Seizures! What else now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorting Things Out

The gnawing fatigue and peripheral neuropathy I experience every day from myeloma, chemotherapy and B12 deficiency I can understand. Other symptoms are less understandable and less tractable. Some of them are ongoing, some temporary.

So, today I’m telling you a story of a particularly nasty experience I had this past weekend that defies classification and that has stumped my oncologists. That may be because it isn’t related to myeloma. I don’t know. That it turned out to be temporary I consider to be a good thing, but I have no real justification for feeling that way. I won’t describe in graphic detail everything I experienced. That’s not necessary, but I will give you the gist of what I experienced so that you understand the context, that is, what I think led up to this weirdness, and its aftermath, which is still with me.

Last Thursday I went to the hospital for my monthly infusion of Daratumumab. On that day I also took dexamethasone, Benadryl, lenalidomide, aspirin, and hydromorphone (HM), that is, my usual cocktail of meds. I also took some Senokot, to counteract the constipation that invariably accompanies taking HM. I’ll also take Dulcolax if I need it as things go on.

On Friday, the dex left me with the usual spurt of energy meaning that sleep does not come easily. I got up on Friday morning having had virtually no sleep after 2 AM, but the dex was still doing its thing. We had been invited by friends to their place for a get-together before dinner, around 5:30 PM. It was so good to be out visiting friends, but it was still fairly cold out and after a couple of hours I decided it was a good idea to get back home. I was chilled more than I thought. I climbed into bed almost immediately and covered myself with lots of blankets and quilts. My legs, however, were pretty sore. I’m used to my legs being sore, but this time they were inordinately so, and the soreness was accompanied by weakness, spasms, and tingling. The tingling is usually restricted to my feet and hands, but now my legs were also involved.

I took some extra HM shortly after going to bed (2 mg). It’s called breakthrough HM because it’s used as a supplement to the 3 mg slow release HM I take in the morning and the evening. The slow release just wasn’t doing it for me, and that’s expected to happen now and again; that’s why I was prescribed 2mg of HM to take if and when the pain gets too much. I still struggled with leg and back pain so a couple of hours later I took another breakthrough HM. At about 3 AM I took another HM. I tried to sleep without much luck.

Eventually, I tried to get up to pee. That’s when I realized that I had barely any control over my muscles, all of them! As I tried to get up I slowly slipped off my bed, which is pretty high off the ground, and found myself lying on the floor, essentially paralyzed. I didn’t fall off the bed, I slid off of it. My arms were useless and so were my legs. It’s not that I couldn’t feel them, I just couldn’t move them. Carolyn came to help me, but I’m a heavy guy and she’s light but strong. Finally, with the little help I could give her, she was able to pull me into the middle of the room. Then, she maneuvered an arm chair close to me and I was able, with a lot of her help, to pull myself into the chair. We were able, then, to get the chair close to the bed. I lurched back into bed and stayed there for virtually the whole day. I’m still feeling the effects of that episode of weird symptoms.

From my consultations with the docs, it doesn’t seem like my temporary ‘paralysis’ has anything to do with myeloma. They’re flummoxed. So, off I go to get a CT scan of my head to see if my brain is still in there. 😉

I’m posting this because I really want to know if I’m the only person who has ever experienced such a thing. That means that I’d very much appreciate it if you could let me know if you’ve ever had this experience or know of someone else who has. You can PM me on Facebook, or DM me on Twitter. Or, you can email me at rogalb@shaw.ca.

Damn, it’s dark, cold, and wet out there!

Sleepless Nights, Rain Showers and Owls

It’s 8:30 in the morning but I’ve been awake and up sporadically since 2 AM. That’s a typical scenario for me the day after my chemotherapy session at the hospital on Thursday mornings. It’s the dexamethasone (a corticosteroid) that keeps me awake. The other meds just make me feel ill generally.

Being awake at 2 AM until 7 or so when Carolyn gets up has its perks. The rain showers were amazing last night. The rain just pounds on the steel roof above the bedroom and the harder it rains the more intense the sound becomes. The first one started at around 3 AM but only lasted for twenty minutes or so. The one at 4 AM was much more intense and lasted much longer. The rain will be steady today, and probably tomorrow and the day after. The Weather Network predicts that we might just see the sun again by Tuesday. We’ll see about that.

At around 4:20, just before sunrise, I heard a great horned owl shouting its call at the back of the property. The owls like to perch in the tall conifers at the back of the property and in the forest behind our back fence. They usually sound off earlier in the year as the mating season gets into full swing. This owl may just have been a little late getting itself going, like many plants in the yard. The wisteria is just starting to sprout and the honey-locust is still yawning its opposition to getting up and at it. The ferns, though, are as happy as pigs in a wallow. They like the cooler, rainy weather and they show it.

So, at 2 AM, wide awake, what could I do? Well, I could just lay there and stew, or I could pick up my Kindle and start reading. Of course, as soon as I start reading, the cat decides it’s time for me to pay attention to her so she walks right in front of my face, sticks her tail up my nose and generally makes a pest of herself. Notwithstanding the feline interruptions I often read novels that are on the humorous side from authors like Thomas King, Kurt Vonnegut and Christopher Moore. But I also read a range of books on ‘more serious’ topics like sex, misogyny and patriarchy.

Last night I continued reading a book I picked up recently by David Friedman entitled A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis (2001) that had been referenced in another book I just finished on a related topic: Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan, Cacilda Jetha (2013). Like Sex at Dawn, A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis is a must read if you want to understand how the social and cultural relations we’ve built around sex is so out of line with our biology. After outlining some of the most egregious sexual cultural practices in the Middle Ages in Europe around sex and later witchcraft along with a compendium of culturally weird sexual practices all over the world and since recorded history, Ryan and Jetha get into some very interesting musings on the United States and its perverse official political views and practices around sexuality, many driven by religion and the drive for power by mostly white, Protestant men of a certain age. After outlining the horrendous treatment of Black people by powerful white folk and their less wealthy followers, their base in current language, during pretty much the whole of American history starting with the arrival of slaves from Africa to work in Southern plantations, they get into some more current issues, including the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. [He is a year younger than me] His appointment was very controversial for a number of reasons, the most important one being that he was (is) black. This is a long quotation, but it demonstrates clearly the issues at hand and the players that are still involved in government, including Joe Biden. It’s important to note here that Thomas had been accused by a fellow attorney Anita Hill of sexual harassment but he dodged that one. He had been nominated by George H.W. Bush. According to Wikipedia he’s widely considered the most conservative and ‘originalist’ of the Supreme Court justices. It appears that he hasn’t changed his tune at all since 1991. His views are anathema to me.

From Friedman:

“Six decades later, another black American faced a committee of white men agitated about his penis. For hours those white men listened, many of them visibly appalled, to complaints from a woman about the black man’s lewd behavior toward her, all of it, she said, unwelcome and unsolicited. They heard how he bragged about the size of his organ, comparing it to a supernaturally endowed porn star named Long Dong Silver. Now that same black man faced the same committee. Unlike Claude Neal, however, he was not dangling from a rope. Except, he said, metaphorically. “From my standpoint as a black American,” Judge Clarence Thomas told the senators considering his nomination to the United States Supreme Court, “[this] is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who … deign to think for themselves … and it is a message that unless you kow-tow to an old order, this is what will happen. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate, rather than hung from a tree.” (from “A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis” by David M. Friedman, page 129 Kindle edition)

and

“The exchange between Senator Hatch and Judge Thomas about racial stereotyping ensured that no lynching would occur, high-tech or otherwise. If nothing else, the all-white members of the Senate Judiciary Committee were determined to show this was 1991, not 1891. At 10:34 P.M., on October 11, when Senator Biden recessed the hearings for the day, the verdict was clear. The nominee, so close to political extinction, had come roaring back to life. When Senator Hatch left the hearing room, he was stopped by Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio. “Senator, you just saved his ass,” she told Hatch. “No, Nina,” said the Utah Republican. “He just saved his own ass.” What both probably knew, but neither could say, was that it was another part of Thomas’s body that had really been at stake all along.” (page 139 kindle edition)

I’m about half way through Friedman’s book, but so far it’s making for compelling reading. It was clear to me back in 2010 before I retired that as I was teaching a course on Love and Sex, that women had been subject to an intense misogyny for as long as recorded history and probably for as long as our species started walking upright on the African savannah. Actually, I was aware of misogyny long before 2010 but that’s when I began a more intense focus on its deconstruction. The focus of Friedman’s book, the penis, is a literary means of shifting the conversation about sex and procreation from the biological to the cultural realm. So far, I think that he’s done an excellent job of it. His analysis of Freud’s penis envy as a metaphor for the way women have been disenfranchised and generally kept out of the highest positions of business and government is particularly good and one I hadn’t considered before, at least not in the kind of detail Friedman goes into.

More on this later…as I read the second part of Friedman’s book and tie it into other books I’ve been reading, including one by Christopher Moore.

Myeloma and Pernicious Anemia: My Constant Companions

Pernicious Anemia

In January of this year I published a post about the connections between myeloma and pernicious anemia. In that post I misidentified pernicious anemia as a B12 deficiency. It’s not. Pernicious anemia is actually an autoimmune disease that produces antibodies to a protein called intrinsic factor that is produced in the gut and that is required to ‘extract’ B12 from food. It’s a devilishly difficult condition to diagnose. Low levels of B12 are obviously an important indicator, but there are other reasons that a person might have low B12 levels. Probably the best accessible article on pernicious anemia can be found on the Pernicious Anaemia Society’s website. It’s well worth reading.

Now, I have assumed for some time that I have pernicious anemia but I’m no longer certain. It turns out that 50% to 70% of people who have a B12 deficiency, which I definitely have, will have that deficiency caused by pernicious anemia. I have not been tested for intrinsic factor antibody, a test that would definitively confirm a diagnosis of pernicious anemia, so I don’t really know if I have it or not.

Whatever, I know for a fact that I have a B12 deficiency. In order to treat that deficiency I inject B12 (cobalamin) into my thigh every two weeks. However, because of my mixed record of injecting B12 over the past twenty-five years I may have what’s called  Autoimmune Metaplastic Atrophic Gastritis (AMAG). That just means that my B12 symptoms may never go away, even after my regular injections. Then again they may dissipate, but I have no confidence that that will happen.

An International study is now underway initiated by the Pernicious Anemia Society to try to understand the extent of the disease and to track the problems people have had with getting a proper diagnosis. It may be that we will get some answers, but I’m not holding my breath. At seventy-five years of age, I have a limited amount of breath left in me in any case so maybe I should hold on to some of my breath!

Myeloma

Yeah, well, myeloma. As I noted in my January post, the symptoms of myeloma and pernicious anemia overlap considerably. So, I have no idea what’s driving me nuts with peripheral neuropathy, numbness and tingling in my hands and feet, fuzzy brain, poor balance, weakness, especially in my legs, and bone pain, to name just a few of the symptoms I’m experiencing. It could be both the B12 issues and the myeloma that are teaming up to keep me in my place, and the chemotherapy is also no doubt contributing to my now radically re-assessed quality of life.

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So, that’s it. I’m old, I have a severe B12 deficiency that could be the result of pernicious anemia, and I have multiple myeloma, with its attendant chemotherapy.

As I lay in bed last night I harkened back to times in my life when I was still able to do things easily and effortlessly, things like canoeing, woodworking, building decks, garden structures, and a number of other physical things. I can still paint and draw, but with some difficulty. Writing is even getting to be an issue because I can barely feel the tips of my fingers on my left hand, my dominant hand.

It’s been difficult at times, not because of my physical abilities, but because of my attitude towards them. I’ve had challenges keeping the dark side away, the feeling that I can’t do things anymore like I used to, making me a lesser human being, somehow.

Carolyn and I both read the news and despair at the state of the world, but Carolyn seems to have a greater capacity than I do for keeping the dark side away and for maintaining a sense of perspective about the world. It’s true that the world is in a mess, but it’s always been in a mess if the press is to be believed. I have to keep reminding myself that the press, all of it, has a vested interest in propagating the dark side. That’s where the money is. Outrage and fear sells the goods. The bright side doesn’t.

That said, I don’t want to be captured by the dark side or the bright side. The world is a complex place. Life is finite and changes all the time. Mommy doesn’t have to change my diapers like she did seventy-three years ago, even if she were still alive. I don’t have to put a uniform on and go to elementary school. I never have to write a final exam or go on a job hunt ever again. Of course, I won’t experience the joy of the early days of fatherhood ever again either, of falling in love, nor of the thrill of discovering a wonderful, new camping spot.

I guess my point with all this rambling is that life is full of variety, both at the individual as well as at the socio-political level. Some things we call bad, some good. Those are judgment calls, which for us are adjudicated with reference to capitalist morality which itself is expressed in possessive individualism based on wealth and health. We look down on the poor and the unhealthy.

These judgments are not easy to counteract both at the individual and the political levels because they are so deeply rooted in our culture. They are so familiar to us that we consider them normal and reasonable. It’s easy to feel self-loathing for being poor or in ill-health. It’s almost expected of us. And those individual feelings are reinforced every day in a thousand ways by the vast majority of us as we compare ourselves to others, those with money or excellent health (mental and physical).

If I let myself I can easily be dragged onto the psychologically dark and barren landscape of blame and feelings of unworthiness. Enough of that now. I have a limited number of days, months, and years left to live. I cannot, I will not live them in fear and self-loathing.

Death is like a destination, one we have no choice in travelling towards. But, you know, some of the best trips I’ve taken have been at their finest and most exciting just before reaching our intended destination. Maybe that’s a good metaphor for the last bit of my life.

Cancer and self-absorption.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civil War in the U.S.A.: an addendum with references.

I don’t intend to comment here. All I want to do is post websites or news sources that are talking about the possibility of civil war in the States. Most of the news sources revolve around a new book by Dr. Barbara Walter, a political scientist from California. Wade Davis from UBC comments. The last link questions a number of the assumptions of the people claiming a civil war is coming.

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/

Civil War in the U.S.A.

Some people might argue that as a Canadian I should mind my own business and refrain from commentating on American politics. I don’t buy that, obviously. There are whole university departments dedicated to commenting on politics both national and International. It would be a sad day when we were restricted to commenting on our own national issues. In any case, what’s happening in U.S. politics now is liable to affect us all sooner or later.

Robert Reich in an opinion piece in The Guardian argues that the second American Civil War is happening now. He proposes some evidence for this in his piece. It’s not hard to find.

The structure of the American political system itself was constructed via a series of compromises between the federal and state powers, between conservatives and liberals. The federal government consists of Congress with the House of Representatives and the Senate. They are the legislative branches of the state while the executive branch is the presidency. The Supreme Court is the third branch in this triangle of power and it is the judicial branch. Now, these three branches of government are supposed to mind their own business with Congress passing laws, the president enacting them and the Supreme Court deciding on the legality of Congressional and other actions brought to it. It’s much more complicated than that, but that’s its essence. The compromises that were negotiated were always to be temporary, only to last as long as better arrangements were negotiated. They never were.

Sadly, the three branches of government rarely mind their own business. Instead, they often choose to carry forward the political agenda of whatever group to which they adhere. This is the basis of Reich’s argument. The red states (dominated by Republican ‘lawmakers’) and blue states (dominated by Democratic ‘lawmakers’) are keen to serve their respective political agenda. No issue more clearly defines the differences between the Republicans and the Democrats than the access to abortion issue.

As Reich points out, the current Supreme Court seems to favour the abolition of abortion rights but what it actually does is turn the issue over to the states knowing full well that bonkers state legislators in Florida, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, et cetera, will criminalize abortion in all instances including when pregnancies arise from incest, rape, or ectopic pregnancies.

Republicans generally side with states’ rights against those of the federal government. It’s not a mystery why this is so. Red states in the graphic below are dominated by Republicans while the Blue states are dominated by Democrats. The Senate is composed of one hundred members, two from each state, so Wyoming with a population of 576,851 has the same number of senators as California with a population of 39,237,836 as of July 2021. Wyoming, according to the map below is a red state, that is one controlled by Republicans. You’ll note that red states dominate a large swath of the country while the blue states hug the coasts in the west, northwest and eastern seaboard. There is a distinct geographical identification of blue and red states. There are clearly more red states although they don’t represent a majority of the population.

Reich seems to be tired and almost resigned. I’ve been following his work for years and it seems to me that there is a certain air of defeat in his words.

From: https://medium.com/reluctant-moderation/the-fundamental-difference-between-red-states-and-blue-states-8ad4820585cd.

Lawrence O’Donnell, the MSNBC host of The Last Word graphically represents what he sees as the breakup of the United States which he portrays by striking out United before States of America in the screen behind him as he argues that the electoral college is subverting the will of the people in the US. In fact, the Electoral College confirmed Trump in 2016 even though he had clearly lost the popular vote. He argues that a minority in the US is now in control of government. His argument is one that is hard to contest given the overwhelming evidence in support of it.

I’m not an American but I am a sociologist and over the past few decades (1976-2012) while I was still working as a college instructor I told my students every semester that they should mark my words: the American Empire will collapse. It will do so by imploding, not by an external threat. Nothing lasts forever. The question is not whether or not it will collapse, but how and when. Internal contradictions that are leading to the collapse of the US Empire can be found in the falling rate of profit which has led many American corporations to move production facilities offshore and seek markets all over the world. Cars may be assembled in the US, but their parts are manufactured all over the world and shipped to the assembly plants using just-in-time manufacturing. Supply chain issues involve a major strain on warehouse-less production requiring parts arrive for assembly as they are needed. It’s a ‘skinny’ system with little room for error.

It will also collapse as a result of the unresolved social divisions that exist based on race, economic inequality, and gender. The religious right has been able to seize the reins of power, and is flexing its muscles at all levels of state and federal government. Reich sees the second civil war as being relatively peaceful. I can’t imagine the knuckle-draggers are going to allow that to happen. They revel in violence. Given the licence to rape and pillage they are now getting from Congress and the Supreme Court, and they most certainly will take advantage of it. This summer will be one to watch.

As Reich and others have pointed out, the Republican led resurgence of state power using the Supreme Court and Congress as weapons in the struggle is already tearing the country apart. The abortion issue will serve to exacerbate divisions and heat up tempers. There is no sign of compromise or respectful dialogue anywhere to be seen. I hope I’m wrong about that.

I look to our neighbours to the south and despair. Will future generations look back on present day America and ask: Is that what you all wanted: the destruction of the country you all purport to love? Seems insane. It probably is, and it may be too late to do anything about it. History will take its course.

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

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

Death and More Death

Sherwin B. Nuland

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

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

And, of course, all bodies fail. 

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

Sadhguru

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social Media Have Us Just Where They Want Us.

April 29th, 2022

It’s still hovering around freezing in the mornings, but temperatures rise by early afternoon to hover around the 10 to 15˚C range. I usually get up around 7:30. By then the birds are well into their daily routine. The robins are pulling up moss to get at juicy grubs and worms. It’s great to see so many golden crowned sparrows and hummingbirds in the yard competing for access to the feeders. My recliner is in a position in the living room where I have a great view of bird activity in the front yard. 

Years ago, Carolyn and I would get up, get ready for work, have breakfast and listen to the CBC morning program. Now we open our computers or other devices and immerse ourselves in the problems of the day as expressed by MSNBC, CBC News, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail, et cetera. Do this every morning and the only result will be a profound depression. I’m not suggesting that we should not check out internet news sources, but it’s imperative to keep their offerings in the right perspective. After all, they are all in the business of making money and that one characteristic of their existence should give up plenty of pause. Same goes for Facebook and its offspring Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. 

This morning in my Pocket email (check it out) I got notice of an article in The Atlantic, a liberal magazine I’ve been reading on and off for many years. The article is called WHY THE PAST 10 YEARS OF AMERICAN LIFE HAVE BEEN UNIQUELY STUPID: It’s not just a phase.* The author is Jonathan Haidt.The (very long) article does a great job of dissecting the way social media have driven us into a number of hard social positions that make it increasingly difficult to engage with people we would not normally have anything to do with. I posted this paragraph from the article on Facebook: 

“Mark Zuckerberg may not have wished for any of that. But by rewiring everything in a headlong rush for growth—with a naive conception of human psychology, little understanding of the intricacy of institutions, and no concern for external costs imposed on society—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a few other large platforms unwittingly dissolved the mortar of trust, belief in institutions, and shared stories that had held a large and diverse secular democracy together.”

Then I wrote: 

“Yes, indeed. But I’m not sure I would hang out with a lot of people in any case, ones who still have Canadian flags on their pickups and shout ‘Freedom’ at us at every turn.”

I was being slightly provocative, wondering if the article was going to be right. It was, in spades. On my computer, there was no further comment from Facebook, but on my phone I get several follow up suggestions: Totally agree!!! You got that right!!! I know right!! And Most definitely. 

These ‘suggestions’ for follow up comments make it easy to agree with me with very little effort. This, according to the article fosters a sense of us versus them, hardening social positions and creating even more division than already exists in our lives. Facebook could easily have provided comment suggestions like: Are you sure?!!! Is this what you really think?!! Maybe we should do a bit more investigating!!! Or something along those lines. 

It’s obvious that Facebook’s design is conducive to producing, over the past ten years, a decline in social consensus and civility. It seems we are having a more difficult time than every just being civil to each other…on the roads, in the grocery stores, and online. I’m picking on Facebook, but other platforms are just as guilty as Facebook of undermining our sense of democracy and encouraging an increasing acceptance of autocracy and oligarchy. 

Haidt argues that there is no malice in what social media are doing except that they are following the drive for profit. The article argues that: “ Shortly after its “Like” button began to produce data about what best ‘engaged’ its users, Facebook developed algorithms to bring each user the content most likely to generate a ‘like’ or some other interaction, eventually including the ‘share’ as well. Later research showed that posts that trigger emotions––especially anger at out-groups––are the most likely to be shared.” And the more shares, the more money for Facebook. 

I think it’s time we got a lot more savvy about how easily we can be manipulated into producing exactly the kinds of inputs on Facebook that make people increasingly impatient, angry and intolerant, precisely those kinds of emotions that create an environment where money can be most easily accumulated for Facebook itself. 

I strongly recommend the Haidt article. You can read it on The Atlantic website. I think you can read up to five articles before having to pay…but don’t quote me on that. If Haidt is right we’re in for a rough ride over the next few years. 

Before wrapping up this post, I do want to tell you that in the proper spirit of sociological research I’ve been watching several YouTube channels of people doing things like boat building, auto repair and restoration, industrial mechanics, woodworking, and that sort of thing. I suspect given the many clues they give me that they are most likely Trump supporters or the equivalent. Yet none of them talk politics, at least not directly, and they all offer interesting content that is unrelated to politics. My point is that people are multidimensional. We need to remind ourselves all the time that there is always a point of potential contact between people if we look for it. Still, I worry about Haidt’s findings. I reckon that he’s probably correct and that saddens me no end. 

* (Illustrations by Nicolás Ortega.)