Happy New Year (sort of)!

The conventional thing to do at this time of year is to reminisce about events of the past year and pick out highlights and possibly low lights, in this case, of 2021. Well, I would do that except that my brain is quite mushy right now. I’m not sure why. It may be the chemo meds. They have a variety of side effects that vary from week to week. This week my meds may have decided to afflict me with a sludgy brain to go along with my barely functioning legs. 

Then there’s the fact that 2021 was, to be charitable, less than a stellar year. Chemotherapy and monoclonal antibody infusions every four weeks for a morning at the hospital can put a damper on life. Part of the problem with the chemotherapy pills I take every day is that I experience a surprising range of side effects. While all this goes on, I have a lot of difficulty writing. I can’t seem to hold onto an idea or a train of thought for any length of time. I’ve tried to put together a couple of blog posts over the past three weeks, but they’ve turned out resembling alphabet soup rather than carefully crafted narratives. Right now, I seem to be experiencing a slight window of lucidity, but that may just be self-delusion on my part. I have no idea how long this window will be open. You be the judge. 

Today is January 1st, 2022. The first day of the year is supposed to be infused with positive thoughts, merriment, and optimism. I guess saying that 2022 will not be the year that I die qualifies as optimism, or maybe reckless self-delusion. I turn 75 years old in a few days. I know I’ve written it before on this blog, but I say it again: How in the hell did that happen? It seems to me that I was forty years old yesterday. Now seventy-five? WTF. Following Barbara Ehrenreich (who is my age) I have noted in the past that I’m old enough to die. That’s true, but still, I have confidence that people will not have to publish an obituary about me in 2022. 

My memory has gone for a crap. I don’t have dementia, that’s for sure. But still, I guess that’s to be expected of a person my age. I retired from twenty-nine years of teaching at North Island College in 2012, but I had been teaching in the Lower Mainland since 1976. Since my retirement, I have somehow mislaid recollection of so many things. I do have this blog to jog my memory. I started it in late 2012 and have produced over 300 posts since then. That’s a lot of bits and bytes engraved somewhere in a computer hard drive or on the cloud, whatever and wherever that is. I think that the number of words I’ve clicked out probably amounts to at least a five-hundred-page book. I know that since my cancer diagnosis in the fall of 2019 I’ve put together the equivalent of a three-hundred-page book chronicling my experience with myeloma, its side effects, and chemotherapy with its side effects. Now, I’m not sure what I’ll do with this blog. Unfortunately, I have very little energy to do much of anything physical. The oncologists in my life are very reluctant to tell patients what to expect of a life with cancer, especially one like myeloma. Gawande is clear on that:

“Studies find that although doctors usually tell patients when a cancer is not curable, most are reluctant to give a specific prognosis, even when pressed. More than 40 percent of oncologists admit to offering treatments that they believe are unlikely to work. In an era in which the relationship between patient and doctor is increasingly miscast in retail terms — “the customer is always right”—doctors are especially hesitant to trample on a patient’s expectations. You worry far more about being overly pessimistic than you do about being overly optimistic. And talking about dying is enormously fraught.” (from “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande)

I have found that with old age and a crumbling infrastructure, and as I note above, a lot of physical activity is out of the question. Coming to terms with that reality is very difficult, I can tell you.  Carolyn and I have done some camping over the years since our retirement. Sometimes we were accompanied by family. Most often we were out there by ourselves. We spent most of our time camping in Strathcona Park. I hope to be able to go camping again, but I don’t have a lot of strength and energy. That’s something I have to work on so that I can DO STUFF this coming spring and summer. 

Now, I don’t have to think about physical activity. We have a blizzard outside and snow 50 centimeters thick. So, I read. I have five books on the go right now. I’ll discuss them soon in a post!

Time For Celebration

[I wrote this (slightly edited) post in 2017, a couple of years before I was diagnosed with myeloma. Time is a subject that has been on my mind for a very long time. I wrote my dissertation about the work of Harold Adams Innis (1894-1952). He was very much preoccupied with time and wrote extensively about it late in his career (and life it turns out). So have been hundreds of other philosophers, social theorists, physicists, biologists, etcetera. We think about time on many levels of analysis, from cosmic time to microseconds in productive processes. We think about it in social as well as personal terms. We are especially concerned with it when it begins to run out. Read on]

How do you experience the passage of time?

Time is a big subject and has been the focus of many philosophical and scientific ponderings and is, of course, a major preoccupation of the world’s religions and cultures. There is also the individual, institutional and cultural projects around time and its importance to our lives. We mark (as distinguished from experience) time in many ways. We use clocks and calendars. (The Maya had two calendars, that’s how important time was to them.) We carefully note the passage of the seasons with special celebrations, and we celebrate our birth days every year. We don’t celebrate the day we die, of course, we let others do that in the form of wakes, funerals, and these days, celebrations of life because we are no longer in any shape to celebrate anything ourselves.  We ask: “What time is it?” and we expect to get an answer: “Why, it’s two thirty in the afternoon.” We don’t expect “the anthropocene” as an answer although it would be technically correct.

But this blog post is not about any of this. It’s about how we experience time. In many ways, time and life are synonymous. As individuals we need to be conscious to experience time. In our dreams time is irrelevant or, at least, it can take on bizarre aspects, but we aren’t aware of that until we wake up and can reflect on our dream and its bizarre depiction of time. Writers, novelists in particular, distort time as a regular practice.

We experience time as past, present, and future although we live only in the present. The past and future are cultural constructs that have only the reality we give them. Our memories and our recollections of events are highly selective. There is no such thing as an objective past. We select events, actions, people, names, places, etc. and construct a cognitive map of them into a coherent picture, a picture that is congruent with our life as we experience it and build a store of impressions by which we then judge our actions and those of others. Recall is impressionistic, not realistic. It deceives us all the time as we ‘fit’ the past into our current views of things. 

We are most often not even aware that that’s what we’re doing. We drive, we brush our teeth, we pay taxes, we get on airplanes, we go to libraries, we bank, we vote and most often we don’t question these actions or even consider them a part of a consistent set of habits of life and thought that we learn from others as we live out our lives in networks of interdependencies. As Norbert Elias argues we are less individuals than interdependencies and interweavings. Our daily thoughts and desires, as they join collectively to express themselves as consciousness, make us more Borg than anything. Magically, however, we learn to believe that we control all aspects of our lives as individuals and sadly, people who have shitty lives can only blame themselves for that. That’s the classical economic view of things. Classical economics, according to Thorstein Veblen, uses what he calls the hedonistic calculus to describe how we make decisions in our lives. For him, classical economists (and I would add more contemporary trickle-down ones like Milton Friedman) think of us as ‘globules of desire’ who everywhere seek to maximize pleasure and avoid pain. Of course, life just doesn’t work that way. We do not judge every situation or opportunity we encounter in life as a calculation of pleasure or pain. There are numerous capacities and propensities we bring to our daily lives that have everything to do with the need to delay pleasure, accept pain or make decisions clearly not in our own interests. 

We interpret the past, the present and the future based on our ideologically constructed maps of how the world works. And, boy, do we love our maps. We hang on to them for dear life. Those ideas we cherish, those beliefs we idealize are created in a cauldron of the past, a past we had no hand in making and that starts presenting itself to us the moment we drop out of the womb. Of course, the ideas we pick up early in life we often reject later as we join more and more interdependencies and interweavings, some of which will have more appeal and relevance as the world changes around and in us. 

Christians and adherents to many other religions accept time as a concept, but deny its existence after death when, for them, eternal life kicks in. How could we experience time in a state of eternity? Time is change. What would happen in a place of eternity? I’m no theologian, but I’d be curious as to how a theologian would deal with the question of time in eternity.

Merry Christmas, all, and Happy New Year. 

18 Looking in the Mirror.

[This is a reprint of a post I wrote in January of 2020. I reproduce it here in honour of Elizabeth (Bunny) Shannon who was especially drawn to it. Bunny died of cancer last month. She was a friend and an extraordinary person. I am privileged to have known her]

When I look in the mirror I see an old man. I don’t see an old man with cancer. I just see an old man with a white beard, not much hair, and wrinkly skin. Melanoma (skin cancer) often leaves visible, sometimes unsightly and disfiguring lesions. I don’t have melanoma, although my father did. No, I have myeloma (bone marrow cancer) and its damage is all done on the inside, invisibly. So, I guess I can keep expecting people who see me say: “Wow, you’re looking good!” I guess I DO look good! Now, the last thing I want is to discourage people from telling me how good I look, so keep it up! However, the invisibility of my condition is deceiving. I remember when I was a kid my friends and I used to work on our cars. That was still possible when I was a kid. Often we’d stand around looking into the engine compartment (often of my 1956 Pontiac four-door hardtop) wondering what could possibly be wrong as if just staring at the engine would give us some kind of clue. The engine was always sparkly clean and there was nothing obviously gone awry. If I had money by some quirk of circumstance I might take the car to a mechanic. If not, we might borrow my dad’s tools and start taking things apart. That usually ended up badly. Yes, the most undesirable conditions in life are often on the inside, impossible to see or diagnose by just looking at the person or car in question. I find it best to consult mechanics when our car shows signs of disfunction. I find it best to consult medical specialists for treatment related to my body. I guess I could try to treat myself using any number of the ‘cures’ available on Dr. Google, but I would like to live a while longer, thanks. Besides, I’m not that desperate.

Speaking of medical specialists, we saw my local oncologist today. I see him every five weeks. The result of our visit is that I will carry on with a second course of chemotherapy. We’ll evaluate how well it went in five weeks. My first course of treatment seems to have gone as well as could be expected. The little excavator in my bone marrow is slowly running out of gas and my red blood cell garden is growing again. I’m still exhausted and that won’t change for some time yet, but things are certainly going in the right direction for now. I think I just might be a model patient. So, where does this all leave me?

Well, I may be on my way towards remission. If and when I do go into remission, and that’s by no means guaranteed at this point, that would buy me some time. By that I mean that I may have a few years more to live, though inevitably, either the myeloma will kill me or some other condition will. I won’t be walking away from this situation, brush the dust from my sleeves and carry on. No, I’m on a one way street. So are you, of course, but I can see that damned barrier at the end of the street. I’m hoping that you’re still far enough away from it that you can live in blissful denial for a while longer. I don’t have that luxury. So now what do I do with my life?

That question came up in a recent Facebook thread, albeit expressed in a different way, but with the same effect, I believe. The question comes down to this: If you knew that you had a given amount of time left to live (six months, two years, whatever), what would you do with your time? Would you to be seized by an overwhelming sense of urgency? Would you be determined to cram as much activity and experience into your remaining time as possible? Or would you curl up in a fetal position in a corner of your bedroom quivering and whimpering while you await your inevitable demise? If you have the money and the energy you might want to get out there and travel the world. If you have a spouse, that might complicate things more or less because they may not want the same things you do and may not want to get caught up in your sense of urgency. The last thing you need when facing terminal cancer is marital discord. I think there’s a lot to be said for just carrying on with life as before.

If you have the energy and the money then good on ya. If you travelled a lot before your diagnosis then travel after. Your eventual energy deficits will tell you when to stop. If you were fairly sedentary, more into being at home and puttering around the yard, then that would be something you might want to continue doing. The stress of travel may not be that good for you. Looking around the Cancer Centre at the North Island Hospital this morning I didn’t see a lot of people with obvious enough vigour to engage in a lot of physical activity. In any case, back to my situation.

My exhaustion prevents me from doing much in the way of physical activity. If I do go for a walk I pay for it later. Travelling is impossible. At one point I thought it might be possible, say, to take a direct flight to Puerto Vallarta back and forth from Comox, but there are a number of contingencies that make that next to impossible that have more to do with arthritis and disk degeneration than cancer. Besides, I take chemo drugs once a week orally but also by injection at the hospital. For three or four days after I take my meds I feel crappy, really crappy so the chances of enjoying myself on a beach somewhere are slim to none.

So what do I want to do, and what do I actually do? Well, I want to work on our canoe, finish some paintings, do odd jobs around the property and visit family and friends in Vancouver and further afield. What I actually do is sit and lie down a lot. As I sit and lie down, I read, and sometimes I even write. At the moment I’m reading social history around the Middle Ages and doing a bit of research on my family roots in Normandy. That’s something I would have done anyway, but I do miss working in my shop and studio and going for long walks with Carolyn and our imaginary dog. My oncologist thinks I will regain my energy, at least as much as an old man can expect. If so, that would be great. I’d love to get back to canoeing, camping and puttering.

When I get closer to dying I will know it, and I expect I will have time to think about it, but there really isn’t much thinking that is productive about dying, at least not for me. I’ll know when it’s time for palliative care. I don’t want to live as long as the oncologists might want to keep me alive. I’ll make the decision when the time comes. I don’t think it will be a really hard decision. I know that beginnings are impossible without endings. My ending is a lot closer now than my beginning! That’s fine. Frankly, I’m much more concerned with my family than I am with myself. They are the ones left behind to mourn. But both of my parents are dead and we got on with life after their deaths. My family will do the same when I’m gone. That’s what we do as humans. Like it or not, accept it or not, rage against it or cower in a dark corner, the end result is the same. Don’t sweat it.

Trials and Tribulations

[Feeling a little disjointed today…]

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ll know that it’s all about me and my trials and tribulations around my experience with myeloma, old age, medicine, chemotherapy, and its side effects. Of course, I’m not completely self-absorbed, just mostly so. To be honest, it’s been a bit difficult to focus on anything else. Myeloma and its effects have taken over my (and my family’s) life. The pandemic hasn’t helped either. Both myeloma and the pandemic have severely restricted any social activity in which I used to take great pleasure. Driving is a challenge but not impossible. My neck seems to be getting somewhat better after the dexamethasone injection in my neck about six weeks ago. Now I fear that my time with Daratumumab may be coming to an end. I don’t know that for sure, but the neuropathy in my left hand is getting quite bad. Increased peripheral neuropathy is a side effect of Daratumumab and may be a signal that my body is rejecting the Dara. I talk to an oncologist in Victoria next month and we’ll certainly talk about my chemo treatments. On top of that I have a tooth that is dying if not completely dead. The endodontist I saw about that says I need a root canal and I should be on antibiotics for a bacterial infection just below that tooth. To be on antibiotics I probably need to cease chemotherapy treatments for a time. That’s another thing I need to talk to the oncologist about. So it goes. 

By the way, I’ve just finished reading The Cancer Code (2020) by Dr. Jason Fung. Aside from being a practicing nephrologist in Toronto, Fung is a prolific writer. This book on cancer is fine although Fung focusses on tumor-based cancers and mentions myeloma only in passing. I quite like his analysis and where he ends up suggesting that cancer is subject to evolution and natural selection like any organism. He argues that in the past cancer was seen as a mistake, then as a somatic mutation, but he writes: 

“Cancer had always been considered a single genetic clone, so evolutionary processes were considered irrelevant. But the realization that cancers evolve was electrifying. For the first time in decades, we had a new understanding of how cancer develops. The entire field of science known as evolutionary biology could now be applied to understand and explain why cancer develops mutations.” (from “The Cancer Code: A Revolutionary New Understanding of a Medical Mystery (The Wellness Code Book 3)” by Dr. Jason Fung)

Daratumumab is a monoclonal antibody. It worked well for a time. I hope it works for a while longer, but it is destined to fail when it no longer responds to myeloma’s mutations. He notes that cancer cells act like prokaryotes or single-celled organisms and not like eukaryotes or multi-celled organisms. According to Fung, we are on the cusp of a major paradigm shift in cancer treatment, but it will be expensive. What do we do about that? 

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Just to remind myself that I’m still a sociologist, I’ve spent quite a bit of time lately reading and watching MSNBC, CNN, The Guardian, NPR, BBC, Al Jazeera, Ring of Fire, Beau of the Fifth Column, and other newsy YouTube videos. I check out some Canadian content, but the elephant next door is far more compelling than Trudeau’s antics or O’Toole’s foibles. I’ll come back to the US below, but before I go there, I just want to say that I’m reading a book by David Graeber and David Wengren published just last year called The Dawn of Everything. The book challenges everything we know about the “Western” version of history and is a refreshing read. For one thing it sheds value on indigenous ideas and ways of seeing as providing the real challenges to the philosophers (Locke, Hume, Hobbes, etc.) of the Enlightenment, Rousseau, and other incipient lefties. The authors reject the idea that indigenous peoples were the child-like innocents they are often portrayed as by European travellers and colonizers. They also challenge the idea that things can’t change, that we’re stuck with large scale, ridiculous, bloated states. Unfortunately, Graeber died on September 2nd, 2020, three weeks after this book was released. He was fifty-nine years old. That hardly seems fair.

I don’t know how many of you are interested in American politics. It can be a nasty, grubby place at times and unless you are steeled against media biases and distortions of reality, you might be left with all kinds of strange ideas about what’s really going on to the south of us. One thing is for certain, I’m getting just a little perturbed at the ignorance and stupidity of some American politicians in Congress who shout “socialism” every time Biden and the Democrats dare spend a dime on regular, run-of-the-mill citizens or on infrastructure. They want all the cash to go to the 1%. I’m still not sure how that benefits them personally unless they believe Milton Friedman’s ridiculous trickle-down theory by which if regular people as taxpayers give billionaires all the money that some of it will trickle down to them. That is such a bullshit theory. The proof of that is that it’s never worked and the concentration of wealth in the über-wealthy is clear evidence of that. 

Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Josh Hawley, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Jim Jordan, and their ilk in the Republican Party and sitting members of Congress obviously haven’t a clue what socialism is, or, if they do, they are being disingenuous about it. The truth is that it may be some of both. For these clowns, any money spent on bridges, highways, city roads, the electrical grid, wastewater systems, potable water, etcetera, is evidence of socialism. So stupid. They take the notion of individual initiative and investment to the extreme. But, of course, they just want to get re-elected and making outrageously false statements is the name of the game. They can always be retracted later when nobody is paying attention.  

I’d say that I follow American Congressional politics as entertainment, but it’s not funny. There is a fairly serious challenge to the status quo there from a far-right racist Republican cabal and some people seem to want to continue the Civil War of the early 1860s. I do take some comfort in the fact that there are over 300,000,000 people in the United States and that would be a hard ship to turn around. I have a lot more to say about the US, supply chains, the wane of capitalism, the rise of oligarchy (which is already close to the surface), and history. Stay tuned. 

I strongly recommend reading Heather Cox Richardson on Facebook. You’ll get a well-researched commentary on American politics from a classy historian. Check her out.

Lassitude

Yes, lassitude, which the dictionary that Apple so kindly provides for us as part of the operating system on my computer defines as: “a state of physical or mental weariness; lack of energy.” That about sums it up. 

I know my expectations for myself are way out of whack. I keep forgetting the basic realities of my life: I’m almost seventy-five years old, I have a slow acting, but debilitating cancer and chemotherapy designed to fight said cancer that has side effects I’ve already discussed on this blog at nauseum. No need to flog a dead horse (as they say). I also have some neck issues that most people of my age get but that don’t afflict all of us in this demographic with pain. We won’t talk about arthritis now, shall we? 

So, I’m tired and generally not feeling that great. What should I expect? Duh! 

The past month has been especially unpleasant. My computer tells me that I’ve spent about nine hours a day of screen time. That seems about right. I’ve watched a lot of YouTube videos on everything from sailing to boat building, to prospecting, art, art history, lumber manufacturing, bushcraft, the La Palma volcano, people living alone in off-grid cabins, American Congressional politics, and more. Nine hours a day. It’s true that I also read quite a few articles from The Guardian, The Tyee, NPR, the CBC, and lots of internet-based news sources. And I’ve written a bit too. Still, I do a lot of sitting in my recliner, staring at my computer screen. I often think about things I could be doing like drawing, painting, woodwork, etcetera. Sometimes I do these things, generally followed by increased pain in my back and legs. That doesn’t encourage me to do more things. In fact, it actively discourages me from doing things. So, I go back to my recliner for another few hours. This pattern seems to be my fate now. I’m not sure I can do anything about it either.

Today is Sunday and this week is my chemo week. This is the fourth week in my monthly cycle and for the fourth week I don’t take lenalidomide, a drug I would normally take daily. On Thursday I take dexamethasone, valacyclovir, montelukast, and get one and a half hour of a Daratumumab infusion. That’s all no big deal. However, the effects of these meds will leave me feeling like I’ve got the flu for at least a week after. 

Tomorrow, I have to go to the lab for blood tests. So, VIHA has now closed all satellite labs in the Valley leaving only the lab at the hospital. There used to be three satellite labs, one in Cumberland, one in Courtenay, and one at St-Joseph’s hospital. All gone now. Apparently, VIHA can’t find enough staff. There are no appointments to be had either for tomorrow, and I need lab results tomorrow to be able to get my infusion on Thursday. I may spend the better part of the day tomorrow at the hospital waiting to get my blood tested. That will not put a smile on my face. But, we’ll see. I’ll report back on my next post.

Do I sound like I’m complaining and whining? Well, I am.

Slowly Falling Apart

For this post, I decided to create a collage of quotes and commentaries from books I’ve been reading lately. They range from comments on death and dying to philosophy, culture, and the future. So far in this blog, I’ve refrained from commenting on American Congressional politics, but I just may go there soon. I told my sociology students year after year throughout my college teaching career that the American empire would fall, as all empires fall, not from external conquest but from implosion due to unresolved, long standing conflict. The American empire, specifically, will fall because of commodity production that depends on longer and more complex supply chains and failing profits. America is falling on its own sword of profits. Supply chains and economic processing zones in a plethora of ‘developing’ parts of the world have been an issue for decades while only recently making it onto mainstream media commentary and news. I’ll explain in a future post.

US politics has to wait. It’s a mess down there but it’s a mess everywhere on the planet at the moment. Let’s move on.

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Robert Sapolsky is one of my all-time favourite guys. He has a number of his Stanford University lectures on YouTube. He’s a neuroscientist who specializes in stress. He worked in the field for many years with Olive baboons in Africa. I have a video in which his work with the baboons is featured. On the topic of the human condition he writes:

“we are now living well enough and long enough to slowly fall apart. The diseases that plague us now are ones of slow accumulation of damage—heart disease, cancer, cerebrovascular disorders.” (from “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping (Third Edition)” by Robert M. Sapolsky)

Now, ain’t that the truth! If you check out Stats Canada’s vital statistics you’ll find out that cancer is the leading cause of death in Canada. Actually, life is the leading cause of death everywhere, but as far as the observable evidence of bodily decay and death goes, cancer is determined to be the immediate major causes. Writing this makes me want to go back and binge watch Sapolsky on YouTube. Not only does he have a lot to say, but he says it in such an engaging way that binge watching is entirely feasible. I’ll be sharing more from Sapolsky later, but now on to another very different writer.

This is a quote from another book I’m reading that I want to share with you. Talk about falling apart! Robinson is a contemporary novelist writing in the sci-fi genre with dystopian tinges. He writes:

“Say the order of your time feels unjust and unsustainable and yet massively entrenched, but also falling apart before your eyes. The obvious contradictions in this list might yet still describe the feeling of your time quite accurately, if we are not mistaken. Or put it this way; it feels that way to us. But a little contemplation of history will reveal that this feeling too will not last for long. Unless of course the feeling of things falling apart is itself massively entrenched, to the point of being the eternal or eternally recurrent individual human’s reaction to history. Which may just mean the reinscription of the biological onto the historical, for we are all definitely always falling apart, and not massively entrenched in anything at all. 31 India” (from “The Ministry for the Future: A Novel” by Kim Stanley Robinson)

Most of this quote will be difficult for you to fathom because it’s out of context. It’s the last sentence that really matters. To help you out a little with the context of this quote, the ‘order of your time’, in the first sentence means that in the course of your life you feel out of control. You can’t go back, you can’t stay still. You can only go forward towards your death. This applies not only to us as biological entities but also to our cultural and social constructs which also are bound to come and go in a generally disorderly way. We cannot be ‘massively entrenched’ in life because daily existence makes a lie of any attempt to avoid moving toward death.

Now, more from Robinson in another of his sci-fi novels set far from Earth on a ship and a moon.

“Existential nausea comes from feeling trapped. It is an affect state resulting from the feeling that the future has only bad options. Of course every human faces the fact of individual death, and therefore existential nausea must be to a certain extent a universal experience, and something that must be dealt with by one mental strategy or another. Most people appear to learn to ignore it, as if it were some low chronic pain that has to be endured. Here in this meeting, it began to become clear, for many of those present, that extinction lay at the end of all their possible paths. This was not the same as individual death, but was instead something both more abstract and more profound.” (from “Aurora” by Kim Stanley Robinson)

Robinson is not a great writer in terms of composition, but he is a very perceptive commentator on the human condition. His novels are all about the fragility of humanity in the face of evolution and death, both on an individual and social level. Death denial is a consistent theme in human history and as a goal, has engendered a mass of immortality tales with “supernatural” characters as diverse as Zeus, Jesus, Shiva and a mess of lesser gods. These characters are our heroes who will save us from death if only we believe in them. But then we come face to face with evolution and biology which care not a wit whether we believe in them or not, and which just carry on.

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So, what about falling apart?

It’s clear that average death rates have risen consistently over the decades on the planet although in the US they’ve been falling for some demographics. Falling or not, on average we live well into our seventies. In fact, Stats Can tells me that if I live to be seventy-four I can expect to live another fourteen years. These are average life expectancies, of course. Millenia ago, living to thirty-seven years of age was considered average. People died of things then we seldom die of these days (such as appendicitis).

Sapolsky understands that the longer we live the more things can go wrong in our bodies. That’s self-evident the longer we live. If we get injured while young we can expect to heal and then just get on with things. As we (I) get older the healing process slows down.

There are a few very fortunate people, especially in the world’s richest parts, who suffer very little as they get old. I don’t think I know any of those people (well, maybe one or two). That said, there is an inevitable decline in capacity as we age. That doesn’t mean we should stop living and simply prepare for death because we know it’s going to happen. For me, I have much reduced capacity. At seventy-four I have maybe a quarter of the capacity I had at fifty. But a quarter is better than nothing. I still have shit to do! I’m falling apart, yes. In fact, I can’t fall much farther, but that’s fine, I still have a way to go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dexamethasone for the Win!

Last post I more or less said that I would not write about pain anymore. Well, that’s not really practical if I want to write about my life so that idea is out the window. Lately pain has been my life. It’s dominated everything that I do and don’t do (because of it). So, away we go.

Along with the general pain in my legs and back from the chemo treatments I get, I have serious neck issues that are fairly common in older people, that is, vertebrae that collapse or the passages in the spine shrink (stenosis). For all of you young’uns out there, this is your future. However, most people don’t have pain to accompany these age-related changes. I just happen to be one of the lucky ones to get excruciating pain in my neck that includes cramps and a low-grade throbbing pain. Most of this I can handle. The cramps require immediate attention much like a charley-horse in the leg muscles. I often wear a neck brace to keep my neck from moving too much and inducing the cramps. In fact, I’ve just put one on because looking down on my keyboard is a sure way of bringing on a cramp.

I’ve been exasperated with my neck pain because it severely limits my mobility and I want to do some painting, drawing, and boat work. As soon as I look down for any length of time, I get a cramp and that really cramps my style, if you know what I mean. So, I called my GP. He, I’m sure being sick and tired of me complaining about pain referred me to the Pain Clinic at the hospital in Nanaimo. They called me from the clinic surprisingly quickly and we set up a telephone appointment with Dr. Pariser, one of the doctors who works at the clinic. We decided on a procedure. It would take place on October 6th, yesterday. All that was left was the waiting.

Carolyn drove me down to Nanaimo yesterday morning when I got to see Dr. Pariser. We decided on a treatment that’s been around for a long time and that works fifty percent of the time and only after a month following the procedure. It (the procedure) involves injecting a steroid in the spinal cord to deaden the pain. It’s clinically referred to as an epidural. Epidurals are sometimes given to women during labour but they are not uncommon for lower back pain.

In my case the steroid was dexamethasone. I’ve often mentioned dexamethasone (dex) in my previous posts because it’s a staple medication of my chemotherapy and it has interesting side effects. I was a bit surprised when Dr. Pariser told me that he would be injecting dex into my neck, but he assured me that there would be no adverse effects from adding this dosage of dex into my mix along with my monthly oral 12 milligrams taken in conjunction with my infusion of Daratumumab at the hospital. Frankly, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of side effects from the dex injection in my neck. It didn’t take long to find out.

Before I tell you about the effects of the dex injection in my neck I want to tell you about another source of pain I’ve had recently that prompted a visit to my dentist. It started innocently enough with a bit of sensitivity in an upper left molar. It has a large crown which has been there for some twenty-five years. X-rays showed a probable need for a root canal. Well, that was fine and dandy, but when could that be scheduled. I was in pain NOW. My dentist was very concerned and referred me to a group of dental specialists in the Valley that specializes in this kind of work. Great. Their office called me and cheerfully informed me that I was booked for an appointment on November 15th. Yahoo! That’s all I needed: a six week wait for a consultation, never mind the procedure. After whining for a bit I got the appointment moved up to October 15th. That was some improvement but still a long way off given the level of pain I was in. I mean, this pain trumped all other pain in my body. It was excruciating, it was relentless.

So, yesterday when we drove to Nanaimo I was still in a lot of pain, but it had attenuated some due to an onslaught of hydromorphone. I take hydromorphone daily in a small dose for pain associated with my multiple myeloma, its side effects and the side effects from the chemo. I take a slow-release dosage morning and night, but I also have a stock of what’s called breakthrough medication for times when the slow-release dosage just doesn’t cut it anymore. Over the last while I used a lot of breakthrough hydromorphone. It has a lot of side effects that I don’t particularly enjoy, like insomnia, but too bad about that. I needed pain relief and damn the torpedos! It’s a good thing I had my breakthrough hydromorphone.

This is where serendipity comes in. I love serendipity. Dex can relieve pain. I had pain in my mouth as well as my neck so what would dex do for my molar pain? Well, I’m pleased to report that the dex pretty much killed the pain in my mouth, at least for now. I don’t expect the pain relief to last a long time, but any relief is welcome. I have the hiccups, a common dex side effect so I know it’s working. Strangely enough, I slept very well last night. Insomnia is also a common side effect, but it’s also a side effect of other meds I’m taking so who knows what’s going on in my body.

As a bit of a side note, if there are scientists reading this, scientists interested in pain and its management, you might want to think about a way of letting others know how much pain we’re in. That wouldn’t have any pain relief effects, but it may increase positively the way most people react to people with chronic pain. I mean, it’s hard to know if someone is in pain or not. People can fake it. There are clues in bodily function and blood work, but not many that show physically. Arthritis can sometimes show clearly in the body. In the last decade of his life, my father’s hands became deformed with arthritis. He was unable to open them, and he kept them clutched against his chest. Maybe, if our pain wasn’t obvious, if our limbs glowed blue or green that would be a clear indication of pain. Whatever. Work on it.

So, in summary, dex was a clear winner for me yesterday and today. I still had a shake (liquid diet) for breakfast today like yesterday rather than my usual granola or toast, but I’ll carry on with that because I really like the shakes Carolyn makes! Besides, I expect my toothache to reappear as the dex wears off. So be it. Pain management is very complex because the pain never stays the same in terms of source or intensity. It’s like playing whack-a-mole, but with no fun involved.

Up, up in the air.

What do I want to do with this blog? The thought crossed my mind that just giving up on it would not be the worst-case scenario. I’ve been at it for a few years now so it wouldn’t be outrageous for me to either quit entirely or maybe just take a break over the summer. Mygawd, I’m not making any money writing it. Lots of bloggers make money on YouTube with their blogs. I don’t, so what’s the point? Maybe I could monetize my blog, attach it to a video log and turn it loose on YouTube. After all, we DO live in a capitalist society. Might work. Probably not. 

The weather has been wonderful lately if you want to lay about on a deck. I sit on the deck close to the rock/fountain and watch the birds come down for a drink. The one in the video here is a female goldfinch we think. She flits around avoiding direct contact with the fountain. It would probably knock her over if she did. 

The wisteria gives them some shelter and protection before they come down to the fountain, but they’re still wary. Smart birds. There are cats prowlin’ around here. Our princess is one of them and she’s a hunter sometimes, mostly mice, but we don’t want to tempt her with birds. She’s being such a brat lately. She seems to have figured out exactly when I’m just about to fall asleep, then she pounces on the bed, meowling like crazy and poking my face with her paw. 

Tilly has been hanging around the pond a lot lately. She patrols the perimeter sniffing around trying to get frogs to abandon their rocks along the shore. I don’t like the way she’s been fixated on frogs lately. She come close but she hasn’t caught any yet. I’d be very pissed off if she did. She spends most of her time under the deck these days where it’s cool. She’s got such a thick black coat she must really suffer in this heat, but she never complains.

Got a call from my Oncology GP this morning. He noted that my bloodwork is coming back from the lab within reference ranges (normal). Tomorrow I go to the hospital for another infusion of Daratumumab. After that, I don’t get another one until the end of August. As of this month, I’m down to once a month for the Dara. I keep taking my regular chemo meds, lenalidomide and dexamethasone, three weeks on, one week off. So, I’m in a weird space where I have no myeloma detectable in my blood, but I’ll be on chemo for the foreseeable future, that is, until the drugs don’t work anymore. At that point they’ll put me on another regime. That means that I must be vigilant around the side-effects of the chemo. It’s not always easy to tell chemo med side-effects from pain med side-effects. 

For an old man, I’m feeling pretty good these days for about fifty percent of the time. I’m sleeping moderately well most of the time, but I have wakeful nights periodically. My neck is what’s tormenting me the most these days. According to my Oncology GP I have OAD (Old Age Disease). I can’t turn my neck more than 3% left or right. Maybe 4%. Makes it hard to do shoulder checks when I’m driving. Of course, I still drive. What are you thinking? I just have to turn my whole body when I do a shoulder check. That’s fine.

Technically, I have degenerative disc syndrome and it’s common among older people. I’m getting a CT scan early next month to confirm the diagnosis. Once I get the scan, I can ask my GP for a referral to someone who might be able to do something for me. That would be good. If I do get some relief, I’ll be able to do more writing, and maybe some sculpting. I’d love to do a bit of printmaking too. Or maybe I could just lie on the couch more comfortably. That would be good.

And the beat goes on…

Yes, it does. Sonny and Cher knew what they were singing about what seems like a lifetime ago now. I don’t know why, but the fact that Sonny died slammed up against a tree on a ski slope in Lake Tahoe the day after my birthday (January 5th) 1998 has my current attention. I guess it’s because his is a good example of a quick, unpredictable, death. Sonny had no time to sweat it. Death just happened to Sonny. No time to ruminate about it. Go Sonny go! I must confess that in some ways I envy Sonny his quick release.

Moving on, in my last post I told you that there was no longer any trace of multiple myeloma in my blood. I’m happy about that, but I must attach a disclaimer to that fact. The multiple myeloma will return. As I’ve repeated over and over, multiple myeloma is incurable although it is treatable. My oncologists have suggested to me that myeloma is a lot like type 2 diabetes in the way that it is treated by the medical profession. 

So, I can reasonably expect to make it to my eightieth birthday, although, frankly, longevity is not the holy grail here. And, of course, the six years from now until my eightieth year are not years owed to me. They are purely hypothetical time, years I might live, and years I might not. Moreover, as far as I know, after I’m dead, I won’t be able to regret anything about my life, how I lived it and for how long. “I” will not be so it’s ridiculous to speculate on what “I” might do after “I” am no longer. After I’m dead, “I” enter my immortality stage. 

I was not going to explore the whole business of mortality in this post, but I changed my mind. Bear with me. I just want to introduce here some ideas that I’ll come back to it in an upcoming post. These are not simple concepts to grasp, but, if you make the effort, it may help you understand life and death as I see them. So, here we go:

Humans are mortal, but only as long as we’re alive. To be blunt about it, it’s only when we are alive that we can die. Once we die, we are no longer mortal, we now become immortal, that is, we no longer change, and we consist only of what others remember of us. Our lives are complete. Simply put, immortal means not mortal. Well, once we’re dead, we are no longer mortal, by definition. We’ve arrived! We’ve become immortal! That doesn’t mean that we will live on forever in some form or other as defined by most of the religions that exist on this planet. No. “We” exist, after our deaths, only in the minds of others. 

My definition of immortality is clearly not the one espoused by most religions. The Abrahamic religions, for example, get around the problem of death by coming up with the idea of the soul. According to Christianity, the soul is the immortal aspect of human existence and is continuous before and after death. The body may return to the planetary store of compounds, atoms, and molecules, but the soul, well, the soul lives on in some kind of ill-defined relationship with a deity, “God” in the case of Christianity.  My definition of immortality does not acknowledge the bicameral nature of the person as consisting of body and soul. I see no evidence for the existence of a soul. Therefore, it does not ‘fit’ into any explanatory scheme I concoct. 

I could go on and on about death and dying as most of you well know, and as I promised I’ll get back to it in a subsequent post, but for now I’ll drop the philosophizing about immortality, death and dying and take up an issue that I’m currently faced with given the fact that we’ve tamed my myeloma. 

A few months ago, while I was still struggling with active myeloma, the pain in my bones was severe, and it was compounded by peripheral neuropathic pain. At that time a priority for me was pain relief. It still is to a large extent, but now, my priority is to see how far I can go in weaning myself off pain medications that were crucial for me for the time I was under the full effect of myeloma.  Now, I’m on two prescription pain medications and I take acetaminophen when I think of it. I was on three prescription pain meds until just recently, but I quit one of the medications cold turkey. Along with several annoying side effects, one of the more insidious side effects of that medication is dry mouth. My sense of taste was affected. I could barely taste some of my favourite foods and some I could not taste at all. I was anxious to try life without this med and as it turns out I’m quite confident that I’ll be fine without it. 

That leaves me with two pain meds. Gabapentin is a med I take for neuropathic pain. I’m currently cutting back on it to see how it goes. I’m not going cold turkey on Gabapentin, but I am determined to eliminate it from my pantheon of drugs. Hydromorphone is the drug that is the backbone of my pain treatment. I take it in slow-release form twice a day to deal with the daily predictable pain I get from myeloma’s excavations of my femurs as well as from sciatica and degenerative disk disease. I can also take hydromorphone in what’s called a pain breakthrough mode. That is, if the slow-release form of hydromorphone isn’t doing the job, I can take a more fast-acting form of the drug in any amount I feel is needed. I have taken breakthrough hydromorphone, but only sporadically, and as a last resort. I take as little of this drug that I feel will do the job. Taking more than a few milligrams of breakthrough hydromorphone leaves me hallucinating, not something I enjoy.  

The problem is that I’m seventy-four and at my age, the degenerative process is well under way. There’s no stopping it, and it’s not satisfied until it’s done. At my age, just about everybody has back pain and sciatica. These are conditions endemic to the species. It serves us right to have evolved from an arboreal species to one that is bipedal and an upright walker. Monkeys don’t have back problems. 

So, my challenge at the moment is to reduce my intake of pain meds to the point where I get pain relief without experiencing all the negative side effects of the various meds involved. So far so good. We’ll see how it goes.

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I’m writing this post on one of the hottest days of the year so far with tomorrow promising to be even hotter yet. Thankfully we have air conditioning, so the house is staying at a very acceptable 24.5˚C. Outside today, according to our weather station, the temperature has topped out at around 40˚C. Tomorrow, the prognosticators have promised us temperatures of 40˚C at mid-afternoon, so the beat goes on. 

I’m not complaining about the weather. The weather is what it is. It doesn’t respond to our needs, but instead requires that we respond to it if we’re not happy with it. Good luck with that. On to the next post now. Maybe I’ll take less time to get it out than it took me to get this one out. No promises. 

Check out this article Carolyn found for me. It’s a great discussion of chronic pain:

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/jun/28/sufferers-of-chronic-pain-have-long-been-told-its-all-in-their-head-we-now-know-thats-wrong?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other