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. 

 

Such a Mess.

I must admit that I’m a bit depressed these days. A substantial contribution to my depression is the amount of caution I need to exercise every day in the face of the coronavirus COV-2 and the cancer that I still harbour in my bones. Even though I’m triple vaccinated, I still need to be very cautious lest I contract the virus in my compromised state. Picking up an infection, any kind of infection could be deadly for me. Carolyn is also immunocompromised because of arthritis meds she is on, so we are somewhat reclusive these days. Carolyn still does virtually all the shopping, but I do get out with her now and again. In my younger days, I was a moderately social guy. Not anymore. Among many other things, I miss having a beer at the CBC with friends. 

As far as myeloma is concerned, there seems to be just minute traces of it in my blood. Of course, I’m still on chemotherapy. Who knows what would happen if I suddenly went off chemo. I may need some dental work requiring an antibiotic. My local GP/Oncologist figures that I shouldn’t be on chemo and an antibiotic at the same time. He suggested that I think about going off chemo for a while, at least during the time I need for the dental work. He also suggested I talk to ‘my’ oncologist in Victoria about it. I had an appointment with an oncologist in Victoria this coming Monday, but he cancelled, according to his assistant, because he was called away unexpectedly. Great. I haven’t had a meeting with an oncologist in Victoria for months, and now who knows for how much longer. I haven’t had an appointment with the same oncologist in Victoria twice in a row. They are specialists, of course, so I don’t expect to have the same kind of relationship with them as with my GP, but still, I don’t know how continuity of care happens in this situation. I feel a little abandoned. 

What I find as distressing as anything as a person with cancer is the absence of predictability. Well, I guess I can always predict that I won’t be able to predict how things will go. I can usually predict that I’ll be going to the hospital every fourth Thursday of the month for an infusion of Daratumumab, but even that is a toss-up. It all depends on my bloodwork. If it’s good, then I go. If not, then I don’t go, and things change quickly. What I mean by the absence of predictability is more the idea that when I get up in the morning, I have no idea whether I’ll have any energy, will be lucid, or how much pain I’ll be in, and in which part of my body. Right now, the peripheral neuropathy in my left hand is bad, especially if I sleep on it in a particular way. As I write this, I’m feeling very tired and ‘dizzy’, even disoriented. I feel like I have a hangover. I don’t like it. I’ll go down for a nap soon. I’ll see if that helps. There’s no predicting. 

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Slip slidin’ away.

I know three people who have chosen MAID (Medical Assistance in Death). The reports from relatives (or from themselves) suggest that they went gently into the night under conditions of their own making. I know others who have either not had the time to set up MAID, or who, for whatever reason, chose to let things run their course and for whom the pain of dying was muted with the help of morphine or other pain killer.  After reading Barbara Ehrenreich, Brian Greene, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Atul Gawande, and Jason Fung, all authors I’ve discussed in this blog at times, it strikes me that slipping gracefully into death is not a fate most of us will share. I don’t know what the billions of people in the poorer parts of the world suffer as they approach death. I know that in some places where wars are still all too common, death by a bullet or a machete are a fate that await many people. Death by poverty is all too common. It’s true that death awaits us all, but the conditions of dying are not democratic. Considering all living things on this planet, dying is generally shunned. Yesterday, while shaving, I inadvertently disturbed a spider who was minding its own business in and around the vanity lights. It took off, scurrying like mad, wanting to live another day, I surmised. It did not want to die. 

As biological organisms we tend to cling to life for all it’s worth. Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule. Even for people who commit suicide, I suspect (with no hard evidence whatsoever) that it’s not life they are escaping, but unrelenting pain, physical and/or mental. I’m sure that they would gladly continue living if the pain would only go away. I think that’s true of people who choose MAID as well as those who commit suicide in any number of non-sanctioned ways. Of course, the people who I know chose MAID were older. As Barbara Ehrenreich wrote (somewhere, probably in Natural Causes) when she got to be seventy-five years old: “I’m old enough to die now.” I’ll be seventy-five next year, and I guess I’m old enough to die too, but I think I’ll endeavour to stay alive in 2022. 

18 Looking in the Mirror.

[This is a reprint of a post I wrote in January of 2020. I reproduce it here in honour of Elizabeth (Bunny) Shannon who was especially drawn to it. Bunny died of cancer last month. She was a friend and an extraordinary person. I am privileged to have known her]

When I look in the mirror I see an old man. I don’t see an old man with cancer. I just see an old man with a white beard, not much hair, and wrinkly skin. Melanoma (skin cancer) often leaves visible, sometimes unsightly and disfiguring lesions. I don’t have melanoma, although my father did. No, I have myeloma (bone marrow cancer) and its damage is all done on the inside, invisibly. So, I guess I can keep expecting people who see me say: “Wow, you’re looking good!” I guess I DO look good! Now, the last thing I want is to discourage people from telling me how good I look, so keep it up! However, the invisibility of my condition is deceiving. I remember when I was a kid my friends and I used to work on our cars. That was still possible when I was a kid. Often we’d stand around looking into the engine compartment (often of my 1956 Pontiac four-door hardtop) wondering what could possibly be wrong as if just staring at the engine would give us some kind of clue. The engine was always sparkly clean and there was nothing obviously gone awry. If I had money by some quirk of circumstance I might take the car to a mechanic. If not, we might borrow my dad’s tools and start taking things apart. That usually ended up badly. Yes, the most undesirable conditions in life are often on the inside, impossible to see or diagnose by just looking at the person or car in question. I find it best to consult mechanics when our car shows signs of disfunction. I find it best to consult medical specialists for treatment related to my body. I guess I could try to treat myself using any number of the ‘cures’ available on Dr. Google, but I would like to live a while longer, thanks. Besides, I’m not that desperate.

Speaking of medical specialists, we saw my local oncologist today. I see him every five weeks. The result of our visit is that I will carry on with a second course of chemotherapy. We’ll evaluate how well it went in five weeks. My first course of treatment seems to have gone as well as could be expected. The little excavator in my bone marrow is slowly running out of gas and my red blood cell garden is growing again. I’m still exhausted and that won’t change for some time yet, but things are certainly going in the right direction for now. I think I just might be a model patient. So, where does this all leave me?

Well, I may be on my way towards remission. If and when I do go into remission, and that’s by no means guaranteed at this point, that would buy me some time. By that I mean that I may have a few years more to live, though inevitably, either the myeloma will kill me or some other condition will. I won’t be walking away from this situation, brush the dust from my sleeves and carry on. No, I’m on a one way street. So are you, of course, but I can see that damned barrier at the end of the street. I’m hoping that you’re still far enough away from it that you can live in blissful denial for a while longer. I don’t have that luxury. So now what do I do with my life?

That question came up in a recent Facebook thread, albeit expressed in a different way, but with the same effect, I believe. The question comes down to this: If you knew that you had a given amount of time left to live (six months, two years, whatever), what would you do with your time? Would you to be seized by an overwhelming sense of urgency? Would you be determined to cram as much activity and experience into your remaining time as possible? Or would you curl up in a fetal position in a corner of your bedroom quivering and whimpering while you await your inevitable demise? If you have the money and the energy you might want to get out there and travel the world. If you have a spouse, that might complicate things more or less because they may not want the same things you do and may not want to get caught up in your sense of urgency. The last thing you need when facing terminal cancer is marital discord. I think there’s a lot to be said for just carrying on with life as before.

If you have the energy and the money then good on ya. If you travelled a lot before your diagnosis then travel after. Your eventual energy deficits will tell you when to stop. If you were fairly sedentary, more into being at home and puttering around the yard, then that would be something you might want to continue doing. The stress of travel may not be that good for you. Looking around the Cancer Centre at the North Island Hospital this morning I didn’t see a lot of people with obvious enough vigour to engage in a lot of physical activity. In any case, back to my situation.

My exhaustion prevents me from doing much in the way of physical activity. If I do go for a walk I pay for it later. Travelling is impossible. At one point I thought it might be possible, say, to take a direct flight to Puerto Vallarta back and forth from Comox, but there are a number of contingencies that make that next to impossible that have more to do with arthritis and disk degeneration than cancer. Besides, I take chemo drugs once a week orally but also by injection at the hospital. For three or four days after I take my meds I feel crappy, really crappy so the chances of enjoying myself on a beach somewhere are slim to none.

So what do I want to do, and what do I actually do? Well, I want to work on our canoe, finish some paintings, do odd jobs around the property and visit family and friends in Vancouver and further afield. What I actually do is sit and lie down a lot. As I sit and lie down, I read, and sometimes I even write. At the moment I’m reading social history around the Middle Ages and doing a bit of research on my family roots in Normandy. That’s something I would have done anyway, but I do miss working in my shop and studio and going for long walks with Carolyn and our imaginary dog. My oncologist thinks I will regain my energy, at least as much as an old man can expect. If so, that would be great. I’d love to get back to canoeing, camping and puttering.

When I get closer to dying I will know it, and I expect I will have time to think about it, but there really isn’t much thinking that is productive about dying, at least not for me. I’ll know when it’s time for palliative care. I don’t want to live as long as the oncologists might want to keep me alive. I’ll make the decision when the time comes. I don’t think it will be a really hard decision. I know that beginnings are impossible without endings. My ending is a lot closer now than my beginning! That’s fine. Frankly, I’m much more concerned with my family than I am with myself. They are the ones left behind to mourn. But both of my parents are dead and we got on with life after their deaths. My family will do the same when I’m gone. That’s what we do as humans. Like it or not, accept it or not, rage against it or cower in a dark corner, the end result is the same. Don’t sweat it.

Sleepless in Cumberland

Yesterday was my day at the hospital for my monthly infusion of Daratumumab, the monoclonal antibody. It along with other flavours of monoclonal antibodies have changed a lot about how medicine thinks about and treats cancer, arthritis, and other nasty ailments of us fragile mortals. Along with my Dara, I also take some dexamethasone, only 12 mgs for the month, and a few other meds designed to protect me from viral infection. It’s the dex that keeps me awake as I’ve noted many times on this blog. 

So, instead of lying awake, allowing whatever thoughts I had rattle around in my brain causing no end of silly talk, I decided to read instead. Reading is a good way of filling in the night hours in what some people would call a ‘progressive’ way. However, I may need to revise the material that I choose to read at night. I haven’t read a lot of fiction in my life, focussing my reading time on sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and other sundry disciplines. I have read most of Kurt Vonnegut’s work, all of Emily St. John Mandel’s books and I did recently read several books by Kim Stanley Robinson, fictional accounts of the human colonization of Mars, New York under flood, and other similar topics. In his Mars trilogy one interesting commentary was on longevity. If people accepted a certain treatment, they could live hundreds of years instead of the paltry number of years generally allotted to our species. That fact, however, did not seem to mitigate the angst they felt about death and dying. In a book called Aurora, Robinson is at his most pessimistic about human excursions to other planets and their satellites in our solar system. His conclusions about the time it takes to travel from Earth to other planets are telling. Travelling to and back from a satellite of Venus, for example may take a hundred and seventy years or more with the need for cryogenic sleep. So, if you were one of the ‘lucky’ ones who won the lottery for space travel you would return to Earth after several decades of travel at a time when no one would know you, you would have no recognizable family and you would be relegated to the margins of society. I read Robinson at night. It was a bit hard to get to sleep after reading some of his stuff, but not impossible. Reading Barbara Ehrenreich and other non-fiction writers of her ilk is an entirely different story (no pun intended). Last night I finished reading her book Natural Causes: Life, Death, and the Illusion of Control. This book is firmly planted in reality. Problem is reality sucks sometimes. Ehrenreich is especially blunt when she writes about aging. Getting old is no cake walk. It’s not for the faint of heart although in our culture it’s not cool to ‘give in’ to the infirmities of age. Ehrenreich writes:

“But as even the most ebullient of the elderly eventually comes to realize aging is above all an accumulation of disabilities, often beginning well before Medicare eligibility or the arrival of the first Social Security check. Vision loss typically begins in one’s forties, bringing the need for reading glasses. Menopause strikes in a woman’s early fifties, along with the hollowing out of bones. Knee and lower back pain arise in the forties and fifties, compromising the mobility required for “successful aging.”” (from “Natural Causes: Life, Death and the Illusion of Control” by Barbara Ehrenreich)

And:

“Not doing anything is the same as aging; health and longevity must be earned through constant activity. Even the tremors of Parkinson’s disease can be seen, optimistically, as a form of health-giving exercise, since they do, after all, burn calories. The one thing you should not be doing is sitting around and, say, reading a book about healthy aging. There are bright sides to aging, such as declines in ambition, competitiveness, and lust.”*

So, we must always put a happy face on adversity, be positive about everything, and keep moving. I don’t think my nine hours a day sitting with my computer on my lap would be morally acceptable. But you know what? I’m finding it a wee bit difficult to feel positive about dying. A Cumberland friend, Howard Jones, who died recently spent his last few days in the hospital. He couldn’t breathe on his own much anymore. Months ago, over coffee he confided that he didn’t know how long he could continue on oxygen with a life very much reduced to sitting or lying in bed. He could no longer walk in his beloved forest. I meant to visit him in the hospital when I was there for my usual chemo treatment, but I was cautioned not to because of my compromised situation. I should have gone anyways. Now it’s too late. We did text each other, but that’s not the same as a face-to-face visit. One day, the day he died as far as I know, he was the one to make the decision to go off oxygen, thus ensuring his death. I think that Howard died a good death. 

The especially difficult decisions I know I will face in the near(ish) future will be whether I continue with the chemotherapy that has so far kept me alive. I will be thinking of Howard when the time comes. I expect that my (and my family’s) decision will hinge on the quality of life my treatments are now offering me and the intensity of their side effects. There is a question of how much benefit a few months of life can give in the face of much reduced quality of life. It will not be an easy decision. I love life, I love my family, my community and where I live. I am loathe to give that up, to know that the world will carry on without me. But it’s not like I or any of us have a choice in the matter. We all die. Some of us, however, are given the privilege of deciding when and how we die. 

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*I’m reading Ehrenreich as an ebook on a Kindle. The problem with that is that when I select a quotation to use on my post, it doesn’t give me a page number. I find that unacceptable and will see if I can find a work around. 

Slowly Falling Apart

For this post, I decided to create a collage of quotes and commentaries from books I’ve been reading lately. They range from comments on death and dying to philosophy, culture, and the future. So far in this blog, I’ve refrained from commenting on American Congressional politics, but I just may go there soon. I told my sociology students year after year throughout my college teaching career that the American empire would fall, as all empires fall, not from external conquest but from implosion due to unresolved, long standing conflict. The American empire, specifically, will fall because of commodity production that depends on longer and more complex supply chains and failing profits. America is falling on its own sword of profits. Supply chains and economic processing zones in a plethora of ‘developing’ parts of the world have been an issue for decades while only recently making it onto mainstream media commentary and news. I’ll explain in a future post.

US politics has to wait. It’s a mess down there but it’s a mess everywhere on the planet at the moment. Let’s move on.

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Robert Sapolsky is one of my all-time favourite guys. He has a number of his Stanford University lectures on YouTube. He’s a neuroscientist who specializes in stress. He worked in the field for many years with Olive baboons in Africa. I have a video in which his work with the baboons is featured. On the topic of the human condition he writes:

“we are now living well enough and long enough to slowly fall apart. The diseases that plague us now are ones of slow accumulation of damage—heart disease, cancer, cerebrovascular disorders.” (from “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping (Third Edition)” by Robert M. Sapolsky)

Now, ain’t that the truth! If you check out Stats Canada’s vital statistics you’ll find out that cancer is the leading cause of death in Canada. Actually, life is the leading cause of death everywhere, but as far as the observable evidence of bodily decay and death goes, cancer is determined to be the immediate major causes. Writing this makes me want to go back and binge watch Sapolsky on YouTube. Not only does he have a lot to say, but he says it in such an engaging way that binge watching is entirely feasible. I’ll be sharing more from Sapolsky later, but now on to another very different writer.

This is a quote from another book I’m reading that I want to share with you. Talk about falling apart! Robinson is a contemporary novelist writing in the sci-fi genre with dystopian tinges. He writes:

“Say the order of your time feels unjust and unsustainable and yet massively entrenched, but also falling apart before your eyes. The obvious contradictions in this list might yet still describe the feeling of your time quite accurately, if we are not mistaken. Or put it this way; it feels that way to us. But a little contemplation of history will reveal that this feeling too will not last for long. Unless of course the feeling of things falling apart is itself massively entrenched, to the point of being the eternal or eternally recurrent individual human’s reaction to history. Which may just mean the reinscription of the biological onto the historical, for we are all definitely always falling apart, and not massively entrenched in anything at all. 31 India” (from “The Ministry for the Future: A Novel” by Kim Stanley Robinson)

Most of this quote will be difficult for you to fathom because it’s out of context. It’s the last sentence that really matters. To help you out a little with the context of this quote, the ‘order of your time’, in the first sentence means that in the course of your life you feel out of control. You can’t go back, you can’t stay still. You can only go forward towards your death. This applies not only to us as biological entities but also to our cultural and social constructs which also are bound to come and go in a generally disorderly way. We cannot be ‘massively entrenched’ in life because daily existence makes a lie of any attempt to avoid moving toward death.

Now, more from Robinson in another of his sci-fi novels set far from Earth on a ship and a moon.

“Existential nausea comes from feeling trapped. It is an affect state resulting from the feeling that the future has only bad options. Of course every human faces the fact of individual death, and therefore existential nausea must be to a certain extent a universal experience, and something that must be dealt with by one mental strategy or another. Most people appear to learn to ignore it, as if it were some low chronic pain that has to be endured. Here in this meeting, it began to become clear, for many of those present, that extinction lay at the end of all their possible paths. This was not the same as individual death, but was instead something both more abstract and more profound.” (from “Aurora” by Kim Stanley Robinson)

Robinson is not a great writer in terms of composition, but he is a very perceptive commentator on the human condition. His novels are all about the fragility of humanity in the face of evolution and death, both on an individual and social level. Death denial is a consistent theme in human history and as a goal, has engendered a mass of immortality tales with “supernatural” characters as diverse as Zeus, Jesus, Shiva and a mess of lesser gods. These characters are our heroes who will save us from death if only we believe in them. But then we come face to face with evolution and biology which care not a wit whether we believe in them or not, and which just carry on.

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So, what about falling apart?

It’s clear that average death rates have risen consistently over the decades on the planet although in the US they’ve been falling for some demographics. Falling or not, on average we live well into our seventies. In fact, Stats Can tells me that if I live to be seventy-four I can expect to live another fourteen years. These are average life expectancies, of course. Millenia ago, living to thirty-seven years of age was considered average. People died of things then we seldom die of these days (such as appendicitis).

Sapolsky understands that the longer we live the more things can go wrong in our bodies. That’s self-evident the longer we live. If we get injured while young we can expect to heal and then just get on with things. As we (I) get older the healing process slows down.

There are a few very fortunate people, especially in the world’s richest parts, who suffer very little as they get old. I don’t think I know any of those people (well, maybe one or two). That said, there is an inevitable decline in capacity as we age. That doesn’t mean we should stop living and simply prepare for death because we know it’s going to happen. For me, I have much reduced capacity. At seventy-four I have maybe a quarter of the capacity I had at fifty. But a quarter is better than nothing. I still have shit to do! I’m falling apart, yes. In fact, I can’t fall much farther, but that’s fine, I still have a way to go.

I want my goddamned life back! Redux

[I wrote the post below in April, 2021. I’m still feeling it and still living with the issues I raised in this post in April! I think it’s worth a repost. Life is infinite, but any expression of life is finite. As expressions of life, some of us are more inclined to accept our finality, our death, than others. In April I was particularly pissed off about my lack of resilience and strength. I guess that my attitude in this regard has changed somewhat. I’m more inclined now to just accept my limitations and to accept death as the only inevitable consequence of life, and maybe have a little fun while waiting for it. I will die soon enough. This can’t go on forever! I’ve always understood death from a philosophical and anthropological perspective. Now things are getting more real every day. It’s a bit scary, but it’s not something I turn away from. Of course, I may feel differently about all of this if you ask me about it next week! So, don’t ask me.

On another topic entirely, I’m concerned about this blog. I’m getting tapped out as far as writing about my life, its trials and tribulations. I do have a lot of things to write about but they are less personal and more sociological than the content of most of my current posts. After all, I am still a sociologist. Early on in this blog, in 2013, I wrote extensively about Ernest Becker and his books, The Denial of Death and Escape From Evil. I still consider these books to be critical as they confront the issues of the many cultural ways we try to deny death, like misogyny. I’m still amazed at misogyny and its close relative, patriarchy. I may write soon about religious denials of death as expressed in Sunday rituals and the overwhelming need many of us feel to transcend the physical beings that we are, a need fulfilled by religion. I will write too about the recent implantation of a pig’s kidney into a human. Just think about the philosophical and sociological implications of that as you eat your bacon for breakfast!

Ciao for now! Read on…]

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.

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.