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A veteran journalist's take on such diverse subjects as religion and religious violence, democracy, freedom of expression, sociology, journalism, criticism, travel, philosophy, Southeast Asia, politics,economics, and even parenthood, the supernatural, film criticism, and cooking. Please don't hesitate to participate by starting a comment thread if you have an interest in any of these subjects...or anything else, for that matter... p.write@gmail.com

Pass it on….

And I think to myself….
Pagun

We live in a shitty world because, by and large, we make it shitty; so shitty, in fact, that the Pagun Principle (The Pagun Principle: 90% of everything is crap) is probably wide-eyed optimistic naiveté. That’s reflected in the only aphorism to which I can claim original authorship; a companion piece to the Pagun Principle. Write this down: “A cynic is only what an idealist calls a realist”. That having been said, this realist would like to look at some of the things that fall into that scarce and endangered 10% excluded by the Principle.

As my more devoted readers will already know, I am currently fighting a recurrence of the cancer that we had hoped had been surgically eliminated last fall. After months of chemo, I have now started my course of 33 radiation treatments. These treatments are only available in Victoria, British Columbia’s capital city. That happens to be about 250 kilometres away at the southernmost end of Vancouver Island, about a three-hour drive if the traffic is good. There is a lodge in which I could stay for the entire six and a half weeks this treatment is expected to take but, because of my responsibilities as JJ’s primary caregiver, it isn’t an option for me.

So far, one will have undoubtedly noted, the Pagun Principle is holding up; the foregoing all falls into the crap category.

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JJ…One lady called him `The Spirit of Joy`.

So let’s look at the ten percent that’s left. I get an up-close and personal view of that every day; for all of the crap, the side effects…the pain, the weakness, the nausea, the exhaustion, the inability to work, the anxiety over failing to provide for my family, the depression, the declining overall health from enforced sedentary living, the uncertainty…for all of that, there are nevertheless some truly uplifting elements associated with this adventure I’m embarked upon. The medical infrastructure, despite the current government’s crusade to hamstring and undermine it, is at times breathtakingly compassionate, efficient, and patient-centred. And it’s more than simply our universal healthcare; it’s the non-governmental, grassroots input from the community that often astonishes a realist like me.

A typical day for me starts at about 5.30 am. I get up and make breakfast for me, Yolanda and JJ. Shower and then send Yolanda off to VIU for her last few classes, and then get JJ ready for the day`s jaunt to Victoria. Pack up his backpack with toys, snacks and books. Sometime after 6, the Wheels for Wellness van arrives to pick us up. Wheels for Wellness is charitable organisation that was formed for the specific purpose of IMG_0059providing transportation to and from medical appointments. The society uses volunteer drivers to pick up patients all over Vancouver Island and take them to Victoria for kidney dialysis, their ophthalmologists for injections for macular degeneration, or in my case, the most common appointment, cancer radiation treatments. There are no means tests, there are no questions asked; if one calls their hotline, arrangements are made and the van is dispatched. Most people require transportation for a weekly trip to stay in the Cancer Society`s lodge for Monday to Friday treatments and a trip home for the weekend; for others, it`s a one-time return trip for a single treatment; for some, like me and the dialysis patients, it`s a daily round trip. Although envelopes are provided for donations, the service is free and no requests are ever made. The volunteer drivers are retirees from all walks of life who donate their time, their compassion, and their patience for absolutely no financial compensation. Without exception, the drivers are kind, decent, friendly, and self-effacing; they make the patients feel as though they are special and very welcome guests.

The road trip from up-island to Victoria is pleasant, even (or perhaps especially) with five or six people with serious illnesses. The people in the van are as wildly eclectic a mix as are the drivers although, just as the drivers all have their kindness in common, the passengers all share the fact of their ill health. Nevertheless, contrary to my expectations, the conversation very rarely centres on cancer or the other diseases for which the patients are being treated.

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A quick game of Simon Says before I get nuked

The BC Cancer Centre itself ought to be a model for similar places everywhere. It is bright, sunny and peaceful. It is, oddly enough, a cheerful place with conversation pits scattered throughout the building and volunteers everywhere; some carrying out specific tasks and others seemingly unassigned and simply stopping by to offer to fetch, carry, provide a magazine, or just chat. Some volunteers push tea and coffee trolleys around and give out hot drinks and offer candies from a bowl. Others are walking around with volunteer therapeutic dogs; their function is simply to bring the dogs to patients and permit some canine-human interaction. JJ has his particular favourite – Bosun, a very gentle Golden Lab.
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The radiation technicians are, without exception, kind, friendly and sensitive to the patients. They ensure that nobody has to wait more than a few minutes for their treatments and provide full information as to what is happening and what to expect. Their sensitivity and kindness is demonstrated every day by their treatment of JJ. They are all charmed rather than annoyed by a very energetic five-year-old who has just spent more than three hours confined in a car. They bring him into the treatment room and let him watch from behind the radiation screen; they even let him operate the controls that align the bed and the nuclear radiation apparatus; when I`m done and getting up, there are high fives all around and one of the technicians has developed a habit of giving him a sticker each day.

The one thing regarding all of these extraordinary people – volunteers and employees alike – that really stands out in my mind is how happy they all are. Far from being withdrawn, sullen, or depressed as the result of working in an environment that exists for the specific purpose of treating people with an often fatal disease for which we have treatments but still haven`t a real cure, they will candidly acknowledge that they derive as great rewards from their efforts as do the patients. The Cancer Centre is the most cheerful place I know.

So, in this attempt to make life just a little less shitty, it seems to me that we might have tripped over a piece of the puzzle. Just watching the genuine joy that exudes from pretty much everyone at the Cancer Centre makes it evident that there is a tangible correlation between doing acts of kindness for others and personal contentment. Of course correlation isn`t necessarily causation; I`m perfectly willing to concede that performing acts of kindness doesn`t necessarily make that person happy; it could be that happy people are more inclined to act kindly. We could be committing the fallacy of confusing cause and effect.

There is, however, a way to find out.Be kind by Plato

Of course it would be unrealistic to suggest that everyone ought to dedicate as many hours and as much compassion as displayed by the many volunteers I encounter every day. Nevertheless, I can offer this suggestion: run a little experiment. Random acts of kindness. Try consciously to seek out opportunities to perform small acts of generosity for one day. Wave someone ahead of you in traffic. Smile at a stranger. Help someone with their groceries. Then try it for a week. What the hell. Make it a way of life.

At the very least others will be a little happier; and there`s nothing wrong with that.

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Meditating

The prospect of being hanged focuses the mind wonderfully. (Samuel Johnson).

PAGUN

Content Warning

VANCOUVER ISLAND CANADA – All the indications are that my cancer surgery wasn’t successful. In the first place, there was more of it: the tumour wasn’t confined to the prostate itself; the seminal vesicles which (used to) be behind it were cancerous as well, as was some of the surrounding tissue. My doctor, who is young –almost Doogie Howser young – except VERY highly thought of and extremely good, and far better looking, did what he could. He took everything out that might be compromised or even at threat.

In a perfect world that would have resulted in my next PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen) blood test showing a value of zero as there ought to be nothing the produce that particular antigen.thinker

Three months after the surgery (and 2 months after the sacred day of my catheter removal) such, unfortunately was not to be to the case. My blood test showed a PSA level of .15 Two days later it was at .16. Worrisome, but .2 is considered a definitive diagnosis of recurrence.

One month later my PSA tested out at .31

Cancer. Or as the sanitary language of medical euphemisms would have it….BCR. Biochemical Recurrence.

So if I’m going to have any chance of living long enough to see my wife graduate from culinary school (where she is at the top of her class) or my four year-old graduate from elementary school, I’ve got to figure out some way that I can undergo a minimum of six weeks of radiotherapy in another city. And then survive the chemotherapy I might have to do for the rest of my earthly days. Thank goodness for the focus that immanent death brings or the logistics would be impossible to manage.

But as the logistics of treatment have to be among the least interesting subjects I could imagine…this post will be more of a meditation on life and death.

It probably doesn’t mean very much to most people, but the very fact that you were even born is probably the most astonishing coincidence you are even capable of imagining. Here’s what I mean.

Your dadLet’s face it. Your Dad whacked off. If he’s around to own up to it, he might even admit that he did it a lot. But the fact that your father was around to whack off during the last few decades of all the decades of human occupation of this planet by beings with the human genome is flat out amazing. Now his whacking off isn’t amazing; it’s anything but. But think for a moment how many spermatozoa that particular male in that particular generation wasted; on his palm, the ceiling, sheets, socks, watermelons, or beloved pets. Trillions would Human_semen_in_handsbe a conservative estimate. YOU could have been any one of those. But you weren’t…you were the lucky one. And it gets even more unlikely that you won the sweepstakes. Somehow he met your mother…the possessor of the rest of the genetic material that will ultimately define you.

Then came all the social miracles that led to them having sex in a manner that permitted conception; whether it was rape, consensual, a prophylactic failure or anything beyond wishful thinking, somehow millions and millions of spermatozoa found themselves in your mother’s vagina heading for that month’s egg in a greatly expanded but microscopic scene from It’s a Mad. itsamadworld-completeMad, Mad, Mad World. And one of those obsessed fortune hunters, Phil Silvers or Mickey Rooney perhaps; maybe Buddy Hackett, got there first and breached the citadel, slamming the door after him.

And then came nine months of sheer luck. Most pregnancies are not even noticed and end spontaneously, many are aborted or end in miscarriage; yours was one of the unimaginably unlikely few that ended in a birth. You defied all the odds and made it to that wretched state we call “life”.

Like ‘em or loath ‘em, you’ve got to look in awe at your fellow humans (and yourself) with something akin to awe just for being here. They can be stupid, venal, brutal, tiresome, or mohandas_gandhivicsecretthey can be Albert Schweitzer rolled up in Ghandi and Einstein with the sexual appeal of a collage of Victoria Secret models crossbred with Rita Hayworth, and their individual characteristics would be only microscopically more amazing than the simple fact of their sheer existence. That’s life.

And then there’s death.

death

That, we don’t know shit about; except that in a few unsubstantiated cases, once the threshold’s been crossed, there ain’t no comin’ back. Hamlet was wrong in the first part of his big soliloquy: “To be or not to be?” Really short term thinking, for the Great Dane. NOT to be is where we’ll all end up. He had it right, though, when later he referred to “The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn no traveller returns”. And we are all travellers with a one way ticket to that bourn.

twain censorship

THIS IMAGE WAS SPECIFICALLY CHOSEN FOR ALL OF YOU WHO GOT UPSET AT THE PICTURE OF MY DICK

Mark Twain occasionally spoke of death. (There was very little he didn’t occasionally speak of. More than writing, that’s what he did for a living.) Although his correction of mistaken news reports of his death (actually, it was his brother who was very ill, but alive in London at the time) he is often misquoted. What he actually wrote: ‘The report of my death was an exaggeration’ was every bit as witty. He was somewhat more philosophical but no less witty when he also said “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

Twain was making an implicitly atheistic observation. The one quip dismissed the nonsense of the promised Christian afterlife, either the glory and eternal boredom of sitting at the right hand of god, the greatest underachiever and mass murderer the universe has ever spawned, or the sick theories concerning the conditions of eternal damnation. And speaking as one who can’t lower (despite years of trying) his intellectual standards to accept one jot, let alone a tittle, of the religious dogma force-fed to him by a succession of nuns, priests, and other bullies, anything resembling an afterlife holds no fear whatsoever…for much the same reason as expressed by Mark Twain.

That, of course says nothing about the other religions and their versions of the afterlife; but that means nothing either. Not one of their “theories” has the slightest evidence to support its contentions and there is no reason whatsoever for accepting their bald statements as anything more than delusion and wishful thinking. No, the truth is, the truth has to be that death is exactly like the other billions upon billions of years we spent NOT being alive. Oblivion. Nada. Niente. Rien. Kosong. And that is not to be feared.

For me, death, especially if it comes soon, is to be regretted. I have a four your old boy I love to distraction, and oblivion will rob me of the opportunity to see him grow; to graduate from school; to have his first girl or boyfriend; to marry and have a family and be successful. Moreover it will rob him of a father; a father’s support and guidance and love. I won’t be aware of this while its happening, of course, but as I shuffle off this mortal coil, you can be sure that it is those thoughts that will be the source of any tears I shed.

But before I leave this meditation having definitively concluded that oblivion, blessed nothingness, is the inevitable end of life, I should point out where my doubts lie. I have had a classic “near death experience”.

On a canoe trip, when I was about fourteen years old, I was turned over and caught in some rather treacherous rapids. Being a strong swimmer, I was at no time afraid. I even recall enjoying the underwater ride, looking through the surface and at the dim and filtered sunlight above as I followed the river at breakneck speed. Eventually I felt myself in need of a breath and calmly turned and swam steadily toward the surface. A little surprised, but not frightened to find that my efforts to climb to the surface produced absolutely no upward progression, I redoubled my efforts. Still nothing. I recall making one effort after another and continuing to find myself pulled inexorably downstream, several feet below the river’s surface. Oddly, I felt no fear at any time. Nevertheless, there came a definitive moment. I realised all at once that I was not going to survive. I knew, I knew with certainty that reaching the surface and life was no longer possible. With a more profound conviction than normal life is capable of providing, I knew and accepted that my life as I knew it was over. And I was right.

It was at the moment of acceptance of what appeared to be inevitable, that life as I knew it ended and I began my short-lived journey into another realm. I experienced all the characteristics of a near death experience; I left my body and could see my former shell sweeping downstream, I began to dissociate from common reality; I felt my second or astral body hurtling upwards; I saw the intense light and was just about to enter it. But this is the important aspect: it was the most joyful, peaceful, total happiness I can even imagine. The bliss included an absolute sense of certainty and anticipation of what was to come and that what was to come was good, positive beyond any possibility of description. Thus when my (physical) feet hit a rock and I stood up and inhaled earth’s atmosphere my first reaction was: “SHIT!” For several moments I experienced a wrenching, profound sense of unbearable loss. Friends tell me they held me up but had the sense that I was actually trying to dive back into the river. Then the fear hit. I realised how close I had come to dying and suffered the usual shock; in a few hours I was back to normal. But that other realm never left me…it’s still there and it’s always with me.light

I have experienced that precise sense of otherworldliness, certainty, joy, and anticipation at other times at a somewhat more diluted level; this has almost always been under the influence of hallucinogens. Part of me insists that there’s something to this, and that there is a realm beyond this one, and that realm is characterised by spiritual beauty and joy.

BUT

That is anecdotal evidence. Others have experienced it and described it similarly. Still anecdotal. I have unquestionably experienced it and I can testify to it. Still anecdotal.

So let me leave this meditation at this….I will die. So will you. But I see my inevitable death as a rest, a dreamless sleep in which nothing happens. It is not specifically a good thing unless it relieves suffering. But it cannot be described as bad for the person who is dead.

On the other hand, there is the off chance that the anecdotal evidence is accurate (and I lean toward my anecdotal experience rather than that of others, only because I trust my memory of the experience more than other’s memories and then their descriptions). In which case: JACKPOT! Off chance, but who knows? Either way….no harm.

But before I go, let me offer the following: If there is such a thing as infinity, and we can expect to confront infinity when we die, let us remember that a working definition of infinity is “that amount of time during which everything that can possibly happen will happen”.

That means that in what will seem like the blink of an eye, you will be born as Casanova, Cleopatra, Marilyn Monroe, or Mick Jagger. It’s just a question of a near infinite number of atoms randomly achieving that configuration. And in an infinite span of time that’s inevitably going to happen. With my luck I’ll be born as Stuart Sutcliffe.

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It’s all right Ma, I’m only bleeding…..

Dying is easy….comedy is hard

Pagun

 

Timothy Leary

VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA –Timothy Leary; Frank Zappa; Dennis Hopper. Although all were born a decade or more before I was, they all feel like my contemporaries, as I grew up with them as seminal influences in my life. Each in his own way had his influence on me and, with many reservations and caveats, there was much in each of those men that I found to admire, respect, and even envy. From time to time I even come to believe that I have something in common with each of them. Whenever I stand back and look at our lives, I realise that although perhaps we don’t share that much; we  do share one thing, however, that is indisputable. All three of those men died of prostate cancer. I have the same disease.

 

Dennis Hopper

Prostate cancer is a disease that isn’t taken as seriously as some other cancers for a number of reasons. In its most common form it is a very slow growing cancer, for one thing. If a person is diagnosed with a low-aggression, non-metastatic prostate cancer of say, a 2 to a 4 on the Gleason scale at age 75, the odds are that the patient will succumb to old age if nothing else before the cancer becomes symptomatic beyond fairly treatable urinary symptoms. And that is the most common form for the cancer to take. Some oncologists speculate that close to 100% of men over 70 or so probably have cancer of the prostate and the wisest course of action is simply to monitor it and treat as one would for BPH (benign prostate hyperplasia)…you know, that condition that makes us men over 50 have to get up several times a night to squeeze out a few drops of urine.

 

Frank Zappa

So the disease, as long as it’s confined to the prostate , if not exactly asymptomatic, displays symptoms virtually identical to a benign condition that is quite treatable. Other means of diagnosis, most reliably a PSA (prostatic specific antigen) test can also show elevated PSA levels for a variety of reasons and don’t even always become elevated when the prostate is cancerous. Although testing the PSA level involves a simple blood test and is usefully indicative, it is far from definitive.

 

Far more reliable but extremely subjective and far from definitive is the all-time favourite digital exam. That’s the one where you bend over the examining table, your urologist snaps on the latex, lathers on the lube, and inserts a finger and feels for any anomalies or hardening of the organ. Not everyone enjoys this, so apparently I’m not an anomaly.

 

(The only good thing about my digital exam was the opportunity to deploy grotesque humour during the examination….

Doctor: “Please relax, the pressure and penetration you feel is my finger…”

Me:      “So how come I feel both your hands on my shoulders?”

He had the good grace not to say that he hadn’t heard that one that week.)

Sure enough, the result was that he had detected anomalies and hard spots on the organ…next step…a biopsy. That one is all the fun of the digital exam, except that it takes a whole lot longer, a lot more people, and one hell of a lot of hardware has to do the spelunking and excavation. In this case, a director ensures that his camera  boldly goes where, unless you spent some time on Cell Block C, no man has gone before; along with this, some other technician wields a device invented by the Spanish Inquisition and probes around as directed by Orson Welles and snips out (in my case) fourteen samples of  tissue from a variety of interesting sites on an organ most of us aren’t even aware we possess and whose function remains a virtual mystery to science. When all of the hardware and tissue is removed from your Hershey Highway, you feel as though you’ve just passed a rather large rutabaga. And just to ensure that you retain good memories of the experience, both your urine and your semen are bloody for as much as weeks afterward. I’m not sure that that is a special effect the current spate of romantic vampire movies and TV series is ready to employ, although bloody, red semen is distinctly creepy.

 

They then look at these little chunks of tissue under the microscope and determine how aggressive the cancer is; it’s a complex formula, but in its simplest form 4-6 is intermediately aggressive and grows at a medium pace. 8-10 is very aggressive and grows and spread quickly; your prognosis depends on how early you caught it and whether it has metastasised beyond the prostate.

 

I came up with a 7.

 

So the next step is to do a CT scan and a bone scan. Those will tell if the cancer has spread to the surrounding soft tissue or the bones, respectively. If it has, there is probably nothing to do except treat for symptoms and wait until the cancer takes its inevitable course.

 

If it hasn’t, the normal course of action would be to insert radioactive seeds into the organ and attempt to destroy it and the cancer and surrounding tissue, or go old-school and simply lop out the offending organ, sparing as much of the surrounding tissue as feasible. Either way, the treatment is painful, undignified, leaves some very unpleasant side-effects (impotence is the most obvious, although it is usually susceptible to treatment with boner pills like Viagra), and takes a long time to recover. Until then the main downside is extreme fatigue, leaving it hard to work, let alone take care of a special needs and somewhat hyperactive four year old.

 

So there you have it. Cancer.

 

I can look squarely, if not enthusiastically, at all the unpleasantness for which I am in store. I can cope with hospitalisation, surgery, surgical recovery and after-effects, even death, should that become inevitable sooner than I had expected (of course, I expected to live forever). But it keeps occurring to me that it would have been easier if all this had come up just a little more than ten years ago.

 

I was single and wouldn’t be worried about leaving a widow whom I love deeply and is more than twenty years younger than I am.  Moreover I wouldn’t be the father of a wonderful and special little boy who loves me and depends on me for virtually everything. I would not have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on bribes and travel to get Indonesian civil servants to their jobs, because I thought there was ample time to earn that kind of money again. I would have gone to the police and  the Corruption Eradication Commission and done it the right way, albeit the harder way, instead of doing it the traditional and easier way. 

As it is, I find it hard to work because of chronic fatigue and I’m looking at my next significant birthday marking sixty years of existence on this planet (making me virtually a pariah in an industry that values youth). So, I contribute what I can when an editor buys something, I write even if my work isn’t bought by paying editors, because that’s what I do…I write. And I try to do that in between colouring with JJ, playing with his Spiderman and Super Mario action sets, taking him to preschool, on playdates with other kids, soccer games, swimming lessons and doing housework and cooking for both him and a wife who works full time while she waits for chef school to start in August. My disease progress remains unknown at this point, but I desperately want Yolanda to get started at culinary university because I want to ensure that she has a genuine career should I not be around to see JJ graduate from elementary, let alone high school. It never occurred to me that taking a few years off to care for my parents as they both succumbed to terminal illnesses would not just interrupt my career but interrupt it to an extent that when the interruption was over and they mercifully passed on, I would contract a similar disease that would possibly preclude the resumption of my own life’s work.

I never expected, after having been financially independent for as long as I can remember, to find myself virtually destitute, to be losing my house, being almost unemployable, and in grave danger of leaving a widow and an orphan with little or no financial security, after dying in poverty. Nevertheless, I am determined to maintain a sense of humour, love my wife, cherish my son and do what I can to continue as long as I can with dignity. Dying is easy….comedy is hard.

And I always strive to remember another quote from the Dylan song used for the opening title… it goes….”he not busy being born is busy dying….”

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