I’m sick, but I’m well.

I’m writing today to let you know what’s up with me. I still don’t intend to embark on a regular program of blog posting, but things have changed for me over the past while and I thought I’d let you in on the changes to my situation. But first, a bit of a re-cap.

When I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in early October of last year, I was in pretty rough shape. It became clear to us then that I had had myeloma for some time before, probably for years. Over the past few years I’d had to back away from a number of volunteering gigs because I was too exhausted most of the time to be of much help to anyone. I was not much help around the house and property either. I stopped painting and drawing, and sculpture was out of the question. It was no fun at all. I felt rather useless. And because there was no diagnosis for years, I questioned my own sanity and vitality. The cancer diagnosis was patently not what I had hoped for, but it was an explanation for how I felt and for the pain and exhaustion I had experienced for years before. In some ways, I felt a sense of relief.

Then, in November, 2019, I became a full-time cancer patient. Myeloma became the main focus of our lives. We read everything we could about it online. We went to Victoria for a consultation with the oncologist I was assigned to at the BC Cancer Centre. That trip turned out to be a disaster. Aside from the myeloma that was causing me a lot of pain and distress, during that trip to Victoria I had to deal with a flare-up of a chronic degenerative disk problem, and of the arthritis in my neck I’ve had for years. I can’t tell you how discouraging that was. I was practically an invalid to the point that we asked around to see if anyone had a wheelchair we could use because we figured I’d need one.

The chemo regime I was initially put on caused me to get a huge rash all around my midsection, so my oncologists decided on a different cocktail of meds. This was quite discouraging because I wondered if there was any cocktail of chemo drugs that would work for me. Finally, my oncology team settled on the set of chemo drugs I’m on now. I’ve just started my fifth five week cycle of chemotherapy. I’m scheduled to continue on this program at least until late summer.

At first the chemo drugs kicked the shit out of me. By that time, I was also taking a low dose of hydromorphone, a synthetic opioid, to deal with the pain, and I had to take Dulcolax to deal with the inevitable constipation brought on by hydromorphone. My peripheral neuropathy was extremely annoying in that my hands and feet would constantly go numb and tingly. My whole pelvic area seemed to be on fire at times.

The first three cycles of chemotherapy had me questioning whether or not I should just shut it down and deal with the consequences. I couldn’t see myself living for any length of time in this state of pain and exhaustion.

Then, something changed. I don’t know if it’s because my body has been getting used to the chemotherapy or that the meds have been very effective in dealing with the myeloma. Over the past while, my bloodwork has gradually indicated a complete attenuation of myeloma symptoms. My blood seems to be back to normal and the signs of myeloma have all but disappeared. That doesn’t mean I’m cured, by any means. It just means that I may be going into remission. How long that might last is anybody’s guess. When the myeloma comes back, my oncologist will put me on another course of therapy. That could carry on for years to come.

So, lately I’ve had a surge of energy and I’m now able to do things! Oh, I still have pain and I still get tired, but I can do stuff! For instance, I’ve been able to help Carolyn build boxes for her garden beds and yesterday we rebuilt part of the structure that holds up the massive wisteria we have that surrounds our deck. I even used my chainsaw! If you had told me in January that I would be using a chainsaw in April I would have laughed in your face.

So, yes, I’m still sick with myeloma, but I’m now without major symptoms of the disease, and the hydromorphone is dealing with the pain I still have and will continue to have for the rest of my life. I can live with that. Basically, I’m feeling well. My body seems to be tolerating the chemo drugs much better than over the past few weeks. Some of the side effects of the chemo drugs are quite nasty, but I know how to deal with them now. I’ve become a proficient cancer patient.

Now, if we could only get rid of MARS-Cov-2, I could, we all could, get back to some proper socializing and I could hug my grandchildren again. The truth is, however, that my life hasn’t changed much because of the pandemic. I’m highly susceptible to infection because of the chemo and I can’t be around sick people for that reason. Covid-19 has just made it so that we have to be extra careful.

So, I’m cleaning up my studio and my shop. I’m looking forward to doing some painting, printmaking, drawing, and sculpture. I’m working towards restoring our canoe. The fact that I can even contemplate these things has changed my life yet again. Overall, I’m pretty happy with the way things are going.

The situation in the world is another thing entirely. The irrationality of modern neo-liberalism in the face of climate change and the pandemic continues to cause me consternation and worry. I hope we, as humans, can collectively get our shit together and build a more modest future, one in which we are in tune with each other and the natural world of which we are a part. I know so many good, caring people, but the structures of global capital run deep and are highly entrenched. Ignorance and denial still characterize large segments of the population. Even with the majority of the population consisting of good, caring people, I have no idea how to fight these massive reactionary forces. Covid-19 has shown us that massive changes is possible and desirable for our quality of life, although it’s probably not a good idea to leave desired social change to the recurrence of deadly pandemics.

Me, my Body and I: Part 2

To begin I want to dwell for a minute on Sigmund Freud’s ideas about the human personality. It’s a secular formulation, not surprising as Freud was an atheist. I’ll get to more religious formulations in a bit but Freud shows how personality can be conceived as being made up of three ‘parts’: the id, or libido (sexual energy), the ego, and the superego. The ego, in this scheme of things as I understand it, is the part of the personality where the needs of the id and the superego are negotiated and worked out. The superego is that manifestation of the human personality that accounts for social norms, values and morality. The fact is that the id, ego, and superego are not really ‘parts’ of the human personality, but manifestations of the various and often contradictory needs inherent in the id and superego. In other words, they are not things and can only really be identified by what they do or manifest.

For example, the id of a young man (I can attest from personal experience) may be consumed, or at least, pre-occupied with thoughts of sex, sex and more sex. The superego, on the other hand says, wait up there cowboy, you can’t have sex with anyone or anything at any time. There are social rules around these things. Listen up! NO sex with your sisters, brothers, or your mother, nor with sheep, goats, or monkeys! You hear? The id counters by arguing: well, what am I supposed to do with all this energy? You tell me I’m not even allowed to masturbate! That’s not fair! In these ‘debates’ sometimes the id wins, more often the superego does. There are people who have no social conscience or social ‘brakes’ to their behaviour. We call them psychopaths or sociopaths. People with rampant, out-of-control ids can be very dangerous as sexual predators and can be uncontrollably violent. Freud’s scheme has to be considered along with other aspects of what it means to be human such as bodily integrity, intelligence, and upbringing. Personality is very idiosyncratic if you haven’t noticed. It’s all very complex but it’s what accounts for our individuality.

What Freud’s personality scheme does for my purposes here is to highlight the fact that we can easily conceive of our personalities made up of semi-independent parts. This idea is integrally important to the religious, spiritually-minded, and Christian (certainly) notion that we are made up of body, consciousness, and soul, different aspects of us that are related but have a life of their own, so to speak. To think of the soul as immortal, it’s critical to separate it from the body which dies although some religionists, especially Darbyists* (who would probably find the 1991 film Rapture right up their alley), would prefer to go to heaven with their bodies intact. Rapture (the film) depicts end-of-time second coming of Jesus and the ascension of the human body and soul to heaven. Some religionists are very keen to see their physical bodies live eternally but they’ll settle for their consciousness or soul carrying on after their bodies die.

This is the position of Miguel de Unamuno, the Spanish Basque scholar who was for a long time the don of Salamanca University in Bilbao. I introduced you to Unamuno in one of my recent posts. I refer to Unamuno here because he is such a keen advocate for the immortality of the soul. He published The Tragic Sense of Life in 1920. It’s a rambling poetic rant and an impassioned plea to realize the limitations of reason in coming to grips with the most important problem he reckons facing us all and that is the immortality of our souls. For Unamuno, the longing for the immortality of our souls is what makes us human. He writes:

“That is to say that you, I, and Spinoza wish never to die and that this longing of ours never to die is our actual essence. Nevertheless, this poor Portuguese Jew, exiled in the mists of Holland, could never attain to believing in his own personal immortality, and all his philosophy was but a consolation which he contrived for his lack of faith. Just as other men have a pain in hand or foot, heart-ache or head-ache, so he had God-ache. Unhappy man! And unhappy fellow-men!” (from “The Tragic Sense of Life” by Miguel de Unamuno, Kindle Edition, page 43)

According to Unamuno, except for a few minor and aberrant individuals and groups, humans have throughout history consistently believed in the immortality of the soul. That commitment and longing for immortality that is at the very core of our beings and is effectively an instinct of perseverance as Unamuno sees it is our membership card in humanity. If we don’t believe or if we insist on finding a logical, reasonable explanation for the immortality of the soul then we are evil, wicked people who refuse to be a part of the human community. Unamuno can surely be called a hero in the social imperative of death denial. He finds atheists and non-believers of all sorts abhorrent. “If consciousness is, as some inhuman thinker has said, nothing more than a flash of light between two eternities of darkness, then there is nothing more execrable than existence” writes Unamuno. Life, for Unamuno is absolutely meaningless if the immortality of the soul is not the prime human fact and goal. Unamuno is very keen to separate reason from life. He says reason cannot prove one’s immortality, only life can, and it’s a question of faith. The soul has primacy in Unamuno’s scheme of things and is his ticket to immortality. Interestingly, he’s not as concerned with the existence of God as he is in his own immortality.

A more contemporary aficionado of the immortality of the soul is Ram Dass who just died recently. He believes that the soul must exist and it must be immortal because otherwise our earthly lives are meaningless. He writes:

“To be here for fifty to eighty years only to be annihilated at the end just doesn’t make sense. Nothing else in the universe is that inefficient. We have to be here to learn; otherwise our difficulties are truly meaningless. For the Ego, the roles we grow into and the positions we hold at the pinnacle of aging are the culmination of life. For the Soul, learning is the culmination. When we expand our self-image to include the Soul, we notice a marked shift in our personal consciousness, a liberation from the small egotistical self into a far more spacious context. From this Soul level, we are able to view our Egos from the outside in. This allows us to observe our minds and bodies in ways that will seem new and surprising, as if the trapdoors of the “self” have been opened and we can finally step outside, enjoy the view, and put a welcome distance between who we are (from Soul’s perspective) and the suffering we experience at the level of body and mind. Thus, with practice, we cultivate the tremendous healing of knowing ourselves as spiritual beings, too.” (from “Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying” by Ram Dass, page 28)

Well, I see a lot of problems with Dass’ non-sequiturs to start off . Why doesn’t it make sense that we are annihilated at the end of lives? And ‘nothing else in the universe is this inefficient’? What kind of silliness is this? Efficiency as a criterion for the immortality of the soul is ridiculous. Dass would be much better off just borrowing arguments from Unamuno than putting forward illogical ‘reasons’ for the immortality of the soul. Furthermore, he argues that we can see ourselves from “this Soul level”. Magical thinking indeed! But Dass appeals to a large audience of people intent on believing that when they die, they don’t really die because their souls carry on into eternity. I can seriously say that I’ve explored the implications of this idea through years of study, introspection and meditation, including, like Dass, the use of hallucinogens. Frankly, I just don’t see the point in adding a fictitious construction called the soul to our personalities. In a way (and I’m sure I’ll get up some people’s noses for saying this) it strikes me that believing in the immortality of consciousness or the ‘soul’ requires a great deal of collective narcissism and chutzpah. Where do we get off thinking we’re so special under the sun that we get to live eternally and no other life forms do? Note that I write ‘collective’ narcissism. As individuals we have no reference other than social ones to decide what to believe. We can be the humblest of individuals yet still be trapped in the overarching cultural imperative for apotheosis via immortality.

Of course I DO argue that in a sense we DO live eternally, just not in our current human configuration or through the ‘soul’. I know that I’m now a long way from discussing myeloma and my daily grind under its treatments. That is so. However, it’s important for me, as I approach my inevitable death whether it happens in six months or ten years, to clarify my point of view. There’s a certain amount of catharsis going on here, no doubt. Most people want to live forever. Not me. I’m perfectly happy to see my consciousness evaporate when my heart stops and at that point all the atoms and molecules that made up my body will be free to go. Have fun, little buddies!

In the third post in this series coming up shortly, I reflect on the works of Emile Durkheim and Ernest Becker. Both worked as social scientists. Durkheim died in 1917, Becker in 1974. Both had a lot to say about the soul and the sacredness of society as a source of the personal sense of immortality. Both have played a large part in my intellectual life but Becker sticks with me much more viscerally than the cerebral Durkheim. Both argue in their own way that the power of religion lies in society.

Stay tuned.

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* “Though Darby may have burned his bridges, his message gained a larger and larger following. Today his dispensational premillennialism is the view of many modern fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals.” From: https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/pastorsandpreachers/john-nelson-darby.html

This is no fun at all.

Well, this is no fun at all.

I’m not silly enough to believe that a life with myeloma would be fun, but I’m kind of disappointed that it’s been such an unmitigated downer. I am, I can now see, destined to drag this goddamned disease with me into the grave. Come on, I knew that! Still, a bit of a break now and then would be welcome. Is that too much to ask?

Actually, I think the nastiness I’m experiencing in spades right now stems mostly from the chemo meds rather than from the myeloma itself. This past week would support my idea that the meds are as bad as the disease at the moment for making me feel tired, dizzy, and in pain.

I went to the hospital on Thursday for my bortezomib shot after taking all the rest of my chemo drugs in the early morning. I expect Thursdays to be non-days, and this one was certainly that. A non-day is one when I can’t gather enough strength to do much of anything. However, Friday and Saturday also turned out to be non-days and Sunday wasn’t much better.

I felt a little beaten down. Of course, I should have expected it because my local oncology GP did warn me that they were going to ‘challenge’ me with my chemo med doses. No more mamby-pamby half doses for me! I was to get the full meal deal! Yes, indeed. Silly me.

Then I figured that maybe I needed a good dose of positive thinking to counteract all of these drugs. Maybe all I needed was a little endorphin fix. After all, I used to teach positive thinking on the Knowledge Network back in the ‘good ol’ days’ of 1986 to 1992. I used to teach as Ehrenreich points out “that on many levels, individual and social, it is good to be ‘positive,’ certainly better than being withdrawn, aggrieved, or chronically sad.”*

The problem is I’ve learned a few things since the early 1990s, not the least of which are the limitations of positive thinking. The American Cancer Society on its website states very clearly:

An important part of coping with a cancer diagnosis is recognizing emotions and feelings. Treatment that deals with our emotions and relationships (sometimes called psychosocial interventions) can help people with cancer feel more upbeat and have a better quality of life. But there’s no good evidence to support the idea that these interventions can reduce the risk of cancer, keep cancer from coming back, or help the person with cancer live longer. Still, things like group support, individual therapy, mindfulness, and relaxation techniques can be used to help reduce distress and cope with the emotions that come with a cancer diagnosis.

https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-basics/attitudes-and-cancer.html

So, it seems that belonging to a support group has some positive effects, not on survival or anything like that, but in feeling less tired and in stress reduction. There is a support group in the Valley. I haven’t attended any of the meetings yet. I’ve been too goddamn exhausted to do that until now, but maybe next month! Then, maybe I’ll be less tired!

The American Cancer Society, on its website, starts off with this: When a person is told they have cancer, they might find themselves wondering:

  • Did I bring the cancer on myself?
  • Can my emotions really make cancer grow or affect the outcome of my treatment?
  • Can I control the tumor growth by visualizing how my body is fighting the cancer or by thinking myself well?
  • Would relaxation or keeping a “positive attitude” help cure my cancer?

I can easily reply an emphatic NO! to all these questions and the website goes on to refute each in turn.

Ehrenreich writes:

In the rational explanation that many psychologists would offer today, optimism improves health, personal efficacy, confidence, and resilience, making it easier for us to accomplish our goals. A far less rational theory also runs rampant in American ideology—the idea that our thoughts can, in some mysterious way, directly affect the physical world. Negative thoughts somehow produce negative outcomes, while positive thoughts realize themselves in the form of health, prosperity, and success.✤

The upshot of the idea that negative thoughts produce negative outcomes is the notion that people bring their diseases on to themselves by thinking negatively. Never mind that this idea is completely debunked by the American Cancer Society and people like Barbara Ehrenreich, there is a strong current of belief ‘out there’ that we are the victims of our own negativity. That goes for people with chronic illnesses, auto-immune diseases, and cancer. If you’ve got it the ‘reasoning’ goes you’ve brought it upon yourself.

This of course dovetails nicely with the predominant capitalist morality in our culture which states that individuals are inherently responsible for their actions and weakness of all kinds is abhorred, shunned, and denigrated. If people exhibit any signs of weakness, whether they are poor or in ill-health, it stands to reason that they must be responsible for their condition. That’s why people, especially those caught up in a full-blown subscription to capitalist morality, often go to great lengths to hide their poverty and ill-health. They are also the ones that tend to judge most harshly the poor, the homeless, the disenfranchised, the physically disabled, the chronically ill and the aged, even if they themselves could be included in any one of the categories I just mentioned.

Myeloma is a disease of the bone marrow. It’s entirely organic. As of yet there is no cure for it. It will not respond to positive thoughts or negative ones either, for that matter. Ehrenreich writes that “There is a vast difference between positive thinking and existential courage.” ✦ If there’s anything I strive toward it’s existential courage. However, if you catch me in a moment of deep angst over my imminent (yes, ten years is imminent) death, cut me some slack. I can’t always be perfect!

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*Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. 2009. Kindle Edition, Location 89.

✤Ibid., Location 125.

✦Ibid., location 145.

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.

Well, this is a pain in the ass!

Literally. Although technically, the pain is in my hips. But as you know, hips are very close to asses so I feel justified in using the title above.

My hips have been giving me a bit of grief lately but usually only in bed at night. They don’t hurt during the course of the day. I tend to sleep on my side, usually my right side. I’ve noticed over the past few weeks, however, that over the course of a night, I might have to shift my body from my right side to my left side every hour or so. I could take more hydromorphone I guess, to alleviate the pain, but I feel like I need to have some idea of what’s going on in my body. Trying to eliminate all pain all the time seems ridiculous to me. Us humans are built in such a way as pain is pretty much a given whether from overuse, as in doing too much exercise, from injury via trauma, or from things like appendicitis. I want to know what’s going on in my body and it’s pretty hard to do that if I’m always zonked out on opioids.

Pain, pain, pain! I’ve had lots of that in my lifetime although just looking at me you wouldn’t know that. I look pretty good for an old guy. Still, pain has been an expected companion most of my life. Mygawd, in my early twenties I had a laminectomy, a disk removed in my the lower back because of a planer mill accident, but I’ve already mentioned that in a previous blog post. I had to be peeled off the ceiling a number of times from that one. No pain has ever stopped me from doing things, however. It may have stiffled my dreams of being a world-class athlete, but it never stopped me from running and walking fairly long distances, and farting around in my shop and studio. Of course, I had to be careful. Sometimes my back would send out signals for me to back off, and I would, not being a complete idiot.

A few years ago, though, I had had enough with pain and my doctor had had enough of me complaining about pain, I guess, so he sent me to a pain clinic in Nanaimo. Well, that was interesting. I assume that pain clinics are good for pain caused by overt trauma and that sort of thing. My experience is that as far as chronic pain is concerned, they struggle with coming up with good solutions. At the end of my time at the clinic, they were thinking of implanting a tens machine in my side at the site of my 2002 kidney surgery. The site of my kidney surgery from 2002 still pains me. However, I wasn’t about to have a tens machine implanted in my body so the clinic and I parted company. The clinic still exists doing lots of good, I’m sure, and I still exist too, still in pain. Well, there ya go!

Over the last few months, as you know, I have been diagnosed with bone marrow cancer, just another reason to have pain. I have no shortage of reasons to have pain. Now, however, my family doctor is only too happy to prescribe opiates. He’s always been fairly liberal when it comes to prescribing pain medications, but now I especially appreciate his willingness to treat my pain with whatever it takes. One thing is that treating the pain from my bone marrow cancer also has the benefit of dealing with some of my chronic pain issues. That has been good although I’m still in pain. I’m certainly not trying to eradicate all my pain. Feeling pain means I’m still alive. Of course eating sticky buns has the same effect, but that’s a lot more pleasant than feeling pain as an indicator that there is still life in these old (now eroded) bones.

My oncologist, however, seems to be clueless about pain. When we visited him in Victoria last year I was in a lot of pain, obviously so, I thought. He told me to take a couple of Tylenol. He, he, he. A couple of Tylenol? Sure, dude.I can’t imagine he’s ever felt any kind of acute pain so he just can’t relate. Ibuprofen works well for me, but I can’t take anti-inflammatory meds because I have only one kidney. Pity. I think I could avoid a lot of opioid use if I could take anti-inflammatory meds. In any case, my oncologist, in exasperation, I think, because I keep telling him that I’m in pain, and he doesn’t want to hear that, decided that I should go to a pain clinic. Well, I was not particularly receptive to that, but after a little deliberation with Carolyn, I decided to humour him. So. off I go to the pain clinic only it’s not called that.

Yesterday, I got a call from ‘Leanne’ from the Palliative Symptom Management Clinic which has a branch here in the Comox Valley. Now before you get all weirded out by the word ‘Palliative’ in the title, don’t worry, I’m not getting signed up for end-of-life care just yet. Palliative care, it turns out, refers to pain management in general. We’ve come to associate it with end-of-life care, but it doesn’t have to refer to that. Leanna had lots of questions for me like: do you have a gun in the house? Are you depressed? Do you have place for the nurses to park when they come to visit you?

I’m looking forward to seeing what this palliative care group can do for me. The doctors involved may have good advice for how to manage my pain meds. Eventually they can hook me up to a huge bottle of morphine and I can blissfully drift off to permanent unconsciousness, but not just yet. My lab results are indicating that I’m heading toward remission so back off with the bottle of morphine!

We saw my orthopaedic surgeon yesterday and he’s ordered another CT scan of my right femur, the one with the bone excavations. He just wants to make sure the lesion isn’t getting any bigger because it has been more painful lately. So, next week I see my family doctor on Monday, then I go into the hospital on Wednesday for a visit with my local oncology GP, and to get a zoledronic acid infusion. I’ll probably get a CT scan this week too. On Thursday I go back in to start a new chemotherapy cycle, my third! Never a dull moment. Wish me luck!

Lose your job to automation: Mourn or celebrate?

The three links below of several hundreds that can be found on the internet news sources these days indicate clearly the rapidly accelerating advance of automated technology moving towards the elimination of jobs.

Walmart

Australia

Japan

So far, the action seems to be very widespread but is moving especially rapidly in retail as is clear from the evidence in Australia, Japan and the US. The rationale used to justify automation by Walmart management in the US is creative and ridiculous at the same time. Nobody in management wants to say that their companies are trying to reduce or eliminate their workforces altogether. But that’s exactly what’s happening.

Karl Marx predicted this very outcome in the mid-19th Century arguing that in their efforts to control or reduce their costs of production, businesses, after overproducing in the search for profits, turn to automation to control their labour force and return to profitability. The process has been going on for a long time.

It seems perfectly reasonable for businesses to try to become more ‘efficient’ by automating jobs that are tedious and repetitive, often dangerous. For individual businesses this seems like an effective strategy to control their costs and their processes. The problem is that there is anarchy in the business world, no coordination, and competition prevents cooperation between businesses in the same field of operations. The result is that there is a reduction in the aggregate number of workers in any given area and the reality is that bots don’t buy anything. Workers are also consumers so doing away with workers is doing away with your very own customers. Nobody I know in business is worried about taking customers away from their competitors, but if Walmart eliminates much of its labour force by automation that will inevitably also reduce its customer base.

So, the question is should you mourn or celebrate the loss of your job through automation? The answer is yes and no. The actual issue is not jobs, but income. You should definitely mourn loss of income. The loss of a job not so much. Jobs, i.e, employment, are not really in sync with the human capacity to work. Humans, as Veblen is quick to point out, are programmed to work, but if they are presented with meaningless, repetitive, boring work that is really to make someone else look good or get rich, they balk. So doing away with boring, stupid, meaningless jobs is a good thing in my mind. Several countries are now toying with a guaranteed basic income. It will take some time yet for the importance of this strategy to become more widespread.

We’re at a real crossroads at the moment. With the advent of advanced robotics, automation, and especially artificial intelligence, work will be required of fewer and fewer people for shorter and shorter lengths of time. There will be, in a very short period of time, a huge surplus of people as workers and a shortage of people as consumers. The elimination of tedious labour could result in an explosion of creative energy as people are freed to think for themselves and act according to their talents and abilities. However, they will need income to be able to do that.

One thing for sure, there will have to be a greater distribution of wealth because it does no one any good to hoard cash and take money out of circulation. It sure doesn’t help corporations involved in the sale of consumer goods. From this perspective, banks and financial institutions are at loggerheads with consumer driven businesses. There will have to evolve a very different ethic, one at odds with the current capitalist Neo-liberal one that I wrote about in my last blog post.

What’s So Scary About Women? Introduction

In my last few blog posts I promised I would tackle a most difficult topic and that’s the misogyny embedded in many of our institutions. Well, that’s what I will do over the next few blog posts.

I’ve always liked to try to figure out how things work. When I was a kid I used to dissect and disassemble things all the time. I was forever curious about how things were made, especially mechanical things. Taking them apart was not usually too much of a problem, but to my father’s dismay, putting them back together was sometimes not so easy. My favourite targets were toys and motors but clocks really topped the list. As I got older and went away to a Catholic boarding school in Edmonton for high school, I still had a live curiosity but the priests were not too keen on seeing things taken apart and strewn here and there on campus. They were especially protective of the lab equipment. Looking back on it, I remember also having a keen interest in why people did things the way they did them. I had a hard time making sense of what I came to know as institutions (crystallized habits of thought and life). And, of course, figuring out why I had a penis and my sisters didn’t was top of mind. That said, I would never have dared, after turning 4, to bring up such a subject at dinner time. The disapproval would have been swift and sometimes mildly violent. I felt very early on that certain subjects were absolutely taboo. Still, lots of sniggering went on because we children weren’t yet completely indoctrinated. Of course, we learned a few anatomical things by playing doctor but it wasn’t easy to figure out the moral issues involved. The questions definitely outnumbered the answers in my first two decades of life on earth.

In my early twenties, after a serious sawmill accident, I had back surgery and wondered what to do next. Well, I went a little crazy for a while, smashed up a few cars, got drunk and stoned frequently but I had a couple of mentors that made a huge difference in my life. They prompted me to go to university. I applied to Simon Fraser University (SFU), but was rejected because my grades in high school were lousy so I attended Douglas College in New Westminster for two years, got an A average, had some great teachers and decided at that time to study sociology. On I went to SFU. That time of my life was super exciting and difficult too because of money, to be certain, but also because of sex. I couldn’t seem to get enough of it and too much of my energy went into pursuing it or worrying about not getting any. The sex drive for me was very powerful. It’s hard to concentrate under these conditions. I was clumsy and ridiculous like most of my friends and acquaintances around the subject of sex, but this was the early seventies for god’s sake. We would have been into some promiscuity and there was definitely some loosening of mores but we were mostly unsatisfied. But when all else failed, we always had some beer and weed to make us feel better. Still, I couldn’t help thinking about sex and women. I should now say sorry to all the women I was a dickhead to in those days. It wasn’t me, it was my gonads. Now that I’m 71 that drive, thankfully, is largely attenuated. Frankly, I don’t know how most of us get through our teen years. Our bodies are yelling at us YES and our damned superegos are blocking our genital paths to glory. Oh well, such is life. Eventually, I met Carolyn and that was that. We fit together nicely.

It took me a while to get settled into the academic life. For a long time I called myself a Marxist but I stopped doing that for the same reason that Marx pointed to French syndicalists in the late 1870s saying that if these people are Marxists then I’m not. I still find Marx’s analysis of history very compelling, but I I strayed from looking only at economic matters to studying schizophrenia (R.D. Laing, Thomas Szasz, etc), mental illness, depression (with which I’ve been on intimate terms with), crime, deviance, social solidarity, morality, Norbert Elias and other things. In my last couple of years teaching I taught a sociology course on love and sex. Given what I wrote above, this fit right to my curiosity bag. I got interested in pornography. What is it about porn that makes it such a lucrative business? It’s one of the top internet money makers( yes, people sniggered.) And, of course, I had a long standing interest in Ernest Becker’s work. You just have to check the archives on this blog to ascertain that. Becker’s book Escape From Evil has a lot to say about sex and about misogyny. In fact, Becker’s work is the foundation of my views on this topic.

So, in the next few blog posts I will address Becker’s work to start with, especially his emphasis on evil, animality and our institutional denial of death. Then I want to look more specifically at woman as temptress, as devil. I will follow that up with a look at language and women before turning to marriage and some of the other cultural institutions of sexual relations. Things may evolve as I go along. The order I present issues may change. Your comments might modify my approach too.

I must say, in concluding this introduction, that I, by no means, intend to glorify women and vilify men. We are all ‘guided’ in our actions by our social relations, our language, our sex, our gender, our economic interests, our egos, and a myriad of other factors. Morality plays a huge role although we barely ever mention it. We swim in a moral world but we seldom recognize it. Like fish who don’t know they swim in water, we are the last to recognize that we swim in a moral world. In this series of posts I’ll try to open up that moral world a bit so that we can see more deeply into want makes us tick as humans.

SUICIDE

This post is about suicide, a subject that has not been studied very extensively since Emile Durkheim published his seminal book SUICIDE in 1897. It’s also about morality and community or the density of connections we have or feel with other people.

For Durkheim, sociology is the science of morality. Morality, for him, is not just an abstract set of ideas disembodied from our lives as we live them. Morality, for Durkheim, is all about how closely we are integrated into our ‘societies’. Societies can be anything from a family to a nation, but are not equivalent to nations or nation-states. Societies organize rules for themselves around who belongs and who doesn’t. These rules may be firm enough in theory, but in practice not so much. And they are based on those things in our lives that matter the most, things that shift constantly over time and space.

Durkheim uses his study of suicide as a way of measuring the density of our connections with others and the ideas/values that dominate our lives whether we agree with them or not. The reason poor people are shunned in our society and considered moral degenerates is because their lives are a testament to their failure to live up to one of our most cherished values: wealth. Our talk of equality is just that, talk. We judge people by their lives and how closely they are connected to social and moral values. Nobody has any value outside of our moral and existential categories. Of course, moral values involve many aspects of our lives like who is allowed to have sex and when, who has a job and who doesn’t, who has an education, takes vacations, has children, votes, etc..

A graphic showing Durkheim’s typology is organized around Durkheim’s concerns with the glue that holds us together in society. He refers to regulation and integration as two key notions or ‘agglutinating’ factors in our lives. He identified (see the graphic) two major types of suicide: anomic and egoistic. These types of suicide do not refer to individual characteristics, but to the quality of social organization. For example, egoism, for Durkheim, refers to a social condition where individuals are not integrated into the social fabric. I would characterize suicide in many Canadian aboriginal communities as egoistic suicides because the individuals concerned are not connected to the broader moral community, not because of any fault of their own, but because they have been systematically and legally excluded by colonialism and marginalization. Anomie, for Durkheim, is a social condition whereby the moral rules people have come to rely upon to conduct their lives are weakened or disappear. Moral confusion leads to anomic suicide.

Durkheim’s research revolved around studies of religion, family, sex, time of year, education, wealth and poverty, etc. Durkheim had a friend who took a job teaching in a provincial school in the south of France leaving Paris and all his family and friends. He eventually committed suicide. Although Durkheim doesn’t mention this case in his book, he was definitely absorbed by it and determined to explain why his friend would do such a thing.

We often think of suicides as people who are mentally ill. Durkheim resisted this theory, pointing out that in many cases, there is no indication at all that a person who commits suicide is mentally ill. Suicide, for Durkheim, is all about the weaknesses of our social and moral rules. Individuals who commit suicide are responding to a lack of their integration into society. People who are ‘schizophrenic’ (a highly contested diagnosis, by the way) may be exhibiting the symptoms of disengagement from a society that doesn’t have a clue about how to communicate with them and often presents them with completely contradictory messages about their importance to others and to society as a whole.

People with the best of intentions, parents, educators, medical personnel and others, may believe they are doing the best for the schizophrenic ‘patient’, but are instead pushing him or her away by their inability to communicate with them on their terms.

This is a touchy subject in our world. Most people can’t understand why a person would take their own life, distancing themselves permanently from the society most people value so highly. We say of suicides that ‘they passed away at home suddenly.’ When have you seen in an obituary that the deceased has committed suicide? Over 3000 people commit suicide in Canada every year. You wouldn’t know that from reading obituaries. We are ashamed of even discussing suicide. It’s such a taboo subject.

For me, schizophrenia and suicide are both rational responses to impossible social situations. I’m sure that’s not a popular view, but after 35 years of study of the topic, it’s a view that I find I cannot dispute. I probably should put together a list of publications that back up my views. I will do that if I get enough interest. I’m open to discussing this at any time with anybody. Just ask.

 

 

Thousands of snow geese killed in Montana after landing in toxic water | Toronto Star

This is absolutely outrageous. Mining companies all over the world are allowed to operate without consideration of the massive destruction they leave behind when they leave, or as they operate. Toxic settling ponds and water-filled open pit mines should never be allowed. If mining companies can’t operate without destroying their environment, if they can’t be responsible for all the costs of mining, even those they consider ‘externalities’ they don’t deserve to be in business. And don’t give me lame excuses that we need the jobs and the material they produce. I’m not saying shut them down period. I’m saying that if they can’t find a way to deal with their garbage and shit, if they can’t find a way to mitigate their negative impact on the world then they need to go. To hell with them.

What is even more galling is the excuses they are giving after the fact, with the companies congratulating themselves for the ‘success’ they have had in not killing thousands more birds. Bloody outrageous. Governments, of course, are complicit. They may fine these companies for not complying to lax government regulations, but they will allow them to continue to operate unimpeded.

Absolutely outrageous! Sickening and disgusting.

 

Witnesses said the old mine pit looked like ‘700 acres of white birds’ after a snow storm forced the migratory birds to take refuge.

Source: Thousands of snow geese killed in Montana after landing in toxic water | Toronto Star

A meditation on Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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