My back is hooped! I need a new one.

My lower back is permanently damaged because of an industrial injury that I had when I was around 20 years old, followed by a disc removal in my lumbar region. Over the decades that injury and surgery have often left me incapacitated and practically immobilized at times. The pain spikes up to a 10 at times although if I lie still it’s manageable. Dare I try to move and I get gut wrenching debilitating pain spikes. In 2002 I was diagnosed with kidney cell cancer so a surgeon removed my left kidney leaving a 14 inch scar from my abdomen in front to close to my spine at the back. Gladly, the cancer had not metastasized and I’m cancer free 16 years later. The pain from the surgery, however, has not abated much and it has joined up with the pain from my disc surgery and injury to create a crazy nexus of pain on my left side from my hip  to my upper thoracic area. Joining this happy little pain scenario is a B12 deficiency that has left me feeling constantly hung over and exhausted. Add to that a couple of other injuries to my right knee and both shoulders makes life very interesting. So, what have I done about this and what can I do now about this?

Through all of this I’ve tried to maintain some normalcy in my life. At times it was impossible and I had to take months off of work on three occasions. Now that I’m retired I can’t take time off anymore! Such a drag.

Over the years, I’ve tried a number of ways of dealing with my back pain and I’ve had scores of very well meaning people suggest ways that they’ve tried and found effective  in dealing with back pain including any number of varieties of physiotherapy, exercise, massage, acupuncture, yoga, meds, diet, etc., etc., etc. I have availed myself of most of the remedies recommended. Nothing seems to work for any length of time although I have gotten stretches of pain-reduced time over the years and I have been able to paint, sculpt (even using a chainsaw), printmake and putter in my shop. I cherish those times, and I want them back.

A couple of days ago, we (my family and I) attended my mother’s funeral in Maillardville. Before leaving my daughter’s home in Vancouver to go to the church for the ceremony I thought I would reach down and tie my shoes. Big mistake. That triggered a pain reaction in my back that almost had me passing out. The ceremonies at the church and later at the cemetery were very difficult because of the pain, never mind the grief. Yesterday, I drove home and although I was not entirely pain free, I was more or less comfortable. That’s the way this pain syndrome works. It comes and goes. This morning I did a stupid thing again. I tried to tie my shoes. Not too bright, this old man. I was aiming to go with Carolyn to walk the dog. Instead, I lay on the couch hopped up on T3s. I’ve got some pain relief right now and can sit and type this on my computer, but I have no idea how long this will last. Tomorrow, I call my M.D. I doubt he can do anything, but maybe prescribe some more T3s. I see a neurologist at the end of February. I hope he will be able to help me with the pain, the exhaustion, the dizziness, etc.

I tell you this not because I want sympathy. Maybe a little understanding would be good, but that can only come with knowledge. Hence this blog post. One problem is that most of the time I look pretty normal and healthy. People assume that I am and I don’t blame them. I do, however, find it a little frustrating when people ask me how I’m feeling. I don’t know what to say. It’s complicated. I have normal blood pressure, my pulse is good. In fact all my vital signs are good. I’ve just had an MRI that told me that my brain is in pretty good shape. So, yeah, it’s complicated. It might be good for those of us who experience debilitating pain to have a gauge implanted under the skin of our forearms indicating the level of pain we are experiencing at any given moment. I’m joking, of course, but…

Being at my mother’s funeral a couple of days ago was sobering to say the least. I couldn’t help but think about my own mortality and morbidity. My eldest sister is 82, almost 83 years old. She’s in good shape and could easily live well into her 90s. Most of my siblings are in good shape although MS and other autoimmune issues run in the family and I expect most of us will live long lives. It’s in our genes. But my parents’ generation is almost all gone. It’s our turn now to leave this mortal coil, and we will, one after the other, it’s just a matter of time.

More about my take on life and death in my next post coming soon.

A meditation on Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis

I don’t often review books on this blog. That’s because I seldom read fiction and my reading of non-fiction runs to extreme esoterica, sociological monographs and art books few of which inspire me to produce reviews. Too much explaining to do. Too much I have to leave unsaid or to the reader’s initiative. 

Upon the urging of my widely read Carolyn spouse, I relented and read a novel, Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis, published this year by Coach House Books. It won the Giller Prize and Carolyn said to me: “Read it, I want to discuss it with you.” Well, that’s not the first time she’s said that, but for some reason I relented this time, partly because she said the book was about death, a long time scholarly interest of mine. It’s not a long book either, another reason why I decided to read it. 

That said, I can’t say that this is a review of the book. It’s more of a meditation on it.

The book’s premise is simple enough. Hermes and Apollo, both gods in the ancient Greek panoply of gods find themselves in a bar in Toronto when at some point Hermes muses: “I wonder what it would be like if animals had human intelligence.” Thereupon, Apollo responds with: “I’ll wager a year’s servitude that animals, any animal you like – would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they were given human intelligence.” 

Sometime later they encounter fifteen dogs in a kennel at the back of an animal clinic nearby. They had found the subjects for their experiment. I’m not going to go into any detail describing the chains of events that constitute this novel, but you can see where this might lead. Dogs don’t have the vocal apparatus to speak human language, but they can, given human intelligence, develop a language of their own which they do in this case. 

One major issue is that physiologically these dogs are still dogs and they still have dog wants and needs as well as dog perceptions of things. Now, with human intelligence, complications inevitably arise. Deaths ensue. Let’s not forget that one of the primary distinctions in this novel is between mortals (dogs and humans) and immortals (Hermes, Apollo and Zeus). Us planetary beings are all mortal, something we have in common. Dogs and humans die. We all do. We all must. Moreover, dogs and humans often have reasons to kill. The dog/humans in this novel are no exception to this rule. 

Here we have a mix of dog/human politics as if human politics weren’t complicated enough. Dog politics are generally straightforward based on brute strength, physical size and cleverness when it comes to intra-pack politics and no mercy when it comes to extra-pack relations. Not much different than human politics, it seems. 

Much of the book is taken up with discussions about morality, mortality and making it through the day in hostile, and sometimes friendly but constricting, environments. Fifteen Dogs is full of the unexpected yet explainable. It does not shy away from visceral descriptions of death but it also revels in the more uplifting connections we make between ourselves as humans as well as those between humans and dogs. I’ve loved all of our dogs as family members. I can certainly relate to this book on that level, but I can also find basic truths in Alexis’ musings on the inevitability of mortality and what it means to live well and die well.

I recommend this book to you all. It’s a  quick read and one that could give rise to great book club conversation. 

One question I have: how would this book read if the gods in question were not so mythical? What if there was only one god in question, the Christian god? How would that change the colour, tone and texture of the book? How would it change the book?