41 – Plugged in!

Time to reëvaluate! (yes, an umlaut is traditional on the second e in this word). Call me a linguistic traditionalist. So, I’ve posted over forty entries in this blog directly or indirectly on my experience with myeloma. That’s over forty-five thousand words. That’s a lot. Now, the novelty of my daily chemo grind is wearing off and even though I’m thoroughly exhausted most of the time, I’m getting restless. I may force myself to draw this afternoon. There’s some lovely forsythia outside the living room window that I admire every day. Right now it’s vivid yellow, like the daffodils coming up here and there in the yard. I’ll see if I can draw them, if I can steady my hand enough.

With the SARS-2-Cov Novel Corona virus nipping at our heels, it’s tempting to move on to discuss Corvid-19 and leave my myeloma stuff on the back burner. Well, that’s not going to happen. I’m not keen to add anything to the overwhelming internet chatter on the pandemic. You won’t find any tips or suggestions on how to deal with it here. So, I’m going to move on to some extent. I’ll still post entries on my myeloma experience if they’re relevant and new and I will post material on myeloma and Covid-19 if that’s relevant too. For instance, there was a Webinar yesterday organized by Myeloma Canada specifically about myeloma and the pandemic. It didn’t add much to what I already know. In a few minutes the local Myeloma Support group is having a round table by Zoom. We’ll see how that goes. I’ll report back. Reporting back: well, that was interesting. Zoom is unknown territory for most people so it took some time to get the teleconference off the ground. But once launched, we got to see people we had only previously communicated with by email or on the phone. Some interesting conversation around drugs and dosages along with tips on navigating the medical system. Some discussion around what people are doing to stay safe in the face of Covid-19. Physical distancing seems to be the main strategy. I went to the hospital this morning (Monday, March 30th) to get bloodwork done. Chemo patients were supposed to be segregated from the others in the waiting room but somebody didn’t get the memo because that didn’t happen. There was one woman in there who coughed the whole time. At least she was wearing a mask. So was I, for that matter.

This is a great time to be a sociology, not such a great time to have myeloma, but then what would be a great time to have myeloma?

I’ve been re-reading What is Sociology? over the past few days giving me a renewed appreciation of Norbert Elias’ work. His language is different from conventional sociology, particularly functionalist sociology, and it’s a bit of a challenge to work with concepts like ‘figuration’,’ interweaving’, and ‘interdependencies’, language I’m not that familiar with. I get a lot from his work. I have a challenge for you too based on it.

So many of us, following the dominant capitalist morality in our world have a strong commitment to individualism and individuality. We crave to be ‘different’ from everybody else and we downplay our dependencies on others while we extoll the virtues of self-sufficiency. We laugh at people in their late teens and early twenties who still live with mommy and daddy and who obviously haven’t achieved the level of independence expected of them. I used to challenge my students. So, I’d say, “you think you’re self-efficient and independent. Well, think about this: Think about unplugging your home. Think about no more water lines, no electricity coming through the wires you never think about until it’s time to pay the bill. No sewer connection. No internet. No phone. No mommy and daddy wallet. Nothing. Now do you still think you’re self-sufficient? Now, shut down the grocery store to anything not grown or produced locally. I don’t mean just the food, I mean the packaging, the jars, the plastic milk containers. All of these things are produced in factories all over the world. You are connected to every worker in the banana plantations of Ecuador, the battery factories in Mexico, the food processing plants all over the world. You depend on them every day. Do you think about that when you peel a banana or put batteries in your headphones? What if we shut down Home Depot, Canadian Tire, Home Hardware, etc. The tools you buy there: Where do you think they are they made? Mostly China these days, in factories contracted by American corporations looking for cheap labour, and escape from Labour and Safety laws, and taxes. These corporations have exported their pollution to China. Not that that was ever a consideration in their decision-making. I could write a book on globalization and how we tend to misunderstand it based on old ways of thinking about the nature of countries, their sovereignty and their relations with other countries. Now the shit has hit the fan, and the whole globalist agenda is under question. But I don’t want to get into that right now. Instead, I want to challenge you in another way.

So, we tend to see ourselves as ‘substantiates’ (an Elias term), which means we see ourselves as things separate from other things. We contrast ourselves with larger things like ‘the environment’ or ‘society’, both we think of as real. Well, what if you asked yourself: What is it about me that is essential for my survival as an organism? Then, what is ‘outside’ of me that is essential for my survival? To start, let’s think about our biology.

Our survival depends on organismic integrity. That means that our bodies have to hang together. Of course, we don’t often think in those terms. It seems self-evident that our bodies hold themselves together, so to speak, with connective tissue, skin, bone, and various fluids. That said, our bodies soon cease to ‘hang together’ if we don’t incorporate ‘things’ from the outside to ensure this process continues. So, what ‘things’ from the outside of us are critical for our survival? Or put another way, if we didn’t ‘have’ these things, how long would we survive? One ‘thing’ we often take for granted is air. Suffocation is probably the quickest way of killing someone outside of blunt force trauma or other form of violence. No air=death in minutes. Again, passively speaking, the lack of water is probably second on the list of things the absence of which produces death fairly quickly. Probably food after that, although shelter, that is critical protection against extremes in temperature and weather, is also critical.

So, in summary, it’s fair to say that the human organism generally hangs together fairly well in the absence of blunt force trauma, evisceration, and amputations of various sorts. It cannot survive for long, however, without the right environmental conditions, air, water, and food. Nor can it survive without the means of waste evacuation. It’s really quite absurd, then, to think about ‘ourselves’ as independent of the ‘things’ out there that we need for survival. We don’t exist without them. See if you can imagine yourself ‘plugged in’. Imagine tubes entering your mouth for water and food, into your nose for air, attached to your butt for evacuating solids, and a catheter for you know where. The fact is that ‘you’ and ‘I’ extend far beyond the boundaries of our bodies. The way we see ourselves as independent things opposed to other independent things flies in the face of reality. So, yeah, we live in an illusory world.

Of course, the picture is much more complicated than even that. When we are conceived, at that moment, we begin to transform the world around us, into us using the ‘food’ available coming through the placenta and umbilical cord. That process continues after birth at an accelerating rate for many years before it slows down in early adulthood in an arc towards death. That’s where I’m at, on the arc towards death. Entropy rules. It’s no fun, but it rules.

In my next post I address the way we are socially connected over generations, in time, and in space. If Covid-19 is doing anything it’s highlighting our interdependence and mutual interests. Will we finally take our connections seriously?

Beware of Dr. Vendedor de Aceite de Serpiente.

On my very first post in this series on my experience with cancer, the last paragraph reads:

Please don’t suggest any treatments or diets or whatever. I won’t be going to Mexico for any heroic treatments. (If and when I feel better we may go to lie on a beach though.) I’m not desperate. I won’t be buying a juicer either and I’ll continue to eat the great, wholesome mostly unprocessed food that I currently eat but my body will follow, as it must, the second law of thermodynamics. I’m okay with that.

I still feel that way. I’ve clearly decided to go the chemotherapy route so I won’t, in desperation, try on some homeopathic ‘treatment’ or ‘cure’ for the myeloma that is my curse for the rest of my life. Neither will I do anything to boost my immune system. It’s my immune system that is partly responsible for spreading my bone marrow cancer to distal regions of my body by facilitating the movement of the myeloma protein in my blood via macrophages (if I read that right). No. My immune system is fine for dealing with outside sources of infection, but it can’t do anything about preventing internal insurrection by oncogenes and the like.

Lately, I’ve had a couple of other bloggers read my posts, bloggers with agenda. Barbara Gannon has a blog called Cancer is not A Death Sentence and another is by Brian Shelley and it’s called CANCER WARRIORS. I believe both Gannon and Shelley are sincere and well-meaning. Not only that, they display a passionate belief in what they’re doing. Gannon has found alternative dietary and medicinal ways of dealing with cancer. Shelley found God. The battle metaphor is the same for both bloggers. If you’ve been following my blog you’ll know that I am not likely to be convinced by either approach to dealing with my cancer. For one, we are all individuals with very different bodies, different genetic makeups, at different ages, with different genders, and different underlying physiological and anatomical dynamics. Cancer, although it is basically pathological mitosis, is expressed differently in each of us. What works for you in response to any given cancer at whatever stage it’s at may not work for me. Some people argue that cancer is cancer and it can be beaten no matter what. I don’t subscribe to that perspective. Some people may be misdiagnosed so it’s no big surprise when their situation improves. It was probably nothing to start with. Some cancers in certain people may go into spontaneous remission. Cancer and its various treatments are highly complex and I’ll go with science in dealing with it as much as I can. Anecdotal evidence just doesn’t cut it for me.

That said, conventional Western research science, medicine, and pharmacology are not perfect. Scientists, medical doctors, and pharmacologists are human and have human ambitions, needs, and varying moral standards. Some even cheat. Still, I think the scientific research protocols are the best way of finding out what’s going on in the world. All claims of miracle cures for cancer that I’ve run across are based on anecdotal evidence: The “I beat cancer. You can too.” type of thing. I’m not saying these claims aren’t real, only that they can’t be generalized and applied to everyone who has cancer. One problem I find difficult to deal with is the absence of ongoing scrutiny of the claims of miracle cures. I had a friend and colleague who tried everything to survive his cancer a few years ago, including juicing and trips to Mexico, but nothing worked and he died. But, again, that’s anecdotal evidence pertaining to one case only.

Of course there are huge ethical issues when doing double-blind scientific research on the effectiveness of treatment protocols. Siddhartha Mukherjee in his book The Emperor of all Maladies deals with many of the ethical issue in oncology. Recruiting people with cancer for a clinical trial, then assigning half to a treatment group and half to a placebo group is ethically charged. The placebo group is definitely at a disadvantage if the treatment works. The question then is when to switch them into treatment while still maintaining the integrity of the research project.

Nutritional studies are notoriously difficult to conduct in any kind of scientific way. This website addresses that issue and notes that some nutritional studies have been very successful, like the one finding that sailors died of scurvy because of vitamin C deficiency. But, overall, nutritional studies are notoriously difficult to carry out and are almost impossible to conduct using the standard double-blind protocol. The website ends with a statement garnered from a meeting of several nutrition researchers who find that a balanced diet is the best diet. They also note that: “Anyone who tells you it’s more complicated than that — that particular foods like kale or gluten are killing people — probably isn’t speaking from science, because, as you can see now, that science would actually be near impossible to conduct.” More on nutrition below.

Naturopathic cures and treatments.

I have no problem with naturopathy for some kinds of issues and treatments, but I have been highly sceptical of some of their diagnostic protocols, especially things like vega testing. This website debunks all kinds of naturopathic and other diagnostic protocols. The website Science Based Medicine is always a good place to check out whether or not a claim for this or that treatment is effective from a scientific perspective. Noting that here may betray my bias for science, but I have no issues with that. However, I also acknowledge that science based medicine is now being challenged more and more by what’s called evidence-based science. There are huge issues with evidence-based research, not the least of which a lot of it is funded by industry with serious conflict of interest consequences.

My interest is mainly in cancer research and treatments. This article from the Fred Hutch Cancer Research Centre provides a fair analysis of how oncologists can address patients who are reluctant to undergo chemotherapy because of the side effects. It argues that if a patient wants to go an alternative route they should still maintain contact with an oncologist who can monitor their ‘progress’.

This website called Nature Works Best highlights the research and findings of Dr. Colleen Huber, a naturopath who’s clinic offers alternative cancer treatments. I read her article detailing her work with 379 individuals with cancer. She claims a very high rate of success from 92% for the low-hanging fruit (as I call it) and as low as 29% for patients in advanced stages of certain types of cancer. She seems to have the most success with breast cancer patients who have already had surgery. It’s hard, then, to figure out where to ascribe responsibility for remission. Thirty-two of her patients died after following her protocols. She claims that many of the other ‘failures’ (deaths) are due to patients not following her advice, especially to not eat sugar, which she claims feeds cancer cells. Her table looking at each of the 379 patients is telling. I read it very carefully, and frankly I can’t see how she can boast a 92% success rate. One of the problems is that there are twenty or so varieties of breast cancer. She doesn’t tell us which or these varieties she’s actually treating. And ‘treatment’ like I said is often post-surgery.

She has had four myeloma patients and one MGUS (describing a sort-of pre-myeloma condition. She claims that one of those patients travelled a lot and eventually died of pneumonia. Another died after leaving treatment against her best advice. A third she reported in remission but now having problems (“R, then recent elevated blood labs”). This patient reported extreme fatigue with no change due to treatment. The fourth, she reported is in apparent remission (“AR Imp quickly; could not afford to continue treatment. Then recurrence; then stem cell tx. R”) So, the stem cell transplant seems to have done the trick. I can’t see how her treatments helped at all. Myeloma is incurable by all reports so it’s disingenuous to not be clear on that point in her documentation. Her table doesn’t mention the age of the patient. That’s a critical piece of information, in my mind.

Snake oil salespeople and over-the-top woo.

You could always get a coffee enema. There are clinics nearby. Read all about it! Then you can read what Science Based Medicine has to say about it. Or you can try medical marijuana as a treatment. Here’s what the American National Cancer Institute has to say about that. It suggests that there is no evidence that cannabis or any cannabinoids can treat cancer. It does note, however, that THC may be useful for advanced cancer patients in dealing with pain and issues around appetite. Alternatively, you could try an alkaline diet. See what Robert David Grimes has to say about this in a 2017 article in The Guardian. Grimes has a lot to say too about other alternative therapies too. Check out his article if you’re interested. You can always try juicing, but even the alternative of alternatives, the Oasis of Hope hospital in Tijuana, Mexico, doesn’t advocate juicing carrots: too high in sugar. To be clear, the Oasis of Hope does use chemotherapy as a treatment, but it’s much better known for alternative therapies.

What I’m not arguing here.

I’m not suggesting here that a proper diet, not smoking, drinking in moderation, etcetera are not important. They are. However, nutritional or dietary strategies for cancer treatment are largely unfounded.

I know that there are herbalists who have a strong commitment to assisting us in our drive for healthy living and I respect that. But when it comes to cancer, the Cancer Council of Victoria in Australia has assessed the contribution of herbs in cancer treatment and says:

Herbal medicines are often used to help with the side effects of conventional cancer treatments, such as lowering fatigue and improving wellbeing. Evidence shows they should be used in addition to conventional therapies, rather than as an alternative. AND

Although herbs are natural, they are not always safe. Taking the wrong dose or wrong combination or using the wrong part of the plant may cause side effects or be poisonous (toxic). Also, herbs used with chemotherapy, radiation therapy and hormone therapy can cause harmful interactions. All herbs should be prescribed by a qualified practitioner.

I was cautioned not to drink green tea as it counteracts the effects of bortezomib, one of the meds I’m on. There are other contraindications too. And just because indigenous people have used some plants to treat all kinds of ills, it’s probably not a good idea for us to apply indigenous strategies willy-nilly. For example, cedar tea although very high in Vitamin C can be very toxic but people are drinking it and I expect they are not always in full knowledge of its effects on the short or long term. Carolyn and I have used products from Harmonic Arts and from a local herbalist to good effect but not specifically for treating my myeloma. That said, there is ongoing promising research. There is evidence that curcumin, a compound found in turmeric, can act as a proteasome regulator, and could work with drugs like bortezomib to suppress the growth of cancer cells in some types of cancer. A report in MyelomaCrowd notes that curcumin needs to be modified to stay in the body longer if it is to be effective against cancer cell proliferation.

I’m all for caution when it comes to my cancer treatment. I’m not happy being on chemotherapy but I don’t see any alternatives out there that are trustworthy or based on more than anecdotal evidence. I think I’ll stay the course. That said, I will continue to eat well, have the odd beer, rest but also get some exercise (as much as my condition allows me to).

Stay safe out there!

Two Days in my Diary: Saturday morning addendum.

6:15 AM Saturday March 21st.

I probably should have included Saturday in my original post from yesterday, because it’s also a down day due to my chemotherapy treatments. I had another dex night last night. I got my usual acid reflux but it came much later than usual, around midnight, and lasted until around 5 AM. My tinnitus is about as bad as it gets right now. I slept, I really did, for a couple of hours between 10:30 and 12:30, then I got up to pee. I sort of slept again until 2 PM but that was it. I woke up startled by a very odd dream. So I listened to some music and read some Fernand Braudel about Medieval Europe while I tried to process this weird dream I had just had.

I woke up at 2 AM in a sweat. That’s not unusual either in the first three days after taking my meds, but this time, like I just said, I woke up from a very strange dream. I wouldn’t say it was a nightmare; it was much more matter of fact than that and it was very vivid.

So, in my dream I invented a portable guillotine. It was portable with a blade a metre long and 30 centimetres thick and sprung like a chop saw. It looked more like the cutting end of a pair of garden sheers than a traditional guillotine but it worked like a guillotine. I invented it to cut up yard waste like sword fern fronds and twigs, that sort of thing. I think it’s because yesterday Carolyn worked in the yard doing clean up and she cut up a lot of sword ferns to the ground. I guess I invented this ‘machine’ to chop up these fronds to make them more compostable rather than take them to the dump in the trailer. In any case, it worked well, but then someone stole it from in front of my workshop one night. I was pissed off but resigned to just building another one. Then the neighbours started reporting that dogs and cats in the area were turning up decapitated. I figured whoever had stolen my guillotine could easily be doing this. I was mortified. Then I wondered if we’d start finding people decapitated, maybe up the logging road. Now I felt really shitty. All of that mayhem was my fault for inventing such a dangerous tool. Then I woke up.

I’ve been wracking my brain to try to wring some significance out of this dream but I can’t seem to figure it out. I invented a dangerous tool for a good cause but then found it used for very destructive purposes by person or persons unknown. What can I make of that?

In any case, today will be strange. I’ll probably have to sleep much of the afternoon after I completely come down from my dex high and am left to deal with the fallout from the cyclophosphamide and bortezomib. For my headache I’ll take a couple of Tylenol. Strange, but my peripheral neuropathy is attenuated at the moment. I wonder how long that will last. The burping is driving me nuts!

By the way, I came up with my epitaph. It goes like this:

Here lies a man who did a lot of bad things in his life.

Here lies a man who did a lot of good things in his life.

At the end he hoped it all balanced out and he would

Neither go to heaven nor to hell. He, he, he.


Have a nice day.

Two Days in my Diary

8:00 AM Thursday, March 19th.

On Wednesday we went to the hospital to see my local oncology GP. We reviewed my lab results and my progress to date and he was very positive about how things are going. It looks like more chemo for me until at least September, then off of them for three months after which I get bloodwork done again to see how things are going. If everything is okay we carry on for another three months. If the myeloma is again active, they’ll put me on another course of chemotherapy. He said that we should consider my disease more like a chronic disease, diabetes say, rather than as a virulent, deadly one. So, that’s all good, but I still have lots of chemotherapy ahead of me and that’s no cake walk.

In this post, I want to give you a blow-by-blow idea of what happens to me after I take my chemo meds on Thursday and Friday. I would love to hear from any of you who have had chemo so as to compare our experiences.

I have just made it so that anyone can comment on my posts. You don’t have to be a registered WordPress user to comment! Yay! Give it a try please!

Today is a good day so far. That will change in a while when I get my chemo meds. Oh, I have some joint pain and fatigue, but that’s my new normal anyway.

11:15 AM

Off to the hospital to get my chemo meds for the next four weeks along with a bortezomib shot.

1:20 PM

This time they wouldn’t let Carolyn come with me to the Cancer Clinic so she waited for me in the car. That’s because she had a cold and they’re rightfully paranoid about Covid-19. We drove home from the hospital carrying my load of pills to take for the next four weeks. I take 13 cyclophosphamide and 5 dexamethasone once a week on Thursdays. We had a bit of lunch a while ago and I’m starting to feel the effects of the meds, but not intensely yet. Tingling body is always where it starts. Today I decided to sleep off the afternoon hoping to cut off some of the worse effects of the meds.

4:30 PM

I’m actually feeling pretty good after sleeping for most of the afternoon. I’m lightheaded, that’s for sure, more than yesterday, so it’s started. The dexamethasone is starting to take effect. I’m feeling tingly all over. It’s still too early to assess how dex will affect me today. The dex effect has changed over the past few weeks. My body seems to be tolerating it better. I’m not getting the crazy twenty coffee high I was getting earlier during the first two cycles of treatment. My stomach is unsettled as it has been for the duration of my treatments. It’s a very odd sensation. Urination is still a problem although not as severe as early on in my treatments, so we’re thinking that the antibiotic might have done something, but we’re not sure. I checked to numbers from my last blood tests and my ferritin levels have dropped from over a thousand to now under six hundred. That’s great news because it does indicate that any inflammation I have had is decreasing. That said, my Lambda Free Light Chains (you have them too) are increasing and I’m not crazy about that. We’ll see what my next lab tests show. If they go up some more, I’ll be really pissed.

8:00 PM

Dex is starting to do its thing. ‘Sleep’ will be interesting tonight. I just took my usual bunch of pills but I’m taking two Benadryl tablets to counteract the usual itching and swelling around my bortezomib injection site. I’m also taking a Dulcolax tablet to counteract the constipation that comes with hydromorphone. That seems to be working. The burping has started but isn’t severe yet. That will come tomorrow. I’ll save more entries here until tomorrow. I’ll be in bed soon in any case.

8:00 AM Friday March 20th

So, last night was a dex sleep meaning that it’s a sort of sleep or at least a state akin to sleep. It’s hard to explain. I feel that I haven’t slept at all. Looking at the clock every fifteen minutes or so seems to confirm that but I may be dreaming all of that. I don’t know. I think the Benadryl is helping me counteract the dex, but I can’t be sure. I’m wide awake this morning having got up at 6:45 after Princess (the cat) came to me screaming for food. I ignored her, but it was too late. No point in staying in bed. I’m having very interesting experiences with pain lately too and this morning is no exception. I have pain spiking here and there but nothing constant. It usually comes when I move so I just sit still a lot! I know I have to get up and move around, and I do, but I then pay for it later. Last night I had no issues with my peripheral neuropathy (extremity pain and numbing) which is unusual. Usually peripheral neuropathy keeps me awake or tossing and turning. I’ll do more stretching today to see if that helps with that in the coming week. I’ve been doing a fair bit of stretching for my neck and back pain and that seems to help my peripheral neuropathy. Burping has resumed. Fuzzy head…not too severe yet, blunted by the dex. I find it fascinating to observe what’s happening to my body as I go through cycle after cycle of chemo. The effects change every time, sometimes drastically, sometimes almost imperceptibly. The interactions between the various meds I’m taking make it difficult to trace drug to effect. I’m trying to relax as much as I can. Stress doesn’t help. I think I’m doing okay on that front.

10:30 AM

The dex is starting to really kick in now. Elevated pulse rate and feeling very lightheaded. Overall, though, because I know what to expect I’m not getting stressed out. I feel it’s so important for people in chemo to very carefully track the effects. It’s so important to read the information sheets that come with the various drugs we take. In the case of my urinary issues, I called my GP with what are classic urinary tract infections (UTI) symptoms but only after Carolyn read the information sheets urging us to call in if we have signs of UTIs. We have to keep on top of it because I can’t afford to get an infection of any kind. Now I’m getting the shakes too. Par for the course. Time for tea.

12:25 PM

Well, the dex has kicked in with a vengeance. My cheeks are flushed, I’m hyper yet exhausted, unsteady on my feet, but we’re going to have lunch up by our pond. Yes! I can still write, but who knows about later today or tomorrow. Then, I may be good only for watching YouTube videos about people rebuilding their old sailboats, or doing woodwork, sometimes both. It’s all very exciting. I haven’t seen any videos yet on watching paint dry, but it came close on a video about somebody applying bottom paint to their sailboat a couple of hours before it was to go back in the water after being on dry land for weeks.

8:00 PM

Dex is still with me but now I’m feeling really exhausted so I may sleep better tonight. I generally sleep quite well. Dex nights (Thursday nights) are exceptional. I’ll be taking my meds now: Hydromorphone, Benadryl, and Dulcolax. It still burns when I pee and I have to pee often. My eyes are burning but that’s probably as much an effect of age as it is of the chemo. I’ve got the shakes still, probably until well into tomorrow. Pain is manageable. Exhaustion inevitable. I’ll go to bed in an hour or so, do a bit of reading then sleep (I hope). Goddamn burping! So annoying.

AND please comment! Especially those of you who have had chemo treatments in the past. You can do so now without being a WordPress user.

While Covid-19 has me bottled up…

Covid-19 has the whole world in an anxiety attack. The appearance of this special strain of Coronavirus is a direct but obviously unintended consequence of globalization. I spoke with Marika and David this morning and we collectively concluded that the appearance of Covid-19 in particular is pretty much due to the rapid expansion of global air travel some forty years ago created partly by the needs of globalization. The shipping container was a major factor in globalization as was the internet, but air travel brought warm human and humid bodies from one end of the planet to the other ripe for the spread of this kind of virus. Wow!

What a world transforming situation we are in at the moment. I don’t think it will have a long term effect on global capitalist production because it would cost hundreds of billions of dollars to re-tool ‘Western’ countries that have for some time now created a commodity-production system based on a complex of independent, unconnected factories producing individual parts for products that are then assembled in a factory designed to do just that. Wuhan, in China is a place where thousand of contractors and factories work for American and Western corporations in general making bits and pieces of everything to then be assembled in factories there or here for our consumption as hardware such as drills, heaters, washing machines, television sets, baby cribs, etcetera, as well as clothes, blankets, and sundry other wearables and that sort of thing. Of course, China isn’t the only place where this happens. Name a country in South Asia or South East Asia and the same thing is happening there. Viet Nam actually specializes in nails and fasteners for the construction industry, or to put it differently, Western corporations have chosen Viet Nam for this role. Bangladesh does clothes, so does Sri Lanka. But they all dabble in a range of products depending on the deals they can arrange with corporations who crave the absence of taxes, low wages and the dearth of health and safety regulations in the export processing zones set up specifically for this purpose in these countries.

As far as I’m concerned, Covid-19 has just made it so that I’m even more isolated than I was before. I’m at the pinnacle of vulnerability. I’m over sixty-five, I’m immuno compromised, I have an underlying illness and I’m fighting off some kind of bacterial infection at the moment that the docs are still trying to identify. If I get Covid-19, my chances of survival are slim to none. Well, something’s going to kill me. I’d like to wait a bit though to find out what that will be and I hope it’s not this virus.

I have a lot on my mind at the moment. I mean, what else have I got to do with my time but sit here and think? The reality of my own death is always close to mind and is stimulated constantly by programs like the recent one on the CBC White Coat Black Art program that deals with end of life care and how we as a society deal with it, or more precisely, don’t deal with it. Check it out here.

Most of you are way too young to have seen the movie Fantastic Voyage when it first came out in 1966, but this movie with Raquel Welch and Stephen Boyd was an inspiration for a generation of special effects techs to come. So, get this: a famous scientist is sick. He has a problem with his brain. A group of intrepid (they’re always intrepid) colleagues of his and some other brave adventurers get themselves shrunk in a special ‘ship’ that then is injected into the bloodstream of said sick doctor. Mayhem ensues of course as well as the necessary redemption. The trailer says it all.

The movie is hugely fantastical, but intriguing too. I imagine a little ship in my own veins going into my bone marrow to see what all the fuss is about and maybe do battle with the evil forces that are invading my body intent on killing me. It’s all fun to think about. The movie is a hoot. Thinking about what’s going on in my bone marrow, not so much.

I’m also thinking about life and death in general, following the last three blog posts I put out there for your reading pleasure. Serendipitously, Maria Popova, the immensely creative force behind the website ‘brain pickings‘ put out a piece on the work of John Muir (1838-1914). It’s well worth having a read through. It pretty much expresses in highly poetic prose what I wish I had written about the way I see the universe and our place in it. Popova quotes Muir:

One is constantly reminded of the infinite lavishness and fertility of Nature — inexhaustible abundance amid what seems enormous waste. And yet when we look into any of her operations that lie within reach of our minds, we learn that no particle of her material is wasted or worn out. It is eternally flowing from use to use, beauty to yet higher beauty; and we soon cease to lament waste and death, and rather rejoice and exult in the imperishable, unspendable wealth of the universe, and faithfully watch and wait the reappearance of everything that melts and fades and dies about us, feeling sure that its next appearance will be better and more beautiful than the last.

It’s only the last line I have any issue with because I don’t think there is any guarantee that the new will be better and more beautiful than what came before. But that’s really a quibble. The continuity of the biological world, and of the social world, make them seem eternal, immortal. No wonder we tend to deify them. For the BaMbuti of the Ituri forest (as reported by Colin Turnbull in the book The Forest People) before colonialism completely annihilated them, the forest was their mother. They didn’t deify the forest but they recognized that life emanated from her every pore. For other cultures, those living under the threat of imminent disaster, deification was common, something that Weber recognized in his Sociology of Religion a hundred years ago as did many others before him and since then.

Well. that’s all I can squeeze out of this poor brain of mine for the moment. Enjoy your social distance and get out into the sunshine.

Me, my Body and I: Part 2

To begin I want to dwell for a minute on Sigmund Freud’s ideas about the human personality. It’s a secular formulation, not surprising as Freud was an atheist. I’ll get to more religious formulations in a bit but Freud shows how personality can be conceived as being made up of three ‘parts’: the id, or libido (sexual energy), the ego, and the superego. The ego, in this scheme of things as I understand it, is the part of the personality where the needs of the id and the superego are negotiated and worked out. The superego is that manifestation of the human personality that accounts for social norms, values and morality. The fact is that the id, ego, and superego are not really ‘parts’ of the human personality, but manifestations of the various and often contradictory needs inherent in the id and superego. In other words, they are not things and can only really be identified by what they do or manifest.

For example, the id of a young man (I can attest from personal experience) may be consumed, or at least, pre-occupied with thoughts of sex, sex and more sex. The superego, on the other hand says, wait up there cowboy, you can’t have sex with anyone or anything at any time. There are social rules around these things. Listen up! NO sex with your sisters, brothers, or your mother, nor with sheep, goats, or monkeys! You hear? The id counters by arguing: well, what am I supposed to do with all this energy? You tell me I’m not even allowed to masturbate! That’s not fair! In these ‘debates’ sometimes the id wins, more often the superego does. There are people who have no social conscience or social ‘brakes’ to their behaviour. We call them psychopaths or sociopaths. People with rampant, out-of-control ids can be very dangerous as sexual predators and can be uncontrollably violent. Freud’s scheme has to be considered along with other aspects of what it means to be human such as bodily integrity, intelligence, and upbringing. Personality is very idiosyncratic if you haven’t noticed. It’s all very complex but it’s what accounts for our individuality.

What Freud’s personality scheme does for my purposes here is to highlight the fact that we can easily conceive of our personalities made up of semi-independent parts. This idea is integrally important to the religious, spiritually-minded, and Christian (certainly) notion that we are made up of body, consciousness, and soul, different aspects of us that are related but have a life of their own, so to speak. To think of the soul as immortal, it’s critical to separate it from the body which dies although some religionists, especially Darbyists* (who would probably find the 1991 film Rapture right up their alley), would prefer to go to heaven with their bodies intact. Rapture (the film) depicts end-of-time second coming of Jesus and the ascension of the human body and soul to heaven. Some religionists are very keen to see their physical bodies live eternally but they’ll settle for their consciousness or soul carrying on after their bodies die.

This is the position of Miguel de Unamuno, the Spanish Basque scholar who was for a long time the don of Salamanca University in Bilbao. I introduced you to Unamuno in one of my recent posts. I refer to Unamuno here because he is such a keen advocate for the immortality of the soul. He published The Tragic Sense of Life in 1920. It’s a rambling poetic rant and an impassioned plea to realize the limitations of reason in coming to grips with the most important problem he reckons facing us all and that is the immortality of our souls. For Unamuno, the longing for the immortality of our souls is what makes us human. He writes:

“That is to say that you, I, and Spinoza wish never to die and that this longing of ours never to die is our actual essence. Nevertheless, this poor Portuguese Jew, exiled in the mists of Holland, could never attain to believing in his own personal immortality, and all his philosophy was but a consolation which he contrived for his lack of faith. Just as other men have a pain in hand or foot, heart-ache or head-ache, so he had God-ache. Unhappy man! And unhappy fellow-men!” (from “The Tragic Sense of Life” by Miguel de Unamuno, Kindle Edition, page 43)

According to Unamuno, except for a few minor and aberrant individuals and groups, humans have throughout history consistently believed in the immortality of the soul. That commitment and longing for immortality that is at the very core of our beings and is effectively an instinct of perseverance as Unamuno sees it is our membership card in humanity. If we don’t believe or if we insist on finding a logical, reasonable explanation for the immortality of the soul then we are evil, wicked people who refuse to be a part of the human community. Unamuno can surely be called a hero in the social imperative of death denial. He finds atheists and non-believers of all sorts abhorrent. “If consciousness is, as some inhuman thinker has said, nothing more than a flash of light between two eternities of darkness, then there is nothing more execrable than existence” writes Unamuno. Life, for Unamuno is absolutely meaningless if the immortality of the soul is not the prime human fact and goal. Unamuno is very keen to separate reason from life. He says reason cannot prove one’s immortality, only life can, and it’s a question of faith. The soul has primacy in Unamuno’s scheme of things and is his ticket to immortality. Interestingly, he’s not as concerned with the existence of God as he is in his own immortality.

A more contemporary aficionado of the immortality of the soul is Ram Dass who just died recently. He believes that the soul must exist and it must be immortal because otherwise our earthly lives are meaningless. He writes:

“To be here for fifty to eighty years only to be annihilated at the end just doesn’t make sense. Nothing else in the universe is that inefficient. We have to be here to learn; otherwise our difficulties are truly meaningless. For the Ego, the roles we grow into and the positions we hold at the pinnacle of aging are the culmination of life. For the Soul, learning is the culmination. When we expand our self-image to include the Soul, we notice a marked shift in our personal consciousness, a liberation from the small egotistical self into a far more spacious context. From this Soul level, we are able to view our Egos from the outside in. This allows us to observe our minds and bodies in ways that will seem new and surprising, as if the trapdoors of the “self” have been opened and we can finally step outside, enjoy the view, and put a welcome distance between who we are (from Soul’s perspective) and the suffering we experience at the level of body and mind. Thus, with practice, we cultivate the tremendous healing of knowing ourselves as spiritual beings, too.” (from “Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying” by Ram Dass, page 28)

Well, I see a lot of problems with Dass’ non-sequiturs to start off . Why doesn’t it make sense that we are annihilated at the end of lives? And ‘nothing else in the universe is this inefficient’? What kind of silliness is this? Efficiency as a criterion for the immortality of the soul is ridiculous. Dass would be much better off just borrowing arguments from Unamuno than putting forward illogical ‘reasons’ for the immortality of the soul. Furthermore, he argues that we can see ourselves from “this Soul level”. Magical thinking indeed! But Dass appeals to a large audience of people intent on believing that when they die, they don’t really die because their souls carry on into eternity. I can seriously say that I’ve explored the implications of this idea through years of study, introspection and meditation, including, like Dass, the use of hallucinogens. Frankly, I just don’t see the point in adding a fictitious construction called the soul to our personalities. In a way (and I’m sure I’ll get up some people’s noses for saying this) it strikes me that believing in the immortality of consciousness or the ‘soul’ requires a great deal of collective narcissism and chutzpah. Where do we get off thinking we’re so special under the sun that we get to live eternally and no other life forms do? Note that I write ‘collective’ narcissism. As individuals we have no reference other than social ones to decide what to believe. We can be the humblest of individuals yet still be trapped in the overarching cultural imperative for apotheosis via immortality.

Of course I DO argue that in a sense we DO live eternally, just not in our current human configuration or through the ‘soul’. I know that I’m now a long way from discussing myeloma and my daily grind under its treatments. That is so. However, it’s important for me, as I approach my inevitable death whether it happens in six months or ten years, to clarify my point of view. There’s a certain amount of catharsis going on here, no doubt. Most people want to live forever. Not me. I’m perfectly happy to see my consciousness evaporate when my heart stops and at that point all the atoms and molecules that made up my body will be free to go. Have fun, little buddies!

In the third post in this series coming up shortly, I reflect on the works of Emile Durkheim and Ernest Becker. Both worked as social scientists. Durkheim died in 1917, Becker in 1974. Both had a lot to say about the soul and the sacredness of society as a source of the personal sense of immortality. Both have played a large part in my intellectual life but Becker sticks with me much more viscerally than the cerebral Durkheim. Both argue in their own way that the power of religion lies in society.

Stay tuned.

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* “Though Darby may have burned his bridges, his message gained a larger and larger following. Today his dispensational premillennialism is the view of many modern fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals.” From: https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/pastorsandpreachers/john-nelson-darby.html

Me, my Body and I: Part 1

I’m quite attached to my body. Frankly, it is a long way from perfect, but I’ve grown fond of it over the years and have become increasingly tolerant of its idyosyncracies and foibles. It’s served me well in lots of ways. One special way it’s done so is by helping to create my two daughters thus ensuring genetic continuity for me and Carolyn. It can’t take a lot of credit for that, Carolyn having done most of the heavy lifting, but still, there were moments of joyful participation in the magical process by which my daughters were conceived and born.

Now, however, my body has decided that it’s getting time to move on. It seems to be quite relentless in this idea. My body has an intelligence of its own, as does all life on the planet. It’s not going to sit still. Life is about change. I’ve pretty much come to grips with dying. I understand it intellectually and am now in the throes of living it. Death is an ultimate form of disengagement from the world for me (I), but in another sense it’s just another form of re-engagement for all the atoms and molecules that make up the complexity of the structures in my body.

For me, as I’ve noted before, we are the stuff of stars. Translating that into language closer to home, it means that the material that makes up my body and all life on the planet has always existed and will always exist as long as the universe is around to sustain it. According to Brian Cox, the universe itself is finite so all bets are off as to what happens to matter and energy in billions of years when the universe itself is worn out and darkly still. For the moment, however, we can say that the universe is the ultimate driver of life on earth and anywhere else it might exist in the cosmos. “Life” here needs to be conceived in very broad terms and not just related to biological organisms. Galaxies can be said to have a life span, mountain ranges and continents too. Nothing is forever. Nothing.

There are two aspects of myself that are of interest to me for this discussion: what happens to my body after death and what happens to my consciousness. These are no longer arid philosophical considerations, they have never been closer to home in a real visceral sense for me, and are mobilizing all of my intelligence and emotional energy.

Without sounding too arrogant, I think I have both of those pretty much figured out after fifty years of study, thought and introspection. As far as my body goes, it’s quite simple, really. I’m a big proponent of simplicity in the search for solutions to life’s problems. That means that I adhere to the philosophical principle called Occam’s razor, or the idea (without being too simplistic) that the simplest solution to a problem is probably the best.

“Antoine Lavoisier described the law of conservation of mass (or the principle of mass/matter conservation) as a fundamental principle of physics in 1789.” That formulation was followed later by the law of the conservation of energy and later still, after Einstein, by the law of the equivalence of mass and energy or the idea that mass can be transformed into energy and vice-versa, but neither can be lost in the process. Bringing this idea down to my level, it is my sense that what makes up my body has always existed and always will, giving me a real sense of connection with all life on the planet and a very real sense of continuity with all life, past and present, including with my ancestors. Put simply, when I die, my body and all of its constituent elements return to the pool of raw materials available for the construction of new forms of life, as I’ve noted before. I can’t emphasize enough the notion of continuity here. In the face of my immanent annihilation, I take solace in the notion of my intimate connection with life in the cosmos and as part of an ongoing process of life. That still leaves me with a problem. What about my consciousness?

I think that my consciousness, when my heart stops beating, will no longer exist in any way, shape or form. Why should it? My consciousness is organically tied to my body and cannot exist without that living connection. Break that connection and the light goes out. So, in anticipation of my death, I may mourn the loss of consciousness above all. That doesn’t mean that I think it has any means or justification for existence beyond the demise of my body. Remember Occam’s Razor. I see no need at all for any supernatural intervention in all of this, something I think is unnecessary given the perfectly plausible and simple scientific explanations available to explain life and its continuity. It seems I’m probably in a minority on this one.

Now, if I were to write a play based on what I’m going through at the moment, I would surely incorporate as a basic plot line the plethora of imaginative constructions (ideologies) that argue that consciousness does not die with the body, but has a life of its own and goes on ‘living’ after the heart stops and all brain activity ceases. I’d have to put my own ideas of continuity up against the age old ideas of the perpetuation of consciousness beyond bodily death. I can envision a Waiting for Godot or My Dinner with Andre type of play. Frankly, I’m perfectly content with the idea that my consciousness will not outlive my body. It’s the simplest and most elegant solution in my mind although it has some serious social implications that I need to explore next. However, in the play I envision, proponents of the immortality of consciousness and/or the soul would need to have their say.

It’s not a huge stretch to go from the perpetuation of consciousness after death to the idea of the soul and its existence independent yet connected to the body and its survival post-death. The ethnographic literature is full of descriptions from ancient cultures about the role of the soul in human life and its immortality. Sociology addresses modern versions of this idea. It seems that for millennia, humans have been loathe to entertain the possibility of total and absolute death and have been, across the board, wedded to the idea of the immortality of the soul even more than they have espoused the existence of God or any other supernatural force. Thousands of religions and their associated churches or societies have come up with often contradictory ideas related to the makeup and activities of the soul and its place in the universe. These contradictions have often been the source of violent confrontations and pogroms, because if my idea of how to get to heaven is the right one, yours has to be wrong and I’ll kill you to show how much more powerful my conception is to yours. These are ideas I need to explore in part 2 of this post.

Stay tuned for part 2 which I’ll release on Sunday, March 8th.