44 On art (poiesis) and the search for meaning in my life.

[I started writing this at 4:30 this morning. I don’t usually get up before 7:30, but my chemo meds keep me awake sometimes. I’m on a dexamethasone high. In other words I’m stoned. Let’s see how well this comes out. Well, I’m no longer stoned. It’s now 6 PM, and looking it over, I. think it’s fine, but I’ll let you be the final judge of that. It’s only a coincidence that this is the 42nd blog post in this series.]

Over the past few months, since I was diagnosed with cancer I have been on a search for the meaning of my life. I haven’t always recognized that in myself or acknowledged to myself that that’s what I was actually doing, but that is in fact what I have been doing pointedly and with urgency. There is probably nothing more capable of focussing the mind than facing a firing squad or a hearing a physician’s determination that one has an incurable cancer. The problem with the firing squad scenario is that there is no time for any reflection on the meaning of life before the bullets put an end to all reflection. At least with a cancer diagnosis, there is time for reflection. I have limited time left as a human expression in the biosphere, so I intend to use that time fully as a mortal in reflection on the meaning in my life, but more importantly as a generator of art, what Plato called poiesis.

In my life I was able to go to university and a get important post-graduate degrees in Sociology. Those years of study and reflection were exciting, stressful and tinged with contradiction at every turn and I got through them in spite of the system and not because of it, as I was fond of telling my students repeatedly over the years. I was able to learn many ‘things’ but the most important result of all of those years was my license to teach, to engage in an important aspect of my art.

Licenses are important. They are society’s way of legitimizing and concretizing in a title the fact that in the past one has acquired sufficient knowledge and capacity in a field of study or work to pass it on to others, operate equipment or on people, fix our plumbing and in a myriad of other situations. Over the years, my teaching was my art, although it was also my way of making a living and that contradiction was a constant source of irritation for me, and for people around me too, especially my long-suffering loved ones, Carolyn and the kids. During that time, though, I also engaged in the ‘plastic’ arts, in drawing, painting, and eventually in sculpture and printmaking. For most of my life I considered those latter pursuits the artistic part of my life. However, more recently, with my new sharpened mind engendered by my cancer diagnosis, I have been able to look back on my life and conclude that I was always an artist. I may have been born that way, but I think it was more an inadvertent result of my upbringing and the circumstances surrounding my birth and early years. I know now that my parents were also artists in their own ways. I know for a fact, because I worked with him at times, that my father struggled his whole working life with the contradictions he had to face every day having to earn a living doing things that were averse if not actually an insult to his inherent creativity. My father was a master craftsman, inventor, blacksmith and planerman. He was functionally illiterate too. My mother had a grade eight education and could read and write quite well. She had ten children, all still alive and kicking. Can we question her creativity? Definitely not her biological creativity, but she was creative in other ways too. She could sew up a storm and knit, cook like a pro and bake. Mygawd, could she bake! Later in life, after all the kids could look after themselves she took over my father’s workshop and started building all kinds of things out of wood. I still have a table by my bed that she built. It means a lot to me. Then, my father decided to sell the house and move into an apartment. That was the end of woodworking for my mother. She pretty much lost interest after that and it wasn’t long after she got Alzheimer’s dementia and that was that.

I feel I really need to explore in writing what my parents must have gone through during the time I was born and for some time after, and how that shaped who I became and am becoming still. I feel this exploration, my writing here, is part of my legacy, part of what I leave behind for you to learn from or simple contemplate as you would a painting on the wall in your living room, if you are fortunate enough to have a living room that is. My aim is that it engenders creativity in you, its beholders.✿

In any case, I was born on January 4th, 1947, which means I was conceived sometime in April of 1946. My parents were married on January 28th 1946. My father’s first wife, Yvonne Gaucher, died on June 22nd, 1945, seven months before my mother and father married. She died in childbirth after having five daughters. The baby, if it had survived, was to be called Roger, and I would not be. As the fates have it, he died and I was born 19 months later and they named me Roger. Can you imagine the stress my father was under? And my mother? My father had five daughters to look after. He made a call to my mother’s family in Alberta and my mother agreed to come help, look after the children and do all the domestic work. My mother and father had known each other in Alberta before he moved here with his family in 1937. Apparently my mother and dad’s first wife knew each other quite well. A short time later they were married. I can’t imagine what he was going through and we never talked about it.

Of course I was treated like a little prince. Not only was I the first boy in the family, but I had survived childbirth and so had my mother. I don’t really know what to make of my early days, not really. My mother soon had more children so my special status was soon eroded, but not much because my mother then proceeded to have four daughters in a row right after me leaving me the only boy with nine sisters. She had three more sons, interspersed with a couple more daughters.

So I have fourteen siblings in all, one of the older ones dying a few years ago of cancer. The rest of us are all still alive and kicking although a couple of my brothers-in-law have died last year. Many of my siblings are what I would call creative or artistic in work and in play. Five are afflicted with MS or another autoimmune disease. An altogether crazy bunch, but I love them all. What influence they’ve had in my life I can’t really say although they have been supportive when I needed it. And I really needed it when I was in my late teens and early twenties, depressed and suicidal. I could always count on my family. There was always a place for me at the table and a shoulder to cry on. Now I can say that I’m neither depressed, nor suicidal and I haven’t been for some time. Some people might argue that I have a right to be depressed, but I know now what depression is and it’s a waste of time. I don’t need it.

Alright, so what do I make of my life? Well, I’ve made it clear in a number of recent blog posts that I’m not chasing immortality. I’m a happy mortal kind of guy, but that doesn’t mean I’m looking forward to dying. My myeloma is being managed successfully and I may live for another ten years, who knows. When it’s my turn to die, that will be just fine. We all come to the end of the line. Songs have been written about it.

Still, it took a cancer diagnosis and what I thought was imminent death from an incurable cancer to ask the question: What meaning did my life have? What meaning does it have? In the face of death, is there any meaning? These are questions Tolstoy was preoccupied with. As Ernest Becker reports in Escape From Evil: “When Tolstoy came to face death, what he really experienced was anxiety about the meaning of his life. As he lamented in his Confessions: ‘What will come of my whole life…Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?””

My answers to these questions came to me slowly at first over the last few weeks, then more pointedly only in the last few hours. I got answers by reading writers I knew would not fail in helping me answer these questions. The first was Ernest Becker and his book Escape from Evil (1974). Becker always knows the right words to say. He reminded me of the cultural significance of the fear of death and its significance for my personal encounter with death. Norbert Elias I read carefully. His book What is Sociology (1970) reacquainted me with my own discipline in a new, fresh way, a way of locating myself in time and space in a cultural project of criticism which clearly preceded me and will continue without me. But what of my career as a teacher? Recently I picked up a book that had been sitting in my library for thirty years untouched. It’s a book by James P. Carse called Finite and Infinite Games (see the note below). This is the book that triggered my recent reflections on my life as an artist. One section of his book deals specifically with art and culture and the relationships that we have with art as artists. I could have re-read Otto Rank’s Art and Artist but Carse does that for me. Rank’s book is always close to hand but it’s falling apart do to the handling it’s received over the years. Carse argues that the greatest struggle for any society is not with external enemies, but within itself. In society, we strive for titles, recognition for past achievements. But poietai (artists, inventors, storytellers, makers, etcetera according to Plato) are makers of possibilities. He writes (and this is a long quote):

The creativity of culture has no outcome, no conclusion. It does not result in art works, artifacts, products. Creativity is a continuity that engenders itself in others. [quoting Rank] ‘Artists do not create objects, but create by way of objects.’

Art is not art, therefore, except as it leads to an engendering creativity in its beholders. Whoever takes possession of the objects of art has not taken possession of the art.

Since art is never a possession, and always a possibility, nothing possessed can have the status of art. If art cannot become property, property is never art-as property. Property draws attention to titles, points backward toward a finished time. Art is dramatic, opening always forward, beginning something that cannot be finished.

Because it is not conclusive, but engendering, culture has no established catalogue of accepted activities. We are not artists by reason of having mastered certain skills or exercising specified techniques. Art has no scripted roles for its performers. It is precisely because it has none that it is art. Artistry can be found anywhere; indeed, it can only be found anywhere. One must be surprised by it. It cannot be looked for. We do not watch artists to see what they do, but to watch what persons do and discover the artistry in it.

Artists cannot be trained. One does not become an artist by acquiring certain skills or techniques, though one can use any number of skills and techniques in artistic activity. The creative is found in anyone who is prepared for surprise. Such a person cannot go to school to be an artist, but can only go to school as an artist.

Therefore, poets do not “fit” into society, not because a place is denied them but because they do not take their “places” seriously. They openly see its role as theatrical, its styles as poses, its clothing costumes, its rules conventional, its crises arranged, its conflicts performed, and its metaphysics ideological.

So, if my life has been about engendering engendering creativity in the beholder, I think I’ve done that, at least to my satisfaction. Obviously, the best judgments of my impact on people must come from them. Ask my former students and people who contemplate my art embodied in the works I have created and you’ll get varying answers. All I can say is my objectives in my classes and in my paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures have always been to engender a surprise and a new commitment to creativity. Therein lies some of the meaning in my life. I’ve been fortunate to have more. My children, grown women now, are the pride of my life and both creative in boundless ways. I could take credit for that, but Carolyn is largely responsible, I’m afraid, as I was absent a lot as they were growing up. Carolyn, in her own right, is a talented artist. She uses her garden as her main palette, but her skills as a cook are unsurpassed. I can’t take credit for anything they’ve accomplished as individuals, but as a family I think we rock!

That is all.

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✿This concept comes from a book by James P. Carse entitled Finite and Infinite Games, (The Free Press, 1986). Carse is a great inspiration to me, a true artist. I will review his book and its significance for me in a separate blog post soon.

43 – Plugged in!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

33 A Sensation Reminiscent of Hunger.

Today is my med day. This morning between bites of granola I threw into my mouth about twenty pills from a shot glass. It turns out a shot glass is the perfect thing for taking a shit load of pills. Now I sit back in my chair, my computer on my lap. Carolyn is sitting on the love seat in the bay window across from me doing a word game thing on her iPad. Beyond her, out the window, I see the trees and shrubs in the front yard, still devoid of leaves, but showing budding signs of renewal.

Last night Carolyn and I watched a couple of episodes of the dark (ish) Star Trek Picard series on Netflix. One of the characters in the series is Rio, the captain on the starship-for-hire that Picard has engaged to fight the Romulans or whatever he’s up to. In the opening scene of the first episode last night Rio is seen reading a book. The book he’s reading, first published in 1920 is called The Tragic Sense of Life by Miguel de Unamuno, a Basque Spanish writer and university don who wrote with pride that he hardly ever left Spain.

I heard about this Picard episode and the book a few days ago and because Rio sums up the book by saying that the book is about dealing with existential angst in the face of death (or something like that) I bought a Kindle copy for less than two bucks but I could have read it for free on the internet archive (oh well). So, I’ve been reading this book and it’s confounding me, not because of its intellectual profundity, but because it’s so weird. Unamuno is dealing with his existential angst alright but his writing is bizarre to say the least. I’ll leave it for another blog post to deal with it and my own existential angst. Still, it’s relevant now because my body is changing so rapidly because of the onslaught of the chemo meds that I find it impossible not to think about it all the time, and to think about where this is all going. I’ve been sick for a long time, mostly because of the myeloma but for other reasons too. What my chemo meds are doing is exacerbating the problems I’ve had for some time, but with a new, perverse twist.

For the moment, I just want to say that I’m pissed, not with anyone or anything in particular, but just generally. Maybe it’s because my experience with the chemo meds doesn’t quite line up with my expectations based on what is in the documentation we receive with the chemo meds. When we start taking chemo meds, there is a very ritualistic thing that happens (rivalling ceremonial status) when we go to the hospital and are given lots of sheets of information on the meds. The information sheets are, in my estimation, designed to include as many warnings about side effects as possible without scaring people so badly they just refuse to take meds at all. That does happen.

The thing is that cancer is such an idiosyncratic set of two hundred or so diseases that one person may get diarrhea from the meds while another person may get constipation from the same meds. Invariably, the information sheets include all the usual suspects: diarrhea, constipation, peripheral neuropathy, hair loss, sterility (cyclophosphamide), headache, dry mouth, weight loss, and loss of appetite. A person may also get lower back pain, swelling of feet or lower legs, painful urination, anemia along with tiredness or weakness, shortness of breath and skin rash or itching. I’m getting most of these except the diarrhea and the lower extremity swelling. Another thing is that I haven’t had a normal feeling of hunger since I’ve been on the meds. Carolyn asks me if I’m hungry. I don’t know how to answer that question. It’s frustrating. This morning, though, I had a sensation reminiscent of hunger. Hence the title of this post. That was okay.

It would be nice to be told early on that you won’t have a normal poo or pee while on the meds and even for some time afterwards, that the itching isn’t just normal itching relieved by a bit of a scratch. No, the itching I’m experiencing is deep, almost impervious to scratching. My skin is changing. There was no warning about that. It’s getting coarser but no less oily. My back has been bugging me for decades. The chemo meds may be making the pain in that area worse, but I don’t know. My feet are always cold and I can hardly feel my soles. Again, that was happening before my diagnosis, so I don’t know if and what’s going on there, but I have my suspicions.

Thirty or more years ago, I was diagnosed with a B12 deficiency. B12 is critical for health and low counts of B12 in the blood can be deadly. I self-injected B12 for a long time then stopped because I didn’t think it was doing me any good. I felt no better injecting it. Then my count dropped to a very critical low. I started injecting again but it may be that the damage was already done. There is a connection between B12 deficiency, pernicious anemia, and multiple myeloma that we’ve been able to find in the scientific literature, but try to get anybody in the oncology community around here interested in that.* There’s no way. Our blood is highly complex as you might imagine so it should be logical to think that any compound that is crucial to our survival and is blood related would elicit curiosity and interest in the oncological and hematological communities. It may be that it is, but my experience is that B12 is not taken at all seriously by oncologists. It seems that oncologists have their well-worn, familiar roads to follow and deviating from those roads, that is, going off-road for a bit of a rip, does not seem to compute for them.** I’m thinking that based on my experience there just may be more to the B12/myeloma connection that first meets the eye and that it may be a fruitful area for more research. It’s probably not a coincidence that the symptoms of pernicious anemia and multiple myeloma are so similar, symptoms that I’ve been experiencing for decades.

  • *To be fair, I haven’t conducted a survey or anything of the sort. My observations come from casual conversations with medical staff.
  • **That’s definitely the message from Mukherjee’s book The Emperor of All Maladies.

31 Interesting Couple of Days

Yes, interesting couple of days. I’m on a dex high right now after taking my week’s worth of chemo meds yesterday. Good time to write. For those of you who have been reading my blog, you’ll know that dex (dexamethasone) gets me stoned like I’m on twenty cups of good medium coffee. I get the shakes with it too. It’s a little difficult to keep my fingers on the right keys on my laptop. Still, it works for me.

Wow, how my life has changed in just a few months since my diagnosis. Again, for those of you who have been following me along over the past few months you’ll know that my diagnosis just confirmed for us that I was pretty sick for a long time, unable to do things I so enjoyed like drawing, printmaking, going out, working on non-profit boards including the board of the Cumberland Museum and Archives. The Museum Board is a great board and I’m hoping to get back to active involvement in a reasonable time, but to be realistic, it probably won’t be for a while yet. I need to figure out lots of things, including how much I can back off my pain meds and still be okay.

Because oncologists deal with organic disease, they don’t deal well with pain, which, as I’ve noted often in my past blog posts, is invisible and difficult to diagnose. I think that if doctors have themselves been touched by pain issues, either themselves or members of their families, they may have a better understanding of what people in pain experience. My orthopaedic surgeon came right out and told me that Western medicine isn’t good with pain.

No wonder so many people turn to alternatives to deal with pain, physical or psychic, even though there is no science behind their use. Simply, put all forms of medicine, effective or not can’t deal with the huge, overwhelming elephant in the room: death. Medicine, by definition, is about healing the body. There is no healing death. Faced with that wall of immovability, we as individuals grasp at straws. Some of us, I daresay many of us not captured by the statistics, turn to non-medical solutions to pain management. The most turned to alternative to modern medicines of all kinds is alcohol. It’s cheap, it’s legally available, and if you don’t push the social and legal boundaries around its use, you’ll be okay. You’ll be able to avoid opprobrium and jail. Of course, there’s a lot of controversy about addiction, its sources and possible solutions to substance abuse, but the reality is that mental illness is a huge part of the equation and underlies much of the ‘problems’ we humans have in dealing with life and its many challenges.

Gabor Maté

I’m with Gabor Maté when he argues that much of mental illness is engendered by early life trauma mixed with underlying facilitating organic, physiological, even cellular level factors. There is no doubt that genetics play a role in determining quality of life as it relates to pain and suffering. Maté argues that no issue is more relevant than early childhood trauma in determining how we deal with pain in later life. I don’t know if Maté’s argument will ever win the day, but if it does, you should be able to walk into your doctor’s office and expect to be asked right off: “Tell me about what it was like for you as a child. Tell me about your mom and dad. How did you get along with them.” I’m so tempted to write up a short(ish) questionnaire to address some of the issues around parent/child relations in early life. Somebody has probably already done it, but I haven’t done enough research to figure it out and besides, I have ideas of my own to test out. In any case, back to my main point in writing this blog post.

Dr. Fehlau

Wednesday at 1PM, Carolyn and I went to the hospital to meet with the staff in the Palliative Symptoms Management Clinic (or something like that). We met with the nurse, Adele (not sure I ever got her family name) and Dr. Barbara Fehlau, Inc. Dr. Fehlau used to work at the clinic where my family doctor is located in Comox. Now she works full time in palliative care and pain management using whatever techniques she finds useful which she proudly notes she found travelling all over the world. She didn’t say so specifically, but she alluded to the fact that modern Western medicine is pretty good at using drugs to deal with pain issues but lousy at any other treatment protocols. She has a pain clinic where she uses a range of techniques to alleviate pain including acupuncture. She’s a very strong proponent of meditation and says she meditates for forty minutes in the early morning and another forty minutes before bedtime. I used to meditate every day and for some unfathomable reason stopped. I have opinions about meditation and other ‘mindfulness’ activities but they will have to wait to be expressed in another post. In any case, Dr. Fehlau is calm, very controlled, and I am cautiously optimistic. She has a personal history of dealing with pain and told us that she was about to get knee replacement surgery. I’ve been to the pain clinic in Nanaimo and that worked to some extent but I’m still dogged by pain. The myeloma isn’t helping of course.

Okay, so now what? Well, Dr. Fehlau told me to call her clinic and get in to see her there so she could do some interventions. Then she talked about end of life issues and asked me if I was aware of the services offered in the Valley around end of life palliative care, MAID, etcetera. I said that I did know some things but there’s always more that can be learned. I’ll get on that.

Speaking of souls, do I have a belief system? She asked me about my belief system and if I had beliefs that some people find comforting as death approaches like a fast train in the dark. I said ‘physics’, that’s my belief system if I can even say I have any kind of belief system. I was never big on ‘soul’ music. Oh, I think that we humans are extremely creative in coming up with ways of finding some sense in death and the creation of the ‘soul’ is one of those. Whatever rocks your boat, as far as I’m concerned. Maybe it’s time I explain more about my philosophy of life, but it will have to wait too, getting in line with my ideas about meditation and other ‘mindfulness’ strategies.

So, now I’m back in my bed, staring at the ceiling with the light filtering through the blinds at the head of our bed. Dr. Fehlau, knows that I’m on the death train because of the myeloma I have and she is clear that my future can be counted now in months rather than years. Pain is one thing. Strategies for making peace with life when I have very little left is another thing. And what about Carolyn, Marika and Arianne. Carolyn is the love of my life and my daughters are very near and dear to me. I need them to be involved in the process of my dying but it’s not easy. Carolyn, being the person that she is, has been thinking a lot about what it means for me to die at home. She’ll need some help, but she can speak for herself around these issues. Help is available for respite and home support. Carolyn has to think about life without me too. She’s five years younger than me so that’s an advantage right there. With some help she may even be able to continue to live where we do now if that’s what she wants. Unfortunately it’s impossible to make too many plans too far ahead, but there are preparations that, made now, will help a lot when the time comes.

I may be premature in thinking about these things, but I really can’t help myself. I need to know. Do I want to consider Medical Aid In Dying? You bet. If if comes to that. One thing though: I am now connected to some of the end of life services in the Valley through Community Home Care. That’s a new one for me. Man, there’s so much to learn about dying!

Addendum:

This post is already long enough but I can’t help giving you a taste of how our daily conversations go these days. They would be completely incomprehensible to people not ‘informed’. So here is a typical early morning talk. Me and Carolyn.

Carolyn: How did you sleep?

Me: Well, last night Ben rocked me to sleep while looking after the issues around my injection site. I slept from 11:30 until 6:30 straight.

Carolyn: That’s great! So you talked about changing your hydro routine. What do you want to do about that?

Me: I’m thinking of taking two breakthroughs this morning then another two around mid-afternoon while I wait for Dr. Fehlau’s 4.5 prescription to come in. That should keep me going until eight when I can take a six slow-release. The dex is kicking in. Sleep tonight could be a challenge. The cyclo will slam me down though, counterbalancing the dex. The Duc has to do its work too. I’ll see about going poo earlier in the evening so that I don’t have to get up during the night. Maybe Ben can come help me sleep too. We’ll see.

[Carolyn is off this morning to pick up a prescription for me and to take care of some Museum business. We talk about the Museum a lot too and about other things. Come to think of it, I think some of those conversations would also be incomprehensible to the ‘uninformed.’]

See ya later.

30 Living in the Shadow of Death

Strangely enough, I find myself wondering about what it would be like to live on death row.

We don’t have death rows in Canada, but there are about two thousand six hundred Americans in twenty-nine states right now sitting in cells awaiting their deaths by lethal injection or by other means, depending on the state. Most are still waiting for their date with the devil because they can appeal in so many ways and it seems that the average time now spent on death row is over sixteen years. There is an increasing hue and cry in the US about the time people have to spend on death row arguing that the wait itself is “cruel and unusual punishment.”

…the European Court of Human Rights in 1989 ruled that extended periods on death row violated a provision of the European Convention of Human Rights that forbids “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” While acknowledging the legality of the death sentence in certain cases, it nonetheless forbade Britain to deport a German man to Virginia to face capital charges because he might spend years on death row facing “the anguish and mounting tension of living in the ever-present shadow of death.”

https://www.bnd.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/answer-man/article151691567.html

Right, “he might spend years on death row facing ‘the anguish and mounting tension of living in the ever-present shadow of death'”. Well, you know, I’m feeling a little like that myself, actually. I’ve been told I have an incurable cancer, but one that can be treated. It looks like I will go into remission sometime, probably in a few months, but who knows for how long. After that, if my myeloma doesn’t react to new treatments upon an inevitable relapse, I will surely die from organ failure. So, I wait and wait and wait not knowing if my next chemo treatment will work or not. The end result is preordained, however. No getting around that. How is this different from a death row inmate who applies for an appeal for his terminal sentence not knowing whether or not he will be successful? If he is successful this time, what about the next time? He knows that at some point the avenues for appeal will run out. When that happens he will suffer from organ failure like me, but that will be a systemic, total failure of all bodily systems as he lies there on a gurney in the execution room being administered a lethal injection of a deadly concoction of poison.

The analogy I use between my cancer diagnosis and a death row sentence is certainly not perfect. No analogy is. For instance, I don’t have to spend the bulk of my days in a small cell with bars. Nor do I have guards watching over me. That said, the comparison between my myeloma diagnosis and a death row sentence is fair if focussed on the psychological dimensions of an indeterminate cancer survival prognosis and an indeterminate execution date for the death row inmate. Chemotherapy is akin to an appeal: both buy some time but just postpone the inevitable.

I imagine that death row inmates are not pre-occupied twenty-four hours a day with the fact that they will eventually end up on the gurney in the execution room more than I am focussed all the time on the fact that my cancer is incurable, and hence terminal under the ‘right’ conditions. It’s just that the uncertainly of the situation is combined with the certainly of the outcome. That is disconcerting to say the least. I am definitely living “in the ever-present shadow of death”, but, of course, we all are. My shadow is possibly more opaque than yours at the moment, that’s all. Until I got my ‘death sentence’ I could go about my days thinking about projects I was doing, walks we would be going on, trips we would take. Now, it’s not so easy to do these things. Oh, it’s still possible, but utter exhaustion, chemo, lab and doctor visits, imaging sessions, etcetera, complicate things. I can only hope things will be different when I go into remission. I have a canoe that needs a new canvas skin and I have a sculpture I want to complete.

This all brings me back to the ‘value’ of sudden death. Sudden death does have a very important feature: its suddenness. No time to think about it, no time to live in anguish, etcetera. Looks like I won’t have the luxury of a sudden death. Maybe I will, we never know, but the way it’s going now, it’s not likely. So I have to figure out another tactic, or set of tactics to deal with the uncertainty of my life but with the certainty of my imminent death.

Problem is my death is not just about me. Yes, it’s an intensely personal experience, but other people are involved. Is it fair for anyone to focus so much on having a good death that they ignore everyone around them? Is it okay to be completely selfish about our own dying?

According to this op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, dying at home, although it seems like a reasonable thing to do, entails consequences, especially for care givers, and especially when home support and respite care are not available. This op-ed provides me with a not-so-subtle reminder to get my living will done. I probably shouldn’t procrastinate on that one.

29 A Balancing Act

So, yesterday we went to the hospital for my usual Thursday injection of bortezomib and to get the rest of the meds I take orally. This time it was a bit different because I am now on a full dose of cyclophosphomide. I was a bit trepidatious about it. I wondered if the symptoms going from a half dose to a full dose might produce twice the level of distress from the symptoms. Would I have more nausea? Doesn’t seem like it at the moment. Would I have more brain effects like lightheadedness and dizziness? Doesn’t seem like it for now. At this point it seems like it’s business as usual. I may lose my hair with the added dose of cycloformaldehyde (my name for cyclophosphomide) but that’s no big deal, I could also see darkening of skin colour and nails hardening, etcetera. Those effects are yet to be seen. Another side effect of my chemo meds is infertility. Gee, that’s really got me worried.

My tummy seems nicely settled at the moment. That’s good. Hydromorphone (hydro for short) tends to make one constipated. It sure as hell did that to me. However, most of the chemo meds I’m taking tend to produce diarrhea. Do they balance each other out? Not necessarily. Pooing regularly is very important to me now and I sure don’t need to rip my anus apart with constipation. Bring on the Dulcolax. One in the morning and one at night seem to do the trick, but I have to be on top of it because things change so quickly with chemotherapy. At the moment all is okay on the anal front. Oh, and my butt gives profuse thanks to our bidet toilet seat. That was one very wise purchase!

Last night I took my usual dose of hydro (which I found out doing research a couple of days ago that it’s one of the drugs some states in the US use for lethal injections in capital punishment). Because I have my bortezomid injection earlier in the day and I’m prone to swelling and issues around the injection site, I was told to take Benadryl as a means of counteracting that. So, I took a couple of Benadryl and that helped me sleep for four hours or so, but the dexamethasone (dex) kept pushing back wanting to make me more hyper. I slept, like I said for four hours, but after that the dex won and I lay awake for most of the rest of the night. However, thankfully, the Benadryl did counteract the dex so that I wasn’t as hyper as I might get otherwise. I was quite relaxed, actually. Around four AM I took another one milligram of hydro because my hip was hurting me more than I am prepared to tolerate. That seemed to do it, the pain attenuated and I was more comfortable. Taking one milligram of hydro on another day under different conditions and it would have no effect. It’s all about timing and balance.

As I lay in bed last night unable to initially fall asleep I checked out the ceiling above our bed. A few weeks ago I noticed signs of wetness in the ceiling drywall. It’s pretty easy to tell if your roof is leaking and you have drywalled ceilings. The paint begins to ripple and buckle slightly as the water soaks through the drywall. I am prepared to put up with some of that, but we need to ensure that it isn’t getting much worse. We painted that ceiling not long ago so I had a baseline to work with. I don’t think it is getting worse, but the solution is to get up on the roof and tighten all the screws holding down the metal roof. Metal roof screws can loosen off over time and cause problems ten or fifteen years after installation so it’s a good idea to tighten them down periodically. We’ve done that, thanks to Tim (our son-in-law) on the studio roof, and the shop roof is only a couple of years old so no need to do anything with that roof. Now, it seems, we have to do the house. I’m not about to go up there, neither is Carolyn. We’ll have to hire somebody to do that, somebody steady on their feet and with good, non-arthritic hands.

Then I thought about the studio. It’s a bit of a mess at first glance, but I set it up to do some printing months ago and it does look like a mess. But it’s not really. Someone else looking at it or going in there sees mess (unless they’re an artist). It does need some tidying up, but I’m the only one who can do that, except for moving some of the heavier pieces of equipment and my sister-in-laws stuff. A number of people have shoved ‘stuff’ into the studio to get it out of the house and out of the way, but in doing so have damaged one of the paintings I was working on, punching a hole in the middle of it. It was bound to happen. Now I have to decide if it’s worth repairing that painting or not. Sooner or later I’m going to have to go into the studio and assess my capacity to work. I could maybe do a small woodcut or linocut or finish a painting or two. I’ve got lots I could do, but do I have the energy, and can I overcome the shakes that are a side effect of some of my chemo meds? And what about that arthritis? Those are the questions.

At one point last night, about twenty minutes after taking the extra one milligram of hydro, I lay on my back and realized, heh, I don’t have pain anywhere in my body! Holy shit. I can guarantee you that that is a rare occurrence. How did it happen? Well, as best as I can figure, I had all my various meds balanced out. The slow-release hydro was looking after my regular pain, the Benadryl was counteracting the dex as well as looking after the injection site issues. As long as I stayed still, I was painless! Of course, a few minutes later, when I decided to move to sleeping on my right side, I started getting pain in my thoracic area, something I’m quite familiar with. But heh! Lesson about balance taken!

Balance seems to be everything in my life at the moment. It sure wasn’t always a concern for me to the extent that it is now. Now, I could think about going into my studio and working, say, for an hour instead of for a whole day. I can think about going for short walks instead of running marathons thus balancing my need to rest with my need for exercise. I need to take time to think about how my meds work and how to get the most out of them without too much stress on my body and emotions. Age is a huge issues but instead of pining for the good ol’ days, finding age and cancer appropriate balance is working for me. Of course, I’m still going to die, but that will help out with the cosmic balance between life and death. More on this to come.

28 Moving on up.

So, I’m over the shock of my cancer diagnosis. It’s been four months, after all. That doesn’t mean I’m happy about it, but it does mean that we (and I have to include Carolyn in everything here) have moved on from the initial storm of emotions around the diagnosis to settling in for months of chemotherapy and complete disruption of our lives. We are moving into a new routine. Every day is almost predictable, at least for now. I can’t say that I’m bored at this point, but I certainly am getting restless. I’ve gone down to the studio a couple of times lately and poked around. I really do miss drawing and printmaking. I want to get back to them soon and I really want to finish a small sculpture I started last year. Problem is I’m so exhausted all the time.

Not all people with cancer have the same reaction to the disease itself nor to the chemo meds and the opioids. Not all cancer patients are anemic all the time and I’m told that not all experience a lot of pain or the exhaustion I’m feeling. Every cancer is different and close to two hundred types have been identified. Breast cancer is the most common followed by lung and prostate cancers although there are several different varieties of all three types of cancers. Multiple myeloma is very uncommon and is the rarest of the blood cancers. Lucky me.

This morning we saw the local oncology GP and he told us that everything is going well with my therapy but that for the third cycle starting tomorrow they will be punching up the cyclophosphomide (the main chemo med) to one hundred percent. I didn’t know this, or I forgot, but I haven’t been up to full dose on this chemical yet. The doctor said that they started me off slowly to ensure that I could tolerate the shit, but now they were going to have to ‘challenge’ me. I have no idea how that is going to affect the side effects I am inevitably going to get except to amplify them. Yep, that’s what I can expect, amplified side effects. Yum.

I also learned this morning that I have six more chemotherapy cycles before they can consider whether or not I’m in remission. That means I will know by late August or early September. Oh well, I didn’t want to do anything this summer anyway, now did I. The way I’m feeling at the moment, I’m thinking that I might be able to get out on some short excursions come the sunnier, warm weather, but laying about the back yard by the pond sipping a cold drink doesn’t seem so bad either. Today is the last day of my previous cycle and the best of the whole lot because I’ve had a bit of a ‘holiday’ from my meds. Tomorrow, I’m back in the trenches with full-blown cyclo, dex, and bortozemib. I had an infusion of zoledronic acid today too, that’s a bone strenghtening drug. It gives me a raging headache so I take a couple of acetaminophen to help deal with that.

I have to get back to the hospital in a couple of hours for a CT scan of my right femur and cervical spine area. My orthopaedic surgeon wants to check my cervical spine for any changes in my degenerative disk disease and arthritis, my other nemeses. He also wants to determine if the excavators in my femur are in any danger of breaking through the bone or not. I’ve been experiencing more pain in the area lately and he wants to stay on top of that. Good for him. I like his attitude.

Enough for now.

26 Interesting Days

Bortozomib Blues

Well, it’s Monday morning around ten o’clock. The last four or five days have been really interesting. Last Thursday I went to the hospital for my weekly injection of bortozemib, the proteasome inhibitor that I take along with my chemo meds and dexamethasone. My bortozemib injections have always left a type of raised, red rash at the injection site on my belly. To try to alleviate the itching and swelling I took fifty mg of Benadryl to try to counteract the rash and swelling caused by the bortozemib. We also applied Benadryl cream to the injection site. The rash doesn’t hurt per se, but it’s super itchy and I feel like I need to reach down inside of the injection site to scratch my insides. It’s very annoying. Probably more important, though, is staying on this course of treatment. We had to stop a previous attempt at treatment with another chemo cocktail because the injections of the drug I was getting during that treatment were causing a huge rash, fiery red and raised, covering most of my midsection. This time I wanted to keep the rash under control so I could carry on with this chemo cocktail.

This past Thursday, the oncology nurses looked at the rash I was getting from my injections (which seemed to be getting worse week by week) and decided to bring in a doctor to see if there was anything we could do to mitigate it. After some consultation, they decided to inject the bortozemib into my right arm instead of my belly. Along with that strategy, they recommended taking more Benadryl. Well, I can say that the strategy was a success as far as the action at the injection site is concerned. There is way less irritation, rash, and swelling at the injection site in my arm than in my tummy. Today, five days after the injection, the irritation is minimal. However, now I had to deal with the effects of increased doses of Benadryl.

I didn’t think I could sleep that many hours straight. Last Friday I was more or less fine during the day and into the evening. We even went out for an hour or so late in the afternoon. Later, at around eight o’clock in the evening, I took fifty milligrams of Benadryl to try to really hit the rash before it got going. Well, that worked. Even though the dexamethasone usually keeps me awake all night, this night was different and I slept all night. In the morning I took some more Benadryl and was less than alert after that. In fact, I was pretty much stoned the whole day. Remember, I’m taking hydromorphone, a synthetic opioid, for pain already. Stacking Benadryl on top of that left me incapable of much of anything, especially clear thinking. Reading and writing were beyond me. Saturday night I went to bed around eight o’clock, fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow and stayed that way until seven-thirty on Sunday morning except for a couple of pee breaks. Even then, I was still semi-stoned. Sunday was a day of backing off the Benadryl! We found that the swelling and the rash around my injection site on my arm were not too bad. We applied some ice and that helped calm down the swelling too. Today, the itch is pretty much gone. I’m pretty happy about that.

So, the moral of the story seems to be that I have to get stoned to mitigate the swelling and rash that are caused by the bortozemib. Oh well, if that’s the price I have to pay, so be it.

Lab Work

Today was one of my regular lab days. I have standing requisitions at the lab every two weeks for one set of tests, once a month for another set, and once every three months for a set ordered by my kidney specialist. The techs are getting to know me at the lab in Cumberland. Today I gave up five vials of blood and a container of urine. Later today I’ll be able to access the results of some of the tests online via MyHealth. I’ll do that and carry on here then.

Okay, so it’s five o’clock and I checked my lab results. The few results that are in point to numbers back within reference ranges or in very positive, normalizing trends. Works for me.

Thursday will be another interesting day. We’ll be going to Campbell River Hospital to get my right femur x-rayed and for a consultation with the orthopaedic surgeon. I’m kind of worried about the excavations in my femur. I’m hoping the chemo and the zoledronic acid have done something to stabilize my bone marrow over the past couple of months. We’ll know more next week.

20 Calm down!

The piece of music posted here below came to my attention when one of my FB buddies, Ed Brooks, posted a link to it. It’s available on YouTube along with a lot of other fabulous and calming music by Arvo Pärt and others.

Yesterday was an especially challenging day for me and I was right bent out of shape because I felt so helpless and weak, totally exhausted, not being able to help Carolyn with the snow shovelling and needing to go to the hospital. At the end of the day yesterday I listened to this piece of music and it almost brought me to tears. I listened to it again as I lay in bed getting ready to fall asleep and it was like a lullaby. I actually fell asleep listening to it. I woke up later and played it again.

Today, I’m better. We went to the lab this morning for more bloodwork and that was fine. It’s bloody cold in Cumberland this morning and we have another snow warning in the forecast. Whatever. We can use the truck to get around until the end of next week. We were supposed to take it in Tuesday to get some body work on it, but Carolyn called the autobody shop and changed the appointment until Friday. I hope that delay will allow us to get the car out of the yard or at least at the bottom of our fifty metre driveway.

We see my Victoria based oncologist, Adrian Yee, on Tuesday via teleconference from a ‘studio’ at the Comox Valley hospital. Remote examination! At least I get to talk to him and discuss my progress. Like I said, I’m feeling better. I’ll know I’m really better when I can get down to my shop or studio and finish a painting or carve some wood. Today I’ll do some drawing. That’s a start, at least.

Have a good day all of you and count your blessings!

19 Fuck cancer!

Fuck Cancer mugs

[WARNING: this post contains references to visualizations some might consider offensive, and I regress to being a potty-mouth. Be forewarned.]

I’m not feeling particularly creative, effusive or positive today. In fact, I’m feeling hard done by, angry and unhappy. Hence the title of this post. In fact, I’m feeling fucking crappy, as crappy as ever, or even more so, because for the last three weeks or so I’ve had a cold to compound the effects of my myeloma and the chemo meds I’m taking. Most of the time all I’ve been able to do is sleep, or stare out the windows.

We just came back from the hospital an hour or so ago. Carolyn had to shovel huge piles of snow blocking our driveway and covering our truck just to get us there. Carolyn is my warrior! At the hospital, I got an injection of bortezomib (a proteasome inhibitor) into my abdomen and an infusion of zoledronic acid (a bone strengthening drug that has not-so-fun consequences for my kidney). They gave me 4 grams of zoledronic acid rather than the 3.5 I got last time. I have no idea why. They have a complex formula for deciding how much to give me including my weight and my lab results. Now, I’m just waiting for the chemo meds to kick the shit out of me as they surely will. At least dexamethasone gives me a bit of a boost of energy allowing me to carve a few words onto this ‘page’ out of my weary brain. The sculpture I’m carving I don’t feel is particularly elegant or fine, but my tools are dull so it’s what you get.

Do you like the mugs? Carolyn had them made by a very talented potter in the Valley who had previously made a set of mugs we bought from her that resemble these a lot except for the swear words.

Yeah, fuck cancer! I’m so sick and tired of being sick and tired! And now, to compound my shit, I have to worry about peripheral neuropathy. [I have complained about this before, but read about it again for fun.] I’ve had peripheral neuropathy for some time, many years actually. Peripheral neuropathy (PN) is a condition where the peripheral body parts, arms and legs to be precise, get to feeling numb, painful, and full of weird sensations like having bugs crawling all over them (something I’m feeling a lot at the moment). One of the side effects of the cocktail of chemo meds I’m taking is peripheral neuropathy. Left untreated it can lead to immobility, loss of sensation and life in a wheelchair. This is one of the nasty side effects of my meds, one that has forced a friend of mine who also has myeloma off this particular cocktail that’s often referred to as CyBorD. I’ve written about this before. I have to keep a close watch to determine whether or not the symptoms of PN are getting worse or not. It’s just one more thing to keep my mind occupied with my illness. Fuck cancer!

Did I say Fuck Cancer? Right, I did. And I mean it. I’m not sure what else I would prefer to die from, but cancer is not the companion I would have wished for on my way to the crematorium. Maybe a six-ton weight falling from the sky onto my head would be preferable, I don’t know. I have no way to assess the quality of various means of dying nor the means of communicating the results of any research I might do on the subject to you after the fact.

I may have already written about this…remember that brain fog is a classic side effect of anemia and myeloma, repetitiousness and forgetfulness probably are too… I read somewhere that an artist was asked if he wanted to be cremated or buried after he died. Instead of answering as you or I might he replied: “Surprise me!” Yeah, that’s the way I feel about it. I won’t be around to give a shit one way or another, but I have said I want to be cremated. I have had too many nasty dreams about being buried to want that as an option. Now, though, I’m starting to have moments when I visualize the crematorium attendant pushing my body into the furnace and my skin starting to cook like a pig on a spit as the fire gets hotter and hotter. I know, it’s gross and morbid. Sorry for bringing it up.

So, to change the subject, I’ve had a few moments of lucidity lately between bouts of feeling really nasty because of this cold, and I’m reading (in bed) about my ancestors here in Canada. My family goes back a long way as immigrants to Canada, back to early in the 18th Century actually on both my maternal and paternal sides. I’m finding out that my Norman ancestors called LeGuerrier (the warrior in French) were very likely actual warriors. A thousand years ago the Normans were highly trained and fierce warriors. They not only conquered England in 1066, but (I’ve just read) also became rulers in Sicily after they were invited there to help deal with an enemy. According to a book I’m reading they were often called on as mercenaries. One of the Norman rulers in Sicily was called Roger. His son Roger II took over after Roger I died and he was not known for his tender generosity. Roger that! In any case, the first Leguerrier in Canada can be traced back to 1748. He came earlier than that, but that date is the first mention of him in ‘the books’. He died a fairly old man. Infant mortality was very common then but so was death at any age. From what I’ve been reading living to reproductive age almost seems to have been the exception rather than the rule. These days I’m thinking about my ancestors, their lives and their deaths, and my place in the lineage. My grandpa Leguerrier died at the age of 76 in 1975 from stomach cancer if I remember correctly. My father died in 2007 at 96 years of age. We all come and go. Some of us live longer that others of the same generation but in the case of my grandpa Leguerrier and my father who were only fourteen years apart in age, I think I prefer to follow my grandpa’s lead because my father died after years of very poor quality of life, unable to feed himself because his hands were so distorted by arthritis. He was deaf, had been for years, and he was either in bed or in a wheelchair. To make matters worse, my mother had severe dementia and didn’t even recognize him on his deathbed. She was heard to point to him and say: “Who is that old man in the bed there anyway?” My mother died two years ago at 94 years of age. I can’t imagine she knew she was dying at the time. I’m not sure she knew that she was alive. Hey, wait a minute…