Waiting is Depressing

Well, it’s November 7th, 2022.

I’m not sure I’ll ever recover from the times I’ve spent in hospital over the past few months stewing in ERs with high fevers and infections all over the place. At least I’m home now and I can sleep as much as I need to without being plugged into an infusion pump. No more infusions for me!

Of course no more infusions means no more chemo means not even any remote hope of help with myeloma from chemo or radiation. Well, the chemo was killing me anyway so what was the point of that?

Last night at about 2 AM I stared out the window of my bedroom at the moon. If it wasn’t full it must have been very close to it. The bare tree branches in front of it produced a most pleasing atmospheric effect. Clouds at times partially covered it, but they moved surprisingly quickly too. If it isn’t overcast tonight I may try to take a photo or a video of it. [Ha! It was overcast this evening!]

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If I were to assess the current state of my mental health, and if I were honest about it, I’d have to confess that I’m somewhat depressed. I think it would be surprising if I weren’t depressed. Even bringing up the topic of depression is depressing. After all, how am I supposed to feel? I am facing death in the foreseeable future and the pain I experience every day as a result of myeloma is sometimes daunting. Lately, I’ve been provoked into taking more hydromorphone by a growing pain in my back brought on by chronic pain issues along with some new ones precipitated by a soft tissue growth in my back that will not go away, especially now that I’ve eschewed radiation treatments. I’m not ready for MAiD yet. I will know it when I am.

In an attempt to distract myself from my dire circumstances, I’ve been reading books about genetics, particularly Neanderthal genetics.

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It’s November 9th, 2022

It’s 8:30 AM. I’ve just had breakfast and I’ve taken my meds. I’ll probably fall asleep in short order, but that wouldn’t be the end of the world either. Carolyn will go out for a walk with her buddies this morning along with their dogs. Tilly loves her morning walks. It’s cold but sunny here right now. Later this trend will continue. It doesn’t matter to me a whole lot although it would be good to get out for a walk along the river sometime. Carolyn would walk. I would sit in the wheelchair and she would push me. I have no strength in my legs. At least the pain in my back is attenuating.

We saw my GP yesterday. It was a good discussion. We agreed that there was nothing left for me as far as treatments go. I will get all the pain relief I need and that’s important. I’m not one of those people who will suffer through pain. Oh, I was, but pain soon disabused me of that attitude. I will not face pain heroically. Piss on that.

I mentioned above that I’ve been reading books on Neanderthal genetics. The first one I read was by Svante Pääbo. He’s been doing research for decades not only on Neanderthals, but also on Denisovans and other kinds of ancient humans. Pääbo’s book is well-written and exhaustive of the process by which he and his team at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Genetics in Leipzig, Germany came to unveil Neanderthal genetics. He won the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work. His book is autobiography to some extent. In it, he ‘confesses’ to being gay or at least bisexual. He has two children with scientist Linda Vigilant. Frankly, I care not at all about Pääbo’s sex life. I’m only interested in his scientific work (and making sure I type his name properly). It’s funny, though, how many of the science based books I’ve read lately do include biographical notes. It may be that editors think that readers want to see the human side of scientists. That may be so. Readers may feel for a scientist who loses a spouse to cancer or a parent to dementia. That may endear them to some readers. Not to me. It may be that editors suggested Pääbo include some biographical notes in his book. That’s fine if somewhat disingenuous. I see Pääbo as genuine. I read his book as well as some of his articles and I watched many videos of him online. He’s okay in my book.

I just finished another book on ancient humans and hominins. It’s by Tom Higham and it’s called The World Before Us. This book is good as far as content is concerned. It follows Pääbo’s fairly closely and that’s fine. The problem with this book is that it needs some proofreading. That may be a function of it being made into an e-Book for us Kindle readers. Frankly, I don’t know why it needs proofreading, but it does. It’s not cool to have sentences with verbs missing. Reading a book like this is not supposed to be an exercise in guesswork. Now, I’ve just started yet another book on the same topic. It’s by David Reich and is called Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past. Reich worked with Pääbo on the Neanderthal project. He was part of the Neanderthal Genome Project Consortium. He was primarily involved in the computer applications related to the Neanderthal project. He’s an American, one of three who worked on the project peripherally. He was not directly involved in the Leipzig work. From what I’ve read so far, Reich has found a groove, an approach to the study of ancient humans that complements Pääbo’s book rather than trying to eclipse it.

It’s November 10th, 2022

It’s 8:35 in the morning. I’ve been working on this blog post for a few days now. That’s ridiculous. I usually write them in a day or even a morning if things are going well.

Part of my problem with writing at the moment may be the increase in opioids I’m taking which leave me less cognitively sharp than I like to be. It’s a toss-up. More opioids, less pain. Less opioids, more pain, but sharper brain-wise. Now, I’ve chosen more opioids, less pain.

Another reason for my writing lethargy may be that I’ve settled into a place where nothing much is happening: no hospital visits for treatments or lab work, no trips to Victoria, just days of sitting and sleeping. And waiting.

Waiting for signs of whatever, improvement or decline. It’s depressing.

Evolutionary Theory vs. Structural-Functionalism.

[Don’t be too put off by the title of this post. It looks highfalutin. It may be, but the text isn’t.]

It’s a truism to say that our lives are finite and that we go through stages of development and change. But, it seems, sometimes we need to be reminded of obvious but possibly unwelcome realities. I’m sure we all understand that we follow a path of change starting at birth and ending at death. In between we move from infancy to childhood, to adolescence, to adulthood, and then to old age. Of course, not all of us get to go through every stage. For some of us, the stages get cut off and we die young or accidentally. We may contract a disease at any age that proves fatal. Governments document all of these things with vital statistics and publish all kinds of data on birth rates, types of mortality, morbidity*, et cetera. British Columbia offers a lot of this information online. Statistics Canada also gets into the act and publishes a lot of health related statistics. It’s not an exaggeration to note that we are obsessed with our health and wellness. How much of the internet is dedicated to health related websites? The woo flows freely and the sales of every magic potion, miracle diet, and supplement imaginable are on offer. And there is overwhelming evidence that at every turn we find ways to deny death. As I’ve often noted, one of Ernest Becker’s most salient observations is that the twin pillars of evil in our world are death and disease.

Our entire medical system is set up to discover and ‘fix’ any human organism that doesn’t conform to what we consider normal for any stage of development. It is often unsuccessful in that endeavour, but it doesn’t like to discuss its failures.

Pathology as I use it here describes a condition of abnormality (non-normality), a structural and functional situation wherein things have gone wrong in an organism. The underlying assumption of pathology is that organisms all have a normal condition, and if things cease to work as they are supposed to according to medical science, then they are considered pathological, or at least the cause of their malfunction is searched out and an attempt is made to restore the organism to normality. Medicine, and in fact, our whole culture, decided a long time ago what normal humans should look like and how they should behave. Yes, we all live and die, but pathology isn’t really interested in those realities. A pathological perspective is only interested in bringing a diseased organism back to normality.

Science and medicine have analyzed and dissected the human body in great detail especially over the past five hundred years. Leonardo da Vinci, born in 1452 was adept at dissection, and he led the way for countless others who carried on the tradition. Later, biologists analyzed the human body from many perspectives, broadly using anatomy and physiology as major categories, but focusing on systems (cardio-vascular, endocrine, etc.), organs, cells, and their functioning. I’m no biologist so I won’t pretend to understand the intricacies of the investigation of human biological life. However, it’s clear that our organs (heart, liver, kidneys, et cetera) are of great interest to medicine, particularly if and when they cease to function the way they are supposed to.

As a quick aside, a major sociological school used (and still uses) what Emile Durkheim calls the organismic analogy. He suggests that society is much like the human body. He argues in his dissertation Rules of Sociological Method that there is no organic equivalence between human organs and social systems, but broadly, they share the same epistemological underpinnings. Human organs work in concert for the good and survival of the whole. That’s easy enough to understand. He then argues that human social systems, politics, family, economy, education, et cetera, must work in concert for the good of the whole society. Social pathology occurs when any one or other of the social systems that make up society fail to fulfill their function. The result is that the whole society is ‘sick’ or malfunctions. The problem with this perspective is that it’s not especially easy to find ‘a society’. From my point of view, societies are not be confused with countries or nation-states. They are not necessarily equivalent.

It’s easier to identify an individual human being than a society, or so it seems, until we ask the question: Is an individual human being a stand-alone organism? My answer is no. I could not and would not exist without air, food, water, et cetera. These elements are not necessarily a part of me, but they are essential for my life so excluding them from an analysis of what I am as a human is highly misleading. It suggests that we are somehow separate from the world that surrounds and sustains us. This is a foundational part of the individualism that characterizes our capitalistic world and it’s wrong.

So, broadly, we are captured by a world view that focusses on the structure and function of our organs in a biological sense and our social structures in a societal sense. This is why people often argue that what’s ‘wrong’ with our society is that the family isn’t doing its job, the economy is failing us, education is behind the times, and other simplistic criticisms. Figuring out how to fix it is another thing entirely.

In terms of the human body, if medicine finds that the heart is weak or not working properly, it tries to ‘fix’ it, that is to restore it to its presumed former state. It may conclude that a weak heart will have deleterious effects on the kidneys, and it may even find that a weak heart will threaten the organism as a whole. In contrast, an evolutionary perspective expects the heart to weaken as it ages. It expects that lungs will lose their ability to process oxygen. It expects that over time, muscles weaken, no matter what you do to counteract it. It expects death because death is built right into the model, unlike functionalism whereby death is left unconsidered or considered a clinical failure.

It’s true that an evolutionary perspective has made substantial inroads in science and even in medicine. It hasn’t in sociology, although it’s coming along**.

An evolutionary perspective follows the logic I present in my recent post: LIFE vs My Little Life. From this perspective, birth and death are normal human events. Death, especially, is not considered a defeat, it being an essential part of life. No death, no life. It’s as simple as that. That doesn’t mean we have to be happy about it. Just the amount of effort the human species has spent on denying death, on convincing itself that death is not the end of life, is testament to how unhappy we are with death and dying.

I don’t want to die, but I don’t have a say in the matter either.

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*morbidity refers to the incidence of ill-health in a population.

**see my (slightly outdated) dissertation on the topic published on this blog.

Our Vagarious Lives

Our Vagarious Lives

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

Garlic Bed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dexamethasone, Tooth-aches, Pig Kidneys, and Life.

So, dexamethasone strikes again! I went to the hospital this past Thursday for my monthly infusion of the monoclonal antibody, Daratumumab. Along with the Dara, I get a number of other chemo meds among them dexamethasone. I only get fifteen milligrams of dex these days once a month and that’s probably a good thing because any steroid can be trouble in the long run. Of course my long run is getting palpably shorter, or to put it another way, dex can’t really hurt me in the long run if I don’t have much of a long run. What I can say, though, is that no matter how long my long run is, I’ll make the best of it. I’ve decided that that’s my goal. I’m thinking of my life now as a one mile marathon race. Getting closer to the finish line is no reason to slow up. In fact, it’s all the more reason to step up the effort. Of course, the closer to the finish line we get, the more tired we get so it’s a trade-off. Still, pushing to the end is my goal. But I digress.

What is interesting about dex is it’s effect on my tooth-ache. I mentioned before that I had a nasty tooth-ache that a dex shot in my neck attenuated rapidly and almost eliminated entirely. Well, that tooth-ache has persisted in a low rumble since it returned after a few days following my neck shot. Again, the dex that I took orally on Thursday killed the pain in my tooth right dead. It’s back now because as I’ve become well aware, the relief from dex is very short lived. Oh, I appreciate the pain relief whichever way I can get it, but dex has other side effects that aren’t as welcome as the pain relief. Check out this list of side effects. I’ve experienced many of them over the past couple of years.

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[As an aside, I’m writing this sitting in my new La-Z-Boy recliner (thanks to my very generous daughters) in my cozy, warm living room. Carolyn, my love of forty-eight years, while I sit warm and cozy in the living room, is out there walking on the trails in Cumberland in rain as thick as soup. She is accompanied by Tilly, our Bernese Mountain Dog/German Shepherd mix who loves her mom and also most other living things, and swimming too. I hope she gets home soon so we can have a cup of tea together. She did!]

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So, what about pig kidneys? Well, lots. This article explains what the experiment was all about. And it was an experiment, of course. Serious ethical issues aside, the experiment was a success. Researchers in New York attached a kidney from a specially raised pig, one that was genetically modified to not produce a certain sugar that caused immediate rejection in humans, to a cadaver. Yes, a cadaver. The objective was to see whether or not the pig kidney could reproduce the function of a normal human kidney, and apparently it did, and splendidly so. The cadaver was special too, of course. I suggest you read the article to get the story from a reputable source.

What’s the big deal, I ask? Researchers genetically modify pigs so that we humans can use their organs. How does that make you feel? The truth is that pig heart valves have been successfully implanted in humans for some time now and researchers have been experimenting with xenotransplantation since the 17th Century. We eat pigs all the time. They are one of our major sources of food. They are also intelligent, rivalling some humans I surmise.

The reason pigs are such a good fit for xenotransplantation is that they are so closely related to us genetically. In fact, we are related to all other living things, animal and plant but with varying degrees of fit in terms of the quantity of genes that we share with them. We are very closely related to chimpanzees sharing something like 99% of DNA with them. (I think that the reason we don’t raise chimps to eat is that they look too much like us.) We share DNA with ducks and cedar trees, snails, and puppy dogs.

From what I can gather from casual observation, we tend to think of all species as distinct from each other and, of course, that’s partially true. Sadly, we are generally ignorant of our place in the scheme of life on this planet. We have been convinced over millennia that we are special under the sun and that all life on the planet is there to serve us. That attitude will ultimately lead to our demise as we Bolsonaro the Amazon rain forest, empty the seas of fish and other life, and generally bulldoze our way through all life on the planet. We take up more and more of the biosphere every year. We, as a species, have no respect for life and from what I can see, have very few mechanisms that would allow us to gain respect for life. Our culture is designed to deny death and thus to ignore life.

Our political systems are geared to produce maximal growth and compete in absurd ways for greater and greater shares of planetary resources. It’s disconcerting to see China and the US embroiled in a chest-thumping match over Taiwan. How stupid. How short-sighted. How ignorant. What are they going to do, lob nuclear weapons at each other? It’s especially ridiculous knowing how closely tied manufacturing in the US is tied to production in China. It’s hard to see how Americans destroying American production in China will help anyone, anywhere. I suspect that the Chinese leadership is in need of a diversion to keep its population’s collective mind off of serious domestic problems. Focussing attention outward is a tried and true method of avoiding domestic conflict.

I could argue that the way we are increasingly economically interdependent through production of commodities in networks that span the globe is encouraging as a basis for concerted action. However, I’m not sure that we have the time to wait for economic interdependence to lead to political interdependence. Finally, I’m not convinced that as a species we are capable of doing what needs to be done to enable us to live in harmony with the rest of life on the planet. It may be that cockroaches will inherit the earth and if that’s the case, so be it.

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.

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.

41 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!

37 Me, my Body and I: Part 3

It’s time to wrap up this diatribe. Like I said at the end of my second post in this series, I’ve strayed a long way from the usual content of this blog. After this post I have to reconsider my work here. I’m getting into the long stretch of road in my chemotherapy treatments. I’m getting tired and you must be getting tired of reading this stuff. The end of this part of my road is at least six months away. Things are looking good according to my lab results, but who knows. Every day brings something new which may be fodder for this blog, maybe not. Whatever. I do have to tell you about a recent weird experience I’ve been having, but that will be for my next post.

In this post, the third in the series about what will happen to ‘me’ after “I” die, I want to suggest that our conception of our selves, especially our idea that we are beings composed of mind, body and soul, is socially-constructed. In a sense though, it matters not where these ideas come from if they have a real impact on my life.

By way of an example, if I have a stroke, for instance, I may attribute it to a curse put upon me by a disgruntled recently past relative for a purported wrong that I did him. However, it’s far more likely that my stroke was brought on by a busted artery in my brain. Nonetheless, the stroke and its consequences are what they are never mind their provenance. Durkheim stated that no religion is false. By that he meant that, in my example above, the stroke is real no matter where and how we think it originated. A more contemporary sociologist who wrote extensively on religion, Peter Berger, argues that much of what we call religious behaviour and even religious thinking and hypothesizing cannot be understood by deduction or reduction. He proposes that we use induction to figure out the ‘reality’ of religious experience, that we start with how we feel and experience in real terms, in our living beings, and acknowledge those feelings as real before we attempt any kind of explanation of them. This kind of fits with Unamuno’s views, although Berger is much more prosaic than Unamuno the poet-philosopher.

The provenance of the ‘soul’ is interesting and there is much speculation about it as originating in our dreams, for instance, or during hallucinogenic experiences, but once a belief in the ‘soul’ is socially established it, it has real world consequences.

Today, I intended to address the work of Emile Durkheim and Ernest Becker with maybe a little Max Weber, Karl Marx and Norbert Elias thrown in for good measure but I’ve decided not to do that in any formal sense. I have come to accept the futility of trying to summarize very complex arguments from a number of writers and how they interconnect at least in a relatively short blog post. I’m not here to convince you that I’m right anyways.

That said, all the above characters were sociologists except for Ernest Becker and he would definitely qualify as an honorary sociologist. They all conclude that religion and all ideas concerning souls, demons, angels, gods, and various other supernatural beings originate in society (i.e., in the family, school, church, law courts, governments, etcetera) defined very broadly. However, whatever their origin, religious, metaphysical ideas have real world consequences according to these guys. That’s clear.

Before getting any further into this post, I want to tell you a little story. You might be shocked to learn that I wasn’t always the model son. Sometimes I could be downright annoying and troublesome for my mom, and she didn’t deserve any bullshit from me. But she got some anyway. I remember one time (of several) when I was particularly obnoxious and teased my poor mom relentlessly.

I said to my mom: “Ma, if you had been abandoned on a desert island as a baby and were raised by monkeys, would you still be the same person you are now.”

“Yes,” she says, “of course.”

I retorted: “But what language would you talk? Would you talk monkey talk? What things would you believe? Would you believe in God?”

She replied something along these lines: “I would believe in God and I’d be the same person I am today. I don’t know any other languages besides French and English and why would I believe anything different than I do now?”

That was my mom. She wasn’t stupid by any measure, but she was ignorant in many ways mostly because she was busy raising a pack of kids and she was way too tired to be very curious and she couldn’t read metaphysics. By her answers to my questions she demonstrated a naïveté that ran deep but that allowed her to live her life in relative contentment. If my mom was ignorant in some ways, she was very knowledgeable in others. She raised tons of children, made bread like a pro and was a dedicated member of her church (although she didn’t know much about Catholic theology beyond what was in the Sunday missal). Later in her life she took up woodworking and was good at it, that is until my dad decided to sell the house and the shop from under her. After that, she fell into dementia and never recovered. I think she lost her appetite for life at that point. I loved my mom, I really did, and I regret teasing her. That’s one of my big regrets in life.

So, what was it about my mother’s responses that is significant for me here? I guess I was shocked by her very strange idea of her personhood and her unstated notion that ‘she’ was an unchanging, unchangeable being regardless of her surroundings and upbringing. It’s plain to me and I expect to most people that everything we know we’ve learned from others, either directly from other people in our homes, schools, churches, and from books or from any number of other sources. Of course, that includes any kind of ‘spiritual’ ideas we may have as well as our sense of immortality. Elias argues that we are not the individualists we think we are. He says humans are really interdependencies and interweavings. No human ever stands alone given the richness of the sources of our ‘selves’. The language(s) we speak, our gender, our cognitive skills, intelligences, values, religious/spiritual beliefs, etcetera are all learned, that is, socially derived.

It’s clear to me that my mother denied the influence of any possible ‘foreign’ source of her personhood. Obviously, there is no way my mother could know of her Catholic God if she was raised by monkeys on a desert island. The concept of God, like of language, and table manners is learned. How would my mom learn about the Catholic God? Many societies have concepts of God or gods or some such supernatural beings. There are hundreds (and there have been thousands) of religions on the planet, each with its own unique conception of immortality and supernatural beings (if they conceive of any). Babies born into those societies learn the rules and values of their specific communities. Why would my mother not realize that her position was untenable? I would suggest that her commitment to her beliefs outweighed any sense she might have had about the logical inconsistency of her position. She was like a Trump supporter in that sense. She may have been yanking my chain, but I doubt it.

Which god do you worship (if any)? Well, if you do still worship a god, probably the one your parents do (or did). These days, however, there is a movement towards more individualistic, personal forms of spirituality, a trend which fits in nicely with capitalist morality, individualism and consumerism while allowing people to retain a belief in the immortality of the ‘soul.’ It’s also true that significant numbers of people are now defaulting to atheism or agnosticism in greater numbers than ever before, a movement also compatible with capitalist morality. There is still a great deal of intergenerational retention going on today even if there are obvious exceptions. So the frontier mentality of rugged individualism and fending for yourself is still a thing in the Twenty-first Century. Of course, as individuals, we can be creative, and come up with new ideas and ways of doing things but we always do so using materials, processes and relationships that already exist. How else could it happen?

The truth is, we, none of us, can conceive of anything absolutely new under the sun. Everything we invent, think about, or imagine has roots in our interactions and interdependencies with other people via our social relations, past and present. The present is always built on the past. Inventions are generally new conceptions of how to use and combine already existing technologies or ideas. That means that new religious denominations or churches are invariably modifications on past ones. How many variations on Christianity are there? Lots…I haven’t counted them. Which one is the ‘true’ variant?

As I note above, one perspective all the writers and thinkers I mention above have in common is that they all agree that religion and our ideas of personhood originate in society as does the belief in immortality. Durkheim, for example, argues that the concept of God is actually a personification of society, a personification that can then be used to judge the behaviour of adherents still living. Elias in his book What is Sociology? builds a conception of individual/societal interaction by using a metaphor of a card game. In his metaphor, a card game is happening with four or five players. The game has rules, of course, to which all players must adhere. Then, one person decides to leave the game and another person joins in. That change of players does not affect the game, nor the rules. The new player must adhere to the rules like the drop-out did. The game is a metaphor for society. We are born into society, learn all the rules, then leave (die). Society goes on. The game goes on. Society, seen from this perspective, is supra-human. It exists above and independently of any individual yet has control over all individuals and circumscribes the parameters of possible ideas and decisions individuals can make. No wonder we come to think of it as divine.

Because society is supra-human and veritably invisible to most people, it’s not a stretch to understand why people ascribe to it a supernatural existence disconnected from their individual lives. Because it IS disconnected to their individual lives in a real sense. As Elias would say, the game goes on no matter what individuals do as players. To which Durkheim would add: the individual ‘soul’ is in the game but is actually a piece of the collective, social SOUL. Therein lies our idea of its immortality. Society exists before us and after us. It’s virtually immortal. Our souls are immortal because they are a piece of the greater social SOUL.

Durkheim defines religion as: “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden — beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” (from Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 1912) For Durkheim, sacred things are by definition social things and the sacredness of things can change with changing social conditions.

Ernest Becker goes much further than Durkheim when he argues that culture as a whole is sacred. For Becker there is no distinction between profane and sacred. It’s culture as a whole that promises people immortality. In fact, he argues that “Each society is a hero system that promises victory over evil and death.” (from Escape From Evil, 1975, page 124)* Of course, no society can promise such a thing. Becker writes:

But no mortal, nor even a group of as many as 700 million clean, revolutionary mortals, [in reference to China] can keep such a promise, no matter how loudly or how artfully he protests or they protest, it is not within man’s means to triumph over evil and death. For secular societies the thing is ridiculous: what can “victory” mean secularly? And for religious societies victory is part of a blind and trusting belief in another dimension of reality. Each historical society, then, is a hopeful mystification or a determined lie. (EFE, page 124)

Marx would have agreed with Becker here but he concluded that religion was the opium of the people, a salve to soothe the savage treatment that most people received under capitalism (as one might find depicted by Charles Dickens.) He found that religious beliefs were instrumental in mollifying the masses and having them accept class inequality under capitalism. Weber also recognized the class basis of religion although his definition of class was not the same as Marx’s. Weber, in his Sociology of Religion, addresses the early rise of religious behaviour in human interaction with drastic natural events like floods, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tornadoes, etcetera, the ‘soul’ in its various iterations and manifestations, and ritual. He argues that the forms of gods varies depending on natural and social conditions.

In conclusion, I just want to re-emphasize the notion that according to the sociologists I mention here as well as countless other sociologists and social scientists I don’t mention, ‘society’ is the source of our beliefs about the immortality of our person by way of our ‘souls.’ There is no ‘supernatural’ teacher that teaches us our values around immortality, and any ideas we have around these notions come from notions already just laying about out there waiting to be picked up and incorporated into our world view. In other words, our ideas around the immortality of the ‘soul’ do not result from perceived connection to an immortal God or gods, but from the immortality of society.

______________________________________________________________________

*There is no substitute for reading Becker because his argument forms a cohesive whole. Pulling a quote out of his book, although provocative, is probably not helpful although I do it. I can’t help myself. If it spurs people to go read Escape From Evil so be it. Many of my early posts on this blog constitute a review of EFE. That would be a place for you to start in trying to understand his work. Just type Becker in the search box in my blog and you’ll find the relevant posts all numbered and everything or you can start here: https://rogerjgalbert.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post-new.php?post_type=post&jetpack-copy=874. You can then work your way through the archives on my blog site.

Durkheim (Elementary Forms of Religious Life) and Weber (The Sociology of Religion) both have sections of their books on the soul. Do a bit of research if you’re curious. Dr. Google is full of stuff on these guys and I’ve got all the books for local people to borrow if you’re interested. Elias is great. His book The Civilizing Process is well worth the read.

THC and CBD: My Personal Experience.

So, I’ve had chronic pain for decades, at least since the early 1990s. I use acetaminophen regularly, sometimes resorting to T3s and even hydromorphone (oral morphine) on occasions where the pain and discomfort were (are) extreme. I can’t take ibuprofen because I have only one kidney (my left one was removed because of cancer in 2002) although it works the best for me. The other day, as a tribute to our silliness, Carolyn and I went canoeing on Buttle Lake in Strathcona Park. Such a beautiful place, but the wind can come up very strongly. We knew it could do that, but we blithely went out in the canoe anyway, and surely enough we got caught in a very snotty windstorm. We had to paddle at ramming speed for quite a while. My 72 year old body protested on every stroke. A couple of days later things came to a head and I had excruciating pain in my back because of a severe muscle strain (probably a tear, but who’s quibbling). So now I had acute pain competing with my chronic pain for attention. Both were winning at this stage. Enter CBD and THC.

There are lots of websites extolling the virtues of CBD and THC for the treatment of chronic pain, arthritis included. Here is one example from Medical News Today. WebMD is what I judge to be a fairly reliable source of internet-based medical information. Like this article in WebMD argues, consulting a physician is always important before using CBD as a medicine.

Great, so in the interests of attempting to alleviate some of my chronic pain, and being desperate, I decided to try using CBD and THC. To that end I had an MD ( a locum in my medical clinic) refer me to a group of health care professionals (physicians, nurses and therapists) at a clinic not far from my home. I figured I’d be a test subject although I know very well that a one person study is not a study at all. I was called shortly thereafter to a consultation with a physician who has experience with using CBD and THC medicinally. I was prescribed the use of CBD daily for chronic pain and THC at night to help me sleep through the night. On the physician’s recommendation I bought a 40 MG vial of CBD and a 40 MG vial of THC from what they said was a reputable manufacturer. So far, I’ve found that the manufacturer has been very careful to sell me only what I have a prescription for. The physician I saw prepared for me a sheet of instructions for taking CBD and THC. Since then, I’ve had regular calls from the clinic inquiring as to my experience with the products. I completed my first course of using CBD and THC a while back and have recently picked up my second prescription.

I really hoped that CBD and THC would work for me. T3s are fine, but harsh on the stomach. The THC is fine. It gets me stoned to some extent so I tried to take it only at nighttime. Doing what I do in my daily life, I can’t be stoned all the time. I need a clear(ish) head. I have enough trouble with brain fog as it is because of my immune disease. I don’t want to add to it with meds that don’t work all that well. I don’t think CBD worked for me at all, ever. I kept giving it a shot paying very close attention to my symptoms but I felt no improvement.

After I injured myself canoeing, I saw an MD again. I still had a few T3s left so I wasn’t too concerned. Well, the T3s ran out really fast. At one point when my pain was pushing 9.5 out of 10, I took T3s, up to 4 at a time and washed that down with a ml of CBD and another of THC. I also had some alcohol to really wash it down. I was then able to sleep, but I couldn’t keep that insanity up for long. So, back to the my regular medical clinic for some more T3s.

I also went back to the other clinic, the one that prescribed the CBD and THC for me. I had a consultation with an MD there and we basically agreed that CBD was not going to work for me. Clearly, it doesn’t work for everybody. I may still try using THC, but only at bedtime, and only if I’m feeling I need it for putting me to sleep. I may cease taking it altogether.

I’m quite sad about this because I had high expectations. At the moment all I can do to keep my pain levels down is to do very little of anything. Obviously I can write, but walking is even difficult and going out to socialize is increasingly unpleasant. Damn it, I love to socialize! I still go out and do volunteer work and maybe go to a restaurant now and again, but I have to rest frequently.

I knew that CBD and THC had not been tested using double-blind studies, but I hoped they would work anyway. Unfortunately for me, that wasn’t (and isn’t) the case. I sincerely hope they work for you.