control over the productive process. In the case of health, doctors are the managers of our health. We negotiate with them to some extent, we even oppose them at times, but by and large they are in control. I must say though, that that situation is changing and your ordinary GP is becoming more and more a worker for a large bureaucratic organization that controls multiple clinics. Some American hospitals, for instance, extend their control over health spending and profits by buying out or establishing clinics where doctors are employees like any other. 

Obviously we live in a capitalist world where possessive individualism rules, where business is allowed to create products and services that may or may not be conducive to healthy bodies and minds. The fast food business is clearly not interested in our health. Money is the name of the game. Any deleterious consequences for our wellbeing caused by eating too much fast food is addressed by public spending on hospitals, doctors, pharmaceuticals, et cetera. Pharmaceutical businesses might initially be organized with an eye to alleviating human suffering and enhancing wellbeing, but it seems that they soon fall in line with all capitalist ventures in the need for profit above all other values. They depend on illness for their profits. I don’t think that’s such a good thing.

Then I got to thinking. I remember when I was a grad student reading a book by Michel Foucault* called The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception. It was written in the early 1970s. The translation into English from the French (Naissance de la Clinique) has a 1973 Copyright date. Foucault was a prominent critic of institutionalized criminal incarceration, the medical clinic, madness, and sexuality, among other topics. He was a very controversial figure in French academia for decades, and a very prolific writer. He’s a ponderous writer to some, but an elegant exegesist to others. I find his critiques compelling in some ways, but belaboured in others. In other words, he’s complicated.** 

In his book on the rise of the medical clinic, his major point is that the medical ‘gaze’, the creation of a specialized, comprehensive, and institutionalized consideration of disease and pathology would become the exclusive domain of the medical clinic. We’ve even been convinced that pregnancy and aging fit nicely under the medical gaze. Other commentators on the power of modern medicine such as Ivan Illich emphasized the class basis of control over human health whereby we become supplicants in our relationships with doctors, whereas Foucault and his followers see the medical/health landscape as a set of power relations that work to “reproduce medical dominance” (Lupton, page 88). 

Because we are so freaked out about death and disease, Foucault would argue, we negotiate our necessarily subordinate relations with our doctors on an ongoing basis. According to Lupton, there is collusion between doctors and their patients to reproduce the system of medical dominance. That’s true in my case, certainly. Without modern medicine, I’d be dead right now.

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*The Passion of Michel Foucault (March 1, 1994), by James Miller is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. It’s balanced, decisive, and comprehensive. Definitely worth a read. Come to think of it, I need to read it again. 

**See Deborah Lupton, Foucault and the Medicalization Critique, Chapter 5 in Foucault, Health, and Medicine, Edited by Alan Peterson and Robin Bunton, 1997, Routledge: London and New York. 

Cancer and self-absorption.

Well, it looks like spring has finally sprung. The temperatures are rising and we now look forward to sending less of our pension funds to BC Hydro than we have all winter.

The wisteria is now showing signs of life. We wondered lately whether or not it was still alive. Apparently it is alive, just taking its time waking up after a very challenging winter sleep. It’s warming up with temperatures consistently in double digits, but the clouds seem reluctant to part. This past weekend was gorgeous with a lot of sun. This coming week promises to be cloudy and dreary. Wednesday, tomorrow, is Carolyn’s 70th birthday and I have an appointment with my GP/oncologist at the hospital. At least it’s at 9:30 in the morning so early enough to allow us to get on with things for the rest of the day. Carolyn does not want to miss her usual daily ten (or longer) kilometre hike in the hills just up the road.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the reality implied in the title of today’s post, particularly the self-absorption part. Truth be told, I might be rightfully accused of being self-absorbed for most of my life. In some ways, I think, it comes with the territory. Writing is an activity that requires a lot of concerted attention and effort. As a college instructor I had to do a lot of reading and writing and for one stage of my career I produced over two hundred and fifty tele courses on the Knowledge Network for North Island College. In order to be able to produce the expected results I had to spend a lot of time in my head and in my office either preparing lecture notes, getting props or websites together, or marking assignments.

It may be an excuse to suggest that self-absorption is a consequence of work requirements, but I think that there is definitely a need to be alone to do much of the work I was expected to do. That may be interpreted as being distant, or uncommunicative, or selfish, depending on one’s perspective.

It’s a truism to suggest that living with others in a family requires at least a modicum of communication and interaction between members. Family implies intimacy and intimacy implies connection. Connection requires time together for the parents and for children. Some families are more closely connected than others, but some families are quite content with very little time together.

I can’t speak for my family and I surely won’t put words in their mouths here. However, I know that at times there were expectations that I spend more time with the family. I’ve been (rightfully) accused of being in my head too much and not being available to the family for conversation or whatnot. Some people would interpret my behaviour as self-absorption. Fair enough.

That said, as I work through my life with cancer, I find myself increasingly absorbed with what’s happening inside me and just how long I have left to live. I know a number of people who have died recently of cancer. Some have died soon after diagnosis. I don’t know of anyone who has died of myeloma, my flavour of cancer, the one that is now considered, like diabetes, to be more of a chronic illness than an ambush killer of sorts. I know a few people who are sick with myeloma, but none who have died from it.

As far as the people who have died of cancer are concerned I wonder how many of them turned inward as death got closer and closer? I have no idea, but if you do, I’d like to hear about it. Our caregivers may be the best people to address the veracity of my observation that dying forces us inward.

Caregivers have a thankless job. They may love the people they care for, but as people get closer and closer to death, they may withdraw more and more become increasingly unable to provide any kind of recognition or thanks for the care they receive. It may be that dying is a process of increasing self-absorption. I don’t know. I haven’t done the research.

Some people have done some thinking about this. I’m not the only one. It may not be research in the technical sense of the term. Actually, it might best be termed thoughtful investigation. I tend to be strictly scientific in my views on the dying process but I have come across very little in the way of a psychology of dying. There are some sources out there, but not many. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross (1969) gets a lot of attention for her work on the stages of grief, et cetera, but I find that her work is less scientific than grief and hospice counselling. It would not be impossible to do scientific work on my hypothesis that we tend to withdraw from society the nearer we get to death, but it wouldn’t be easy. It sure isn’t in my future.

So far, it may be just a feeling I’m having, or a conclusion I’ve come to with limited experience, but it makes sense to me that we would tend to withdraw as we get closer to death. Death, or course, is the ultimate withdrawal, so leading up to it must produce some stages of withdrawal or increased self-absorption. At least that’s what I’m thinking, and I’m sticking to it.

Our Vagarious Lives

Our Vagarious Lives

Ah, the weather is still out to lunch. We are at least a month behind in the garden. The wisteria is not showing any signs of blooming. Just sticks up there. Last year at this time it was in full bloom with a small complement of leaves coming forth. Some plants, notably some ferns and, thankfully, the garlic seem to be quite happy. 

Garlic Bed

So is the Japanese Butterbur. Within a month it went from three or four buttons at the bottom of the garden to what looks like giant rhubarb. The leaves are so heavy they fall back on themselves.

Spring time has always been considered a time of joy, growth, and possibility. And so it is. Like a baby born with all the potential of a lifetime ahead, the garden is looking to the future of the rest of the spring and the full delight and warmth of summer. Fall and Winter come inevitably. They tease us with beautiful garden colours and the bare branches of winter which then carries on for what some of us think is way too long. Spring does finally come around again and soothes us with hope. We commonly call what I’m talking about here as the cycle of the seasons. Of course, it’s not a cycle. It appears to be, but last spring is not this spring. It might be more accurate to talk about the spiral of seasons.

Like one year in the vast scheme of things, a human life is that time between our birth and our death. It’s finite. This is not a fact we find comfortable because, gee, we live through many springs, summers, falls, and winters. We are not just one-year wonders. That’s true, but the illusion of the cycle of seasons should not fool us into believing that this thing goes on forever.

To carry on with the analogy of the garden and human life, for me, winter is not coming, it’s here, even during the month of May. My leaves are falling, my bark is dry and cracking. There is no moving forward to a new spring for me. If that were to happen, it would defy all evolutionary logic. No, I have to be satisfied with my life as it is, and I am, even if I am in my ‘sunset’ years. I have an intelligent, talented, and beautiful wife and my daughters have taken after their mother. I have a loving family, and I live on a gorgeous garden thanks to Carolyn’s magical touch and hard work.

There’s one thing I agree with Sadhguru* about and that’s the idea that we had better enjoy life while we can, because we’ll be dead for a long time. Of course, many people are unhappy with the coming of winter, period, and they deny it by vacationing in Mexico or somewhere else near the equator or on the other side of the planet where summer coincides with our winter.

For a time as I read Sadhguru I had the sense that he really understood Evolution and Life, Science even. For example, when he argued that we don’t die, I thought maybe he referred to the (scientific) notion that every atom that makes up our body has always existed and always will. In that sense, ‘we’ are immortal. From my perspective, our consciousness is toast, but the little things that together constitute our bodies carry on. There is some disagreement about this, but the cells that make up our bodies get replaced at various rates for a very rough average of every seven years or so in total. Another strange factoid: we very likely breathe the same air molecules that Caesar exhaled during his last breath. Cool. But Sadhguru didn’t go there. He still insists on the survival of consciousness.

So, we exist at many ‘levels’: atomic, molecular, cellular, and organic. All of these together make it possible for us to have consciousness. Once our physical platform is gone our consciousness follows. I’d be glad to change my mind about this given scientific evidence to the contrary, but that is very unlikely.

So, what’s vagarious about our lives? Well, the dictionary defines vagarious as: “erratic and unpredictable in behaviour or direction.” Boy, is it ever. One day I’m able to walk long distances with Carolyn. The next day I can barely walk at all. I would not have predicted that. Cancer and old age gang up on me and don’t back off, ever. That’s life. There’s a slew of things I used to do effortlessly. Now, every once in a while I still think I can do things but after trying for a bit, I realize that I can’t go back in time. The trick for me is accepting my new age-appropriate capabilities. I’m living the life of a seventy-five year old, not a fifty-five year old. I must accept that and not sweat it. I’m getting it. It’s a process. It’s a good thing I have Carolyn and my family to remind me from time to time of my limitations. I need reminding.

I’m quite fond of metaphor and analogy as you are probably aware by now. Well, let’s pull out another one. Cancer is like cats as they play with us mice. There are many flavours of cat, some hunt mice and kill them quickly. Some play with their mice prey for some time before losing interest and finally killing them.

I have multiple myeloma. My cat analogue is one that likes to play with its prey. Little shit. It bats me around and chases me under the dresser where I get a bit of a respite knowing full well, Mr. Cat Myeloma is just out there, waiting for me to lose patience and make a run for it. I have absolutely no chance of escape. So be it. That damn cat will get me, no doubt, but not yet.

I love the garden. Carolyn has done an amazing job cultivating it, encouraging it, and never losing faith in it.

You never know, though. I may get it into my head that I can do things again that I used to do effortlessly. I may try. I can still handle a chainsaw. I got mine started a few days ago. I need to sharpen the blade. I think I can do that. Time to find out, but I do need to be cautious, now don’t I?

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*I wrote about Sadhguru on my May 4th post: https://rogerjgalbert.com/2022/05/04/aw-come-on-lets-talk-about-death-some-more/

Aw, come on…let’s talk about death some more.

[I suggested last month that I would stop blogging or change the way I use this blog. Well, because I generally enjoy writing, I decided to continue writing but not on a schedule and on topics I have not yet addressed. I’ve always been a fan of evolutionary theory in all disciplines so I’ll publish on that topic some, I’m sure. But the topics I have published on will likely continue to be on the list. Death and dying continue to preoccupy me as I get closer to having an immediate, personal relationship with them. I’ll write about them starting today. I’ll still write about my cancer journey too occasionally. It’s such a different experience than people with other kinds of cancer have.]

Death and More Death

Sherwin B. Nuland

I’ve got two books on death on the go right now. One I’ve already introduced on this blog. It’s by Sherwin B. Nuland and is called How We Die. It was a national best seller in the U.S. published in 1994. Nuland died in 2014. I wonder if his dying conforms to what he concluded in 1994. Probably does. Nuland was 83 when he died of prostate cancer after his mother and his brother had both died of colon cancer. That could not have been very pleasant. He was a clinical professor of surgery at Yale University until he retired in 2009. His obituary in the New York Times expresses this thought about Dr. Nuland and his death: 

To Dr. Nuland, death was messy and frequently humiliating, and he believed that seeking the good death was pointless and an exercise in self-deception. He maintained that only an uncommon few, through a lucky confluence of circumstances, reached life’s end before the destructiveness of dying eroded their humanity.’I have not seen much dignity in the process by which we die,’ he wrote. ‘The quest to achieve true dignity fails when our bodies fail.’

And, of course, all bodies fail. 

The second book I want to discuss in this blog post is one that was recommended to me by a person who called me out of the blue from the local hospice society.* It could not be further in spirit from Nuland’s book. So, the book this person recommended is called Death: An Inside Story. It’s characterized on the cover as “A book for all those who shall die.” The author goes by the name of Sadhguru (Sad guru). The book describes him as a yogi, mystic, and visionary. This is not the kind of book I normally read, but it comes highly recommended so why not?

Sadhguru

Unlike Nuland, Sadhguru is a fan of good death. Chapter Six of his book is called Preparing for a Good Death. He writes in an idiom that is foreign to me although I have read a number of books by Indian writers in general, and also by Zen Buddhists. I have read very little Hinduism, and when I have the book has been by a Western commentator. I know people who frequent ashrams in North America, Europe, and India. They have various reasons for doing so. I won’t speculate on their motives. I can’t see myself doing that. So, when I read Sadhguru, I admit that I am doing so from a place of relative ignorance. If I ever attended an ashram I may have more insight into the ‘place’ that Sadhguru occupies in the world of intellect and inner peace. Still, I’m not at a complete loss when I read Sadhguru.

I can relate to some of what Sadhguru professes in his book, once I get past what I consider the idiomatic nature of much of what he has to say. His emphasis that death is a natural fact of life resonates with my view and jives with Nuland too. It’s not a defeat of life or a failure. His views on our place in the scheme of life and death over millions of years is not unlike my own. Where I depart from Sadhguru is in his matter of fact insistence that ghosts are real and that reincarnation is a thing. In a chapter called The Riddle of Reincarnation, Sadhuru maintains that when people have sex and create an embryo and a fetus, life begins only after forty to forty-eight days after conception. That’s when “Someone else who is ripe for that and is looking for a body comes and occupies it”. (287) I’m still wondering how I could interpret this idiomatically. He’s not saying that the occupation of an embryo by another being is conscious. Instead, he writes, it’s karmic. 

One thing that Sadhguru, Nuland and I can agree with Ernest Becker on is that we constantly endeavour to deny death. We set up very imposing institutions designed to deny death. Nuland chastises modern medicine for doing just that. Sadhguru writes that

“One reason people can ignore death and continue to live on in their ignorance is simply that the religions of the world have spread all kinds of idiotic stories about life and death. They created some silly childish explanations for everything.” (5)

 It may be that Sadhguru is not reflexive enough to recognize the religious aspects of his own work. I wonder how his discussions of his past lives and reincarnation differ from other religious denial mechanisms. He states bluntly that “people don’t die.” (13) Now, if I read that literally, it seems absolutely absurd. He follows that up by writing that: 

“In a way, death is a fiction created by ignorant people. Death is a creation of the unaware, because if you are aware, it is life, life and life alone – moving from one dimension of Existence to another”.

 However, if I read this idiomatically I see a truth there. It’s only absurd if we take his words literally. Of course people die, but the atoms and molecules that make us up have always existed and always will. When I eat a carrot, the carrot becomes me (what I don’t poop out of course) so that’s life moving from one form to another. 

Over the millennia, all the organisms we eat and call food have been transformed into something else. Life is but a movement of matter and energy from one form to another. 

In our case, as is the truth for all organisms on this planet, we are finite. We are like mushrooms that sprout on the mycelium we call Life. We find it normal that a mushroom grows then decays enriching the soil from which it emerged. It’s interesting that so many of us (I haven’t done any surveys) have such a hard time accepting that reality as our own. How do you see it? Come on, let’s start a dialogue.

I’m really doing an injustice to both Nuland and Sadhguru. It’s not nice to pick and choose bits and pieces of their work to build my own argument. I guess I’m not very nice. Frankly, there is no substitute for reading their books in their entirety to make up your own mind.

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*Early on in my cancer diagnosis, in 2019 and early 2020, I visited the pain docs at the Comox Valley hospital and a couple of the docs actually came to the house for a visit. We discussed pain and Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID). I wasn’t quite ready for that yet, but the Hospice Society is great and they make sure that anybody on their list is contacted now and again. Eventually I will likely want their services. 

Ant Under Glass. Should I Kill It?

I’m finding it fascinating how I’m so unable to write at the moment. Well, of course I can write, but I’m flummoxed when it comes to writing a coherent blog post. My age may have something to do with it, but there’s more to it than that. In the past couple of weeks I’ve started writing a blog post four times and for pity’s sake, I can’t complete even one. I guess I’m losing it. That’s not something I want to accept, but as we get older we all lose multiple abilities. It’s inevitable. Eventually we lose all ability. That’s when we die. Dead people don’t have abilities. 

In some ways, I think I’m getting gun shy. People are dying all around me and I’m just here waiting for the sniper to pick me off. I’m keeping my head down, but that strategy will only be good for a time. The Sniper in Charge (SIC) will find me. I have no idea how long it will take for her/him to find me, but it will happen. That has me distracted, very distracted. You may find that this blog post reflects that distraction. It’s anything but coherent. But here goes anyway.

I learned the other day from a very young blogger and her father that mindset is everything in life. To some extent I agree. It’s self defeating to go into a project with the attitude that “I can’t do that.” Of course most of us can do that. Yes, we can. But that attitude is contingent on age and other characteristics we have that may make it impossible to have a ‘can do’ attitude. No matter how much I may want to, making babies is not possible anymore for Carolyn and I. We are both beyond that project. 

The young person I’m referring to here is female. She and her sister operate a small sawmill as part of the family’s logging, lumber, and firewood business. They are both still teens and are very active in life outside of their work. In many ways, they are exceptional. They work in a family business. I don’t know how common that is these days but they may very well be the only young women in North America operating a sawmill of any size. Most people would consider that Man’s work. Her father declared in an interview she did with him in a recent blog post that they come from a Judaeo-Christian tradition and are actively Christian, in that they pray to God and all that. That fact gives them access to a whole community of like-minded people giving them wide acceptance in the community for their business and other activities. That’s just life for them. I’m sure they don’t see their faith and status as God-fearing White Folk giving them any kind of advantage in life. They would argue that they have just made the right decisions in life and people who make the right decisions in life create advantage for themselves by their very actions. There are various interpretations as to the accuracy of this kind of view, but it seems to work for them. It doesn’t work for a very substantial part of the population as sociology has clearly demonstrated over decades of research. 

Well, I guess mindset is important for me too. I can either whine and complain about the fact I have a cancer that won’t go away and will eventually kill me, or I can just get on with things and ignore my ultimate demise. I’ve commented on a recent post that death is akin to a wall. I see it clearly on the horizon, but why focus on it? Actually, it’s hard not to focus on it, but it doesn’t make sense to do nothing else. It certainly is distracting, however. 

I just captured a carpenter ant. I’ve got it on my side table under a shot glass. I can observe it moving about. It really wants to get out of this predicament and constantly looks for ways out. When I tap the glass it goes absolutely still. It’s a winged ant which means that it is at a stage in its life when it is bound to search out a new home. At this time of year they come out of the woodwork, literally. This ant seems very confused. This small prison it’s in is thwarting its destiny, which is, along with its buddies, to eat our house, which is made of wood, so lunch is served. However, I’m not particular enamoured with its destiny because we have conflicting interests. So, what should I do with this ant? I could easily kill it, or keep it imprisoned until it dies, or I could release it so that it can start munching on my house. Even if I release it outside, it’s still liable to find a spot to have a nibble. Obviously it cannot eat us out of house and home, but we know from past experience that it can, along with its buddies, cause a lot of damage. So what do I do? 

Help me out here. What should I do?  

Ant Under Glass

What should I be thinking about now? How about death and dying, cultural discombobulation, misogyny, evolution, and pain management?

I told you last post that I would be giving up on my blog. That’s still the case. I’ll likely wrap it up by the end of this month at least in its current format, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve stopped thinking or wanting to write. When my readership fell below fifty views after a post, I decided that maybe it wasn’t worth the hassle of thinking about writing every week. Of course, some people might argue that if I have only one reader that should be enough for me. There’s an argument that can be made both ways. Who knows, things change. 

So, what should I be thinking and writing about now? As I get ever closer to death, it’s hard not to think about death and dying. My sister-in-law who was a couple of years younger than me, died recently. It seems like someone in my immediate circle of friends and family is dying every month. Such is life when one gets to a certain age. Of course, it’s not only older people who die. A forty-nine year old doctor in my Family Clinic died recently of heart failure. However, it’s certainly true that most Canadians, in any case, die at an advanced age. That will be me for sure because I’m already most of the way there.

Lately I’ve been trying to create a metaphor for the dying process. I think I’ve come up with one that makes sense. It’s probably not new to me, either. It’s the image of a wall, maybe a stone wall that can be seen in the distance just beyond a large, open field. In our younger days, the wall is low and hardly visible. We only pay attention to it fleetingly, maybe when we visit someone in the hospital, when we leave a funeral or witness a fatal car crash. Our physical vulnerability is only too obvious at these times. The truth is that we would have a hard time living our lives if we did not ignore the wall most of the time. Some people actually convince themselves that the wall doesn’t even exist and that even if it did, we could walk right through it. The thing is the wall is always there. As we get older the wall gets more visible. It gets bigger, thicker and broader and we begin to see individual stones in it. It begins to draw our attention more frequently. We seem to be getting closer to it and in fact we are.

My wall is clearly visible to me now. It’s so big, I can’t see much beyond it. Earlier in my life I could see mountains on the other side of it. Not anymore. Now, the wall demands my attention. It will not allow me to turn away from it. In a sense it’s a beautiful, solid wall. It’s obvious that much care was taken in its construction spanning the whole evolutionary time on this planet. Everyone has to come to the wall. No one is allowed to pass through it.

The denial of the existence of this wall is the essence of Ernest Becker’s work. My early posts on this blog consist of an exposition of Becker’s work and his contribution to understanding the denial of death. His last book, one that he had no hand in publishing because he was dead, was rightly entitled Escape From Evil. The evil that Becker writes about is death and disease. This book is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the power of denial in our lives because it’s a power that has determined so much of the death and destruction this planet has experienced with Homo sapiens at the centre of it.

Let’s now explore that denial a bit from a different perspective than I would have normally used. First up is how our social world seems to be coming apart at the seams with the war in the Ukraine, growing authoritarian at home and the pandemic that doesn’t seem to want to go away. I’m talking about the discombobulation of our social world and our reactions to it. Later I write about misogyny and evolution with a nod to Aristotle, the consummate misogynist and other philosophers of his time and ilk. But first, discombobulation.

Discombobulated  

This is my drawing of discombobulation. It’s my personal visual statement of my reaction to the Kurt Vonnegut world we live in today.

The word discombobulation is an old word from the 19th Century that shouldn’t be forgotten because it so expresses the sense that not much makes much sense anymore. The world really hasn’t ever made much sense if one considers humanity’s millennia-old legacy of war and brutality combined with a huge dose of goodwill and caring underlying much of human history. It seems as though every generation has to learn this truth on its own never learning from history. I’ve spent my whole adult life in a quest to unravel this discombobulation. I think I have things more or less worked out (with the help of a lot of people now dead who were much smarter than me), but I can’t seem to communicate that to enough other people for my knowledge to make much sense. At least I feel that way sometimes. I may be like the proverbial falling tree in the forest with no one around to hear it fall. What does it matter? Well, it does matter to me. Sometimes I think of my writing as a drop in the bucket of cultural commentary, but it’s still a contribution.

That said, it’s a contribution that will leave many people behind. Admittedly, reading my blog posts requires a modicum of literacy. I don’t speak to a Grade 8 audience. That in itself will limit the influence of my work. My personal intellectual voyage can never be yours, but we must learn from each other otherwise the discombobulation wins. Patently, there are many people (No, I haven’t done a survey although others have) who are incapable of hearing what I have to say because they have been captured by an ideology that is inherently contradictory in itself but still seems to speak to their individual lives somehow. I’m talking about people who deny that we are inherently social and dependent on each other not only in our families and other intimate relationships, but in a collective sense with people we don’t know personally but who, combined, hugely affect the world we live in.*

I’m referring here to people who see taxes and government as an infringement on their freedom, whatever that means. They have no idea themselves what ‘freedom’ means, and it’s almost embarrassing if you dare ask them what they mean by it because their answers are naive to the extreme and essentially childish. In other aspects of their lives they may be competent enough, but when it comes to thinking about their place in the world and their responsibility to others, they just have no idea, except to spout platitudes they have absorbed by watching too much Fox News or have been absorbed by concentrating on their belly buttons for too long. I’m no big fan of much of what government does, but I’m not willing to chuck out the baby with the bathwater either. 

Recently, Carolyn and I listened to a CBC Ideas podcast on The Authoritarian Personality. The people who fit this profile are the people I’m talking about. The Authoritarian Personality is an idea popularized after the Second World War by Theodore Adorno and others to try to explain why people are attracted to fascist leaders. The book is available to be borrowed for free at the Internet Archive but it’s been revived and republished with an introduction by Peter Gordon of the Frankfurt School and is available on Amazon in various formats, including as an eBook, but it ain’t cheap. The book was first published in 1969 but was in writing for some time before that while the research for it was being conducted in California. The book itself and the blazing controversy surrounding it can be seen at the Internet Archive by simply typing in The Authoritarian Personality in the search function and looking around. Some of the reactions to the book are a full example of discombobulation. In fact, I would argue that the book is itself a treatise on cultural discombobulation as are reactions to it. We live in a discombobulated world but there’s nothing new about that.

So, I’m thinking that this post is long enough. I have probably another 5 or 6 thousand words I want to get out of my system at the moment but I think I need to break those up into manageable chunks. Therefore, I’ll leave this post as it is but I’ll carry on writing about the other topics in the title of this post and present them to you as soon as I get them fleshed out with good references, etcetera. Besides, it’s six o’clock in the morning and I’ve been writing since two thirty. Yesterday I went back to the hospital to get back on my chemo regime. The dexamethasone I took yesterday won’t let me sleep anyway, so instead of fretting that I can’t sleep, I might as well write, but enough for tonight…it’s getting light out and the coffee beckons.

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*This is a disparate group of people from grocery store clerks and managers, to cops, to delivery drivers, to municipal workers, librarians, veterinarians, road crews, mechanics, garbage (solid waste) collectors, baristas, Hydro crews, emergency personnel of all kinds, Hospital workers including medical doctors, nurses, technicians, etcetera. I mean anyone you come into contact with on a daily basis and who provides you with a service you depend on. Just think about it. You are massively dependent on others, even people in China and other Asian countries who make your T-shirts, jeans, phones and computers for you, and on the people who work on the planes and boats that get those products to you. How can anyone deny that? But they do because to recognize this fact they would have to accept that their individualism is contingent and not absolute. We are not free to do whatever we want. Let’s just get over that silly notion. I used to challenge my students to unplug their homes, and I mean in every way: cut off water, electricity, the internet, waste collection, everything. Do that for a few days and then let’s discuss how independent and ‘free’ you are.

I’ve struggled a lot lately about whether my glass is half full or half empty. I’ve lived seventy-five years. Is that a good thing, a bad thing, or just a thing? 

Whatever. 

Lately, I’ve often mused nostalgically about my past. My present is not what I would have it be, but I’ll write about that below.

For now, I want to write about moments in my past that were particularly instructive for me. You all know that I have cancer. That’s not news. However, some of you may not know that I was diagnosed with kidney cell cancer in 2002. From what I was told, I had what they call a lesion on my left kidney. In this case a ‘lesion’ means a fairly large growth protruding from my kidney. They were loathe to do a biopsy because any puncture of the lesion or any attempt to remove the growth by aspiration was going to spread the cancer far and wide. So, they scheduled me for surgery. I was fortunate to have a very good local urologist perform the surgery with my GP attending (he’s an internist as well as a family physician).

My Nephrectomy

When my time came for my nephrectomy (removal of my kidney) on February 17th, 2002, Carolyn drove me to the hospital early in the morning and left me there to find my way to the surgical unit. I wasn’t there long before they ushered me into the operating room. I was set at ease to see so many people I knew there, including a nurse who was a former student, my GP and the surgeon. I didn’t know the anesthetist although I had met him earlier in the hospital for a pre-surgical interview. 

So, taking my kidney out would be a straightforward affair if you knew what you were doing! Thankfully, the urologist knew what he was doing. In order not to spread the cancer far and wide, he opted to open me up using a 35 centimetre incision between my ribs on underside of my left arm to my midsection but lower on my body. They essentially cut me in half so they could gently lift my kidney out of my body without messing with the surrounding tissue and risking metastasis. I heard later that my GP was humbled by the process of cutting me in half and putting me back together. 

After the kidney was removed and they made sure they hadn’t left anything in there that shouldn’t have been there, they stapled me shut and sent me off to a room upstairs. I was there for a few days. I had a morphine pump to make sure I had no pain but it did have a governor on it so I didn’t overdose. That was kind of them, I think. 

I went home after six or seven days. We had just moved to Cumberland on an acre. There was lots of work to do. I couldn’t do any of it. Thankfully a number of my family members came over. There was lots of help and Carolyn was healthy, as she still is so I watched as my family and some friends helped us move in and get the yard together. 

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Visit to Cancer Care Centre 

We saw my local GP/oncologist this morning. These meetings are always interesting. I’ve been off chemo for a month and I’ll be off again for another month so that we can more properly assess how I react while not on the chemo meds. I’m also off hydromorphone (opioid), having gone through the nasty process of withdrawal over the past few days. I’ve never taken a very high dose of it, but I have been on it a long time. That makes it a bit of a challenge to stop taking it. I’ve also cut way back on gabapentin, which is a drug initially used for epilepsy, but has been used for all kinds of ailments since (maybe overused). I really have no idea how it’s affecting me because I have had such a mix of medications over the past couple of years that there’s no way I can tell what med is having what effect. It’s supposed to help with my peripheral neuropathy. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. I really don’t know. It’s just a bit confusing and frustrating. 

I was in the Cancer Care Centre at the hospital this morning, as I said, to meet my GP/oncologist, and I saw a few of the usual suspects getting treatment. There was an older woman (probably a bit older than me) getting an infusion in Chair #4. I’ve seen her a number of times before. This time she was with her husband (I presume) who sat in a chair beside her. We nodded to each other. A young woman came by us as we waited to see the doctor. She was in Chair #3 I think. She was dragging her IV pole along beside her as she made her way to the bathroom close by, something I’ve done many times. IV poles, with bags of meds hanging from them with a line entering the arm somewhere, are on casters but they still rattle away as they are dragged along. I thought to myself: “This is my life. I share it with people I don’t know and some I do know, people who share my struggle to one extent or other. What we share is cancer.” But we also share the care and love that the staff gives us. Notwithstanding, every one of us will die. We may survive a year, two, ten, or twenty, but we must die. I’m not complaining about that. It is what it is.

I’ve spent a good part of my life studying life and death. I’m a sociologist, but I’ve not contained myself within that discipline. I’ve struggled to see the big picture of life on this planet and how life cannot exist without death. I know it’s something I’ve brought up before, but it’s always on my mind. 

We’re coming on to spring. My favourite season. Plants spring up everywhere. They count on the decay from previous years to fuel their growth. Life is not a cycle. It’s more like a spiral, with an inevitable end. To think of the seasons as cyclical is a mistake, a comforting mistake, I guess. I’m thinking we have a built-in biological aversion to death. From what I’ve observed, we share that aversion with most other animals. Life is the big draw, death and disease are the ultimate enemy. Our whole culture is built on that false premise. Silly us. 

This spring for me is not like the spring of my tenth year, nor of my fortieth year. I’m hoping this is not my last spring. I’m thinking it won’t be, but the future is promised to no one. 

Remembrances 2: Pornography

I’ve just finished reading a book by Julia Shaw (Dr. Julia Shaw) who studied psychology at UBC. Her book is called EVIL: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side. (Doubleday in Canada, 2019). Her basic premise in that book is that evil is entirely subjective and we all have evil tendencies within us and the potential to act on them. For Shaw, murderers and torturers, even Hitler, are human. They may have committed atrocities at times, but not 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. For Shaw, no one is objectively evil, not Ted Bundy, not Jeffrey Dahmer, not Paul Bernardo. Not even Hitler. She asks, provocatively, would you have killed baby Adolf if you had been given the chance? Her answer is, probably not because there would have been no way to predict how Hitler would end up on the basis of what he was as a one year old boy. For Shaw, evil is situational a great deal of the time and one person’s evil is another person’s glory. Ernest Becker declares in his book Escape From Evil that the twin pillars of evil are death and disease. He doesn’t objectify people as inherently evil. In essence, he argues, we have a deep-seated cultural aversion to death and disease and we have created a plethora of institutions dedicated to the denial of death and disease (including hospitals, I might add). Those institutions may be at loggerheads with one another as part of the ideologies of competing groups as they go about vilifying each other. But I digress somewhat.

Shaw deals with many instances of evil in the world, including pornography. Like all other themes in her book, Shaw doesn’t condemn people for watching porn, (and she doesn’t even consider it evil). She insists that people who watch porn are not evil, and are in fact, normal. This is true particularly considering that she argues from a 2007 study by Pamela Paul elaborated in her book Pornified (New York: Times Books) that “66 percent of men and 41 percent of women consume porn on at least a monthly basis.”1 When I taught a course in 2010 and 2011 at North Island College called Love and Sex and I did research on porn for the course, I learned that at that time 37% of the income derived online was from pornography. Of course there’s no way of pinning down a reliable statistic on the valuation of pornography, but it’s big business, there’s no doubt about that. Still, as Shaw argues, there is a gloss of shame and moral terpitude that accompanies pornography. Shaw is entirely correct here. In fact, I challenge you to admit yourself to viewing porn, or to have someone else you know admit to viewing porn. I wrote above that I researched porn for a course I taught at NIC in 2010-11. In doing that research, I viewed a lot of porn.

As people got to know that I was doing research on porn I got a lot of: “See any good porn lately, wink, wink, nudge, nudge.” That kind of comment was absolutely uncalled for with veiled suggestions that what I was doing was somehow immoral, but sex is such a powerful subject in our less-than-open society that even doing research on a taboo subject in any way associated with sex was liable to unleash opprobrium and displeasure. As part of my responsibility around this research, I notified the college that I was doing this kind of research and that they should be aware of that because it may show up on my computer. Shaw notes in her book that:

“When attempts at empathy and understanding are made, there is often a particularly vicious utterance that is used to shut them down; the implication that some people should be empathized with, lest we imply that we too are evil. Want to discuss paedophilia? That must mean you are a paedophile.” (p.8)

What I was especially interested in as I investigated porn was the way that women are portrayed by the purveyors of porn. I’m assuming that porn hasn’t changed much in the last ten or twelve years since I conducted my research, but I do know that there is a movement among some women to transform porn.2 In my research I noted that it was very common for women to be referred to as dirty, sluts, etcetera. Actually, I take it back. Porn has changed a lot in the last ten years. Just a quick scan of one porn site and it’s obvious that there’s a lot more DIY porn out there. It’s now common for young women to set up chats or performances of various sorts for money, and incidentally for the pleasure of men,I suppose. And, somehow, tokens have become part of the porn scene. I wasn’t going to get into how that works. Much on the DIY porn is ‘porn-lite’ but there’s still a lot of violent and nasty stuff out there with much denigration of women. It’s hard for me to relate to misogyny given that I had a mother, I have a spouse, many sisters, two daughters, and granddaughters. However, I know about the origins of misogyny in the Biblical story of creation and in many other cultural institutions and myths, and I see misogyny glorified in politics, education, movies, and popular programs like Game of Thrones, among many others.

Actually, porn is no different than many mainstream views on sex as dirty. Why the association of sex with dirt? Well, dirt, death. I’ll not go into this here to any extent. See this post I wrote from March, 2018 for a discussion: https://rogerjgalbert.com/2018/03/27/why-do-some-people-refer-to-sex-as-dirty/ Interesting that I seem to come back over and over again to these themes.

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1page 145 in Shaw’s book.

2see especially After Pornified: How Women Are Transforming Pornography & Why It Really Matters by Anne G. Sabo, a book I just ordered. (After I read Sabo’s book I’ll get back to you about how women are transforming porn.)

Life and Death: How Absurd!

[This post was first published in June 2019, about four months before my myeloma diagnosis. Lately, I’ve been re-reading my posts looking for the best ones to re-post. This one is a particular favourite of mine, so here it is for you again. I don’t think I can express the ideas presented here any better now than I did back in 2019. I’ve been trying, but with no success. So, rather than continuing to beat my head against the wall, I decided to give myself a break and re-post this piece now. I hope you find it interesting (again). Just got news that an old colleague of mine just died. It seems we’re dropping like flies these days. Pretty easy to predict.]

We are born, we live and breathe for various lengths of time, then we die. Seems rather pointless, really. For as long as we know, and from all the historical records that we have unearthed or discovered one way or another, we can only conclude that humans have not ever been terribly enamoured with this situation.

Of course, most animals are averse to death, or at least to dying. Death itself isn’t particularly scary, it’s the getting there that we have a problem with. Even an ant feeling attacked will flee or fight. Of course, once it’s dead there is no issue. Not all animals face dying in the same way. Without being too anthropomorphic, some are stoic, some are frantic. In humans, some are even self-destructive but I’m not sure that death is what suicides want. Relief from pain and suffering is probably the goal more often than not, but in many cases, death seems the only respite, the only place where there may be peace. Of course, that’s silly because there is no ‘place’ after death. Death cannot be a respite from pain and suffering because we have no way of experiencing relief from pain in death. Death is the absence of sensation, of thought, or feeling; it’s the absolute negation of consciousness. Death is no thing. Before we are conceived we are also nothing, no thing. Life as we think of it as sentience, feeling, consciousness, starts sometime in our development. It’s hard to know when. In a way, death puts an end to the whole story.  Historically and linguistically, we have wanted to contrast living with dying, but they are not opposites. Death is the only way life can happen. So, why, generally, is it so hard for us to let go of life? Well, like all other animals we have a survival instinct, or an instinct for self-preservation. With rare exceptions, there seems to be an inherent drive in all animals to continue to live. I don’t think any species would get very far without it. It does present a problem for us, however. It means we go to great lengths using our big, unfortunate brains to deny death using whatever means we can, and boy do we have lots of means! Our cat is afraid of death. She skulks around wary of a stray cat in our neighbourhood we call Mean Gene because he beats up on our Princess Pretty Paws. Still, she hasn’t managed to institutionalize death denial. She just can’t take it that one step beyond immediate, visceral run-like-hell action. And when Mean Gene is no longer in sight, Princess is just fine. She is not anxious and preoccupied with dying. She’s still interested in her food bowl, however. 

What it gets right down to is the fact that as animals we reproduce sexually and engender offspring who are themselves immediately on a trajectory to death. Living and dying are the same process. Stop dying and you’re dead. Now that seems completely unfair. We are built to die! What the hell! Well, that just can’t be, damn it!

Over the millennia, we’ve created any number of ways to convince ourselves that we don’t really die, that although our bodies may perish, our ‘souls’ do not, and that makes us immortal in a god-like way, really. For us to be immortal we must be gods and by our earthly deaths experience apotheosis. Millennia ago, when we were still in our infancy as a species, we were awed by the powers of nature and our extreme vulnerability in the face of them. We decided that there must be some sentient power that controlled the forces of nature, the floods, volcanos, fires, landslides, and other deadly phenomena. Not only were there powerful natural forces, but they were capricious and unpredictable as well as uncontrollable.

In our silly wisdom, we figured out that maybe, just maybe, we could barter with the gods so that they would leave us alone. If we presented the gods with gifts, even living gifts (as in virgins thrown into a volcano), maybe we could obviate the damage the gods inflicted on us. It was fine to kill all the people in the next village, but leave us alone, please. Well, that didn’t always work according to plan, so an explanation was necessary. So, if our village was ravaged by a fire even though we had been really good and had made lots of sacrifices to the gods, maybe those sacrifices just weren’t enough. We just had to kick up the giving a notch or two. Sadly, we are still very much controlled by this narrative.