Get livin’ or get dyin’

Lughnasa and the Harvest Moon

The Sword of Damocles

New workout. Met with Dave, personal trainer at On the Move Fitness. He’s a thin, muscled guy, a bicyclist’s physique with a hearty, but haunted manner. The curving scar from just above his left temple to parallel with the middle of his left ear explains the haunted part.

He’s an outlier in the world of glioblastoma patients. His surveillance scans were, up until this April, clear. It looked like he had been cured. Then, boom. A seizure. Then, another one. Trips to the E.R. Another scan. The cancer was back.

Since his journey and mine share a lot of similarities, we’ve bonded. Seeing him yesterday was a chance to catch up. He’s been at home most of the time since his surgery, taking chemo and getting his mojo back. I mentioned the awful decision he and Deb had to make about whether to radiate after surgery.

I didn’t want to take all my cards off the table, he said. Meaning he didn’t want to become cognitively deficient, yet alive. A real possibility if he chose radiation. Not radiating made it more likely the cancer could return. Hobson’s choice*. There are instances when living itself becomes a problem. I talked to a lot of smart people. The chemo is a slow trickle. He shook his head, I didn’t want to take all my cards off the table.

We agreed that this cliche has real meaning for both of us: get living or get dying. There’s a choice even here. Do you face toward your life and the world or do you face the disease and death? How you choose matters. The irony of our being together to make my body strong was not lost on me.

Lodge skillets

Afterward I drove over to Evergreen, where I bought a 12″ cast iron skillet. Been wanting one for a while, mostly to sear steaks and roasts. I had a tenderloin roast in the fridge. Tony’s Market, again. Went to the King Sooper next to the Village Gourmet and picked up some potatoes for the evening meal.

Stopped at Congregation Beth Evergreen and made copies for my bagel table on Saturday. I like that we’re merging back into congregational life there.

Guess who was coming to supper? The eminence grisé of the former Crane Engineering. He even has a card, designed by mutual friend Mark Odegard, that says so. Tom’s here for a visit.

Speed Queen 7000 series

Before that though there were matters domestic to take care of. Had to order a new dryer. A Speed Queen. 10 year warranty. These folks trust their work. Appliance Factory. Buy new sheets for our bed. Amazon. Also had to get the malfunctioning O2 concentrator ready to go off for repair. Harder than it could have been. Or, should have been.

Plopped that tenderloin roast on the heated to high cast iron skillet and seared away. Worked well. Coulda been on a chuck wagon on top of Shadow Mountain instead of in our kitchen.

It was good to share the table with Tom. The dogs clambered around him, saying hi. We caught up on his life. Saw each other as only long time friends can see each other.

He and I head over to Bailey this morning for breakfast. We’ll plan, in a very loose sense, our day. Friendships require nurturing. Tom’s excellent at it.

Thomas Hobson

BTW: The phrase is said to have originated with Thomas Hobson (1544–1631), a livery stable owner in Cambridge, England, who offered customers the choice of either taking the horse in his stall nearest to the door or taking none at all. wiki

Heart ripped upward

Lughnasa and the Harvest Moon

Listening to the cybernet radio. Right now John Mayer doing a soulful rendition of Sugaree with Dead and Beyond. These songs reach right into my heart and rip it toward the surface. Here I am! Sad. Worried. Glad. Joy running fast through the blood. Nothing between my skin and my interior, heart and mind connected. Tight.

Lives of Quiet Desperation

Lughnasa and the Harvest Moon

Caveat: Got carried away here. Stuff that’s important to me, but long.

Nighthawks, Edward Hopper

Alienation is killing Americans and Japanese. The age of American despair. American life expectancy has dropped again. This is what life without retirement savings looks like.

Nope, not me. Headlines from articles I noticed over the last couple of weeks. Part of the story is told in the three factors most related to American decline in life expectancy: obesity, suicide, and drug overdoses. Summed up: living lives of quiet desperation.

In Japan the kids have disappeared and left the country to the old folks. People die alone. Unnoticed. Unseen. Unknown.

Ross Douthat, NYT conservative columnist and a voice I listen to, has this paragraph in his article, The Age of American Despair:

…the simultaneity of the different self-destroying trends is a brute fact of American life. And that simultaneity does not feel like just a coincidence, just correlation without entanglement — especially when you include other indicators, collapsing birthrates and declining marriage rates and decaying social trust, that all suggest a society suffering a meaning deficit, a loss of purpose and optimism and direction, a gently dehumanizing drift.” Douthat, NYT, Sept. 7, 2019

Douthat also says, and I agree with him, that: “Despair as a sociological phenomenon is rarely permanent: Some force, or forces, will supply new forms of meaning eventually.” op cit

He’s a Roman Catholic and a conservative so his hope will be that religion and traditional institutions like the family can reassert their culture shaping roles, provide forms of meaning relevant to this crisis.

Another conservative writer, David Byler, wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece that conservatives have already won the culture war. His argument rests on the positive opinion Americans have of the police, the military, and the continued strength of marriage, the family, and religion. These core institutions, beloved of conservatives, are ok, he says, and prove that conservatives have “the winning hand” in the next election.

Can this despair can be handled by leaning into the familiar, the tried, the true? Seems unlikely to me since marriage and the family, religious institutions exist now, are readily available, and yet the despair rises. And, neither the military nor the police can answer because their roles are defensive, reactive to social forces. They’re not shapers or builders. They’re enforcers after the fact.

I see this despair as a disturbing inflection point created by a world in dramatic transformation. Interlocked global economies. Populations shifting locations, putting immigrant pressure on receiving societies and draining resources from the sending ones. A planet shifting from one climate regime to a less forgiving one for humans. Nativist and xenophobic politics which express the despair through anger, rage at the other upsetting democratic institutions worldwide.

I appreciated Douthat’s reminder that despair is rarely permanent. New forms of meaning will arise, as he projects. But from where? Not sure I know.

Scott Nearing, economist and author of a favorite book of mine, Living the Good Life, proposes a mixed economy. The issue is not one, Nearing argues, of a single economic model to rule them all. Rather, we should be making decisions about what aspects of culture belong to which economic model. Roads and infrastructure, schooling, law enforcement, the military, the legal system operate within a socialist model where we all chip in to assure ourselves of educated children, decent roads and bridges, protection against criminals and foreign enemies. Selling cars, fast food, jewelry, books, bicycles and the like operate within a capitalist model. But what about affordable housing and medical care? What about support for the unemployed or the victims of Schumpeter’s creative destruction?

As in Nearing’s approach to economics, I believe the answer to the despair engendered by a transforming global culture lies in a mixed political response. That is, we need to support some institutions conservatives love: marriage, the family, law enforcement, and the military because they are core to a sense of social security, a feeling of safety. Let’s set aside religion for now. We don’t have to support those institutions in the same way conservatives would. That is, we can favor marriage between persons who love each other while recognizing the non-binary nature of human sexuality. Similar thoughts can apply to the other three.

But, these institutions exist in political and economic contexts that have profound effects on their well-being. Is housing affordable? Is there work for you that pays a living wage? Can you get the medical care you need when you need it? What it will be like for you when you retire? Can you retool yourself for a new career? Are your children receiving the sort of education they need to thrive?

Let’s return now to religion. And, the arts. Bread and roses. “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.” Rose Schneiderman, an organizer for the Women’s Trade Union of New York. Bread and Roses wiki

Positive changes to the economic and social conditions of oppression are, said another way, critical and necessary; but, they are not sufficient. The spirit must be fed, too. Everyone has a right to realize and live out their ikigai.

What religion does, at its best, is help folks develop a coherent view of life’s meaning and create a support system to help them realize it. At its worst religion pretends to have found the only meaning and creates a phalanx of enforcers for that view.

The arts also feed the soul. But they are often kept behind an elite curtain wall of high ticket prices, imposing museum corridors, and a presumed sine qua non of education to appreciate.

If we’re looking for areas outside the rough and tumble of politics for dealing with despair, both religion and the arts can play significant roles. It is here, I believe, that new meaning will arise, will begin to integrate world economies, help us adapt to climate change even as we fight its worsening, enable us to see the other not as a threat, but as a potential new friend, fellow worker, marriage partner.

Living. Longer.

Lughnasa and the Harvest Moon

Business Insider, graphic from NIH

First phase: education. Starts with, oh yeah gotta breathe!, can continue through graduate school. But those first twenty or so years focus on learning the terrain. Second phase: family and career. In this phase we put that education to work. The hallmark of the second phase is agency. Raising children. Building a career. Becoming who you are. All human generations have had these two phases.

The third phase though. The children are gone. Work is over. Most humans in most generations died either during the second phase or not far into the third. Used to be 18 months after retirement (at 65) for men where I grew up. This chart sums it up.

Doorway to the Third Phase

Average lifespan though is just that. Even when it was thirty or forty-according to this chart not so long ago, 1840-1870-there were always those who lived into their seventies and eighties, even made it to one hundred. The physiologically determined human lifespan, somewhere between 110 and 122 has not changed.

The average person in the U.S. can expect to live to around seventy nine or 80. Obesity, suicide, and drug overdoses have caused a decline in average US life expectancy in this new millennium. Still, most of us can expect to live around 15 years past the old retirement age of 65.

If education defines phase one, agency phase two, what defines the third phase? We’re living into that question right now, us Baby Boomers. There’s a family piece, especially for grandkids. There’s a how to live with ailments and decline piece. A self-awareness, self-acceptance piece. A how to deal with death as a nearby event piece?

There’s a money piece here, too. It makes me wonder if the suicide rate that’s part of life expectancy decline in the US will increase. A friend, Carol, said her father died two months before his money ran out. What will we do if we live longer than whatever savings we’ve managed to accumulate? What if medicare and social security are not enough? Almost certainly the case for most. Will the true death panels be the looming loss of agency occasioned by poverty?

The third phase may be the time when your most authentic self comes to the surface. This is my greatest hope. That release from the demands of career and family might liberate us to live into our best selves. Of course, that demands self-awareness, an examined life. Perhaps leaning into the inscription over Apollo’s temple will be become the essence of the third phase. The unexamined life is not worth living.

Your third phase ikigai will emerge if you let it. You don’t need to push. I’m interested in what you find. Or, if you’ve already found it. What gets you up in the morning?

Waiting

Lughnasa and the Harvest Moon

Hard to lean into life right now. My ikigai is faint, a shadow flickering from the last log on the fire. Whether it’s lingering effects of the radiation, the Lupron, or the dismal psychic space of too much stress for too long, my motivation level looks like the bathtub ring on Lake Mead. I can see where it used to be and can’t imagine what will fill up the lake again.

The feeling is not despair or depression, rather it’s like I’m witnessing my own life right now. Not a full participant.

October, 2016, Mitigation round 1

Fire mitigation entails a lot of manual labor. Which I like. Work with the chain saw. The peavey. Wheel barrows. Lifting, pushing. Moving rock. The heat we’ve had and the weakness I feel in spite of continuing my workouts has made it seem too hard. I can feel the pressure of fall turning into winter pushing back at me, reminding me that this work is seasonal and that season is now.

Ancientrails, two million words worth, sits in year stacks on a long desk/table. I got that far, but haven’t done more. The years need to get drilled and put into binders. Superior Wolf, too. I want to revise it, take it apart and put it back together, but when do I do that? I just turn away from the task.

Cooking is fun again. I’ve done some painting. My bagel table prep work has gone well. I’m ready. This blog gets written, every morning. I read. Finished Second Empire, the fourth in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels. Listening to books on my phone, through blue tooth in the car. I have meals with friends.

Even with these though I feel like I’m waiting for something. Something else. Something more. A new pattern of life, a new enthusiasm.

The trick is, waiting is wu wei. Sitting beside myself as my life flows on around me. At some point my ikigai will resurface or reform. I know it will. But waiting? Still hard.

If you can’t stand the heat

Lughnasa and the Harvest Moon

Yesterday the fire danger was very high. Good thing we got a deluge in the afternoon. Rain fell like a waterfall, gushing over the roof and the solar panels, covering the driveway in an inch or so of water. Since this is Colorado weather, we also had some hail. Not very big, but abundant.

Had an early breakfast with friend Rich Levine. Muddy Buck in Evergreen. We discussed introspection, family, the true meaning of Trump. Rich thinks, and I agree, Trump has exposed our true nature as a country. He mentioned the 1619 project, the first date slaves came to our shores. Oh, yeah, I said. And the 3/5ths compromise. Who could vote? White, male, property owners.

Rich teaches constitutional law and intellectual property rights law at the Colorado School of Mines in addition to his practice. It’s his feeling that we can solve the carbon emissions problem, especially with available or not too distant technology. But, he said, we may not be able to solve the warming problem.

He’s right. The question now is not whether the climate will change drastically, but by how much. A 2 degree temperature rise is baked in with current carbon levels in the atmosphere. We can still hold down the damage, but we need to act now.

Later in the day our dryer stopped working. We bought appliances after our move and chose Samsung. Bad idea. Great phones. Bad dishwashers, clothes dryers and washers. The fridge seems ok. Over to the Grimebusters Laundromat to finish drying clothes, then to Best Buy to order a new dryer.

Life doesn’t stop for illness or exhaustion. Clothes get dirty. Food needs to be cooked. Cars require gas and oil changes. Seems merciless, but it’s not.

Transmutation

Lughnasa and the Harvest Moon

painting on the near side, sumi-e on the other

Reorganized my art cart (Jon’s name for it) so I could do sumi-e on one side and oil painting on the other. Finding myself more willing to engage physical tasks like this reorganizing, the fire mitigation, making art than writing. Is this my ikigai trying to surface? Don’t know. Waiting. Going with the flow of my life.

Phone appointment with Dr. Gilroy. Spoke with Amanda, his nurse, and Carmela, the friendly receptionist, too. A follow-up for side effects. Some mild urinary urgency, nocturia ( getting up more than once at night to pee), and hot flashes. None of them bad.

After telling me to make an appointment for eleven months from now, Dr. Gilroy suggested that I might be on the Lupron for a year, not six months. Sigh. Of course I want to do what gives me the best chance of a cure. Silly to resist. But. I’d like to know whether this is over or not. A year of Lupron would mean I couldn’t get that defining PSA until mid-September of 2020. I feel cured. I’d like to find out if I’m right.

Ah, it only two paragraphs for me to stop going with the flow. Again, sigh. Good lesson. I’ll wait.

After talking with Dr. Gilroy, I left for Evergreen and a bowl painting party. What’s that? We go to this crafty shop where they sell blank ceramic objects from bowls to plates to teapots to bumblebees. The nice lady there explains how the various glazes work.

After finishing. Kate and Marilyn, the organizer (the green one is Kate’s bowl)

The bowls raise money for the Mountain Resource Center, a multi-pronged social service agency that serves the Conifer/Evergreen area. Volunteers like our mussar group get together and each person creates a bowl of their own design. The craft shop fires the bowls. Later on a silent auction is held at two gatherings.

My appointment made me a bit late so I chose basic black for my bowl. From the bowl painting we went on to CBE for our regular Thursday mussar group. Fran, women in the black t-shirt above, led a discussion on aging.

In the conversation I introduced my third phase idea, ikigai, and a thought I had after an e-mail from Charlie Haislet. He’d been to several funerals of late and said, “The golden years suck.” “Yeah,” I wrote back, “often more lead than gold.”

Light bulb went on. The main task of the third phase is alchemical. We must somehow transmute the lead of anxiety, illness, slowing down, deaths of our friends and loved ones, into gold. How? Different for each of us, but some tools for the aging alchemist: acceptance, wu wei, gratitude, greeting one’s own mortality as a friend and not an enemy, friends, and family.

Kate was out and about with the bowl painting and mussar. Her stamina has improved a lot. She did get short of breath near the end. We’re both looking forward to the National Jewish appointment next week. She needs a diagnosis, a treatment plan, and a prognosis.

Pupating

Lughnasa and the Harvest Moon

Work out yesterday. Wore myself out. Guess that’s the point. I made a promise to myself that I would hit all of my workouts during the radiation treatments. I did that. Ready for the new set of exercises. See Deb on Tuesday at 10 am.

Made spaghetti bolognese last night. Tony’s bolognese sauce and an Italian durum pasta. Vegetables. Easy. I’m enjoying cooking again. It’s not the slog it was during the early weeks of radiation.

The post below outlines my current dilemma. Hanging from the yardarm, neither on the boat nor in the sky. The ocean beneath both. Won’t last. Just like my current, I’m a TV critic level of watching won’t either.

Serious illness spins a chrysalis around us, a secluded darkness in which matters of previous importance drop away. All energy focuses on transformation, altering the sick person and his past, imaginal cells bending and twisting, changing. What will he become?

Zhuangzi

I’m impatient for my wings. Guess this is a good opportunity to practice the middah of the month, equanimity. Back off the accelerator. Lean in to the healing, transformative moment, even if the moment lasts months. Practice wu wei. Yes.

I’m not impatient for angel wings. So, yes, the chrysalis moment is necessary. The caterpillar can’t envision the butterfly.

Ikigai

Lughnasa and the Harvest Moon

Radiation done. Lupron still on board. At least one more injection. Oct. 1st. If that’s it, three months after January 1, I’ll have a PSA that tells the tale of the radiation. Did it work?

Hot flushes, the occasional flash. One drastic mood swing. All I have to show for the forces of life vs. the forces of mortality. Leaves me in this in-between place. Cured? Maybe. Can’t know until I’m off the Lupron. Cancer still stalking me? Can’t know until I’m off the Lupron. So. Caught between knowing I have a reemergence and not knowing what my oncologist’s treatments have accomplished. In the quickest scenario it will be a year from the diagnostic PSA in March of this year.

Though I feel calm, not agitated or anxious about this, that’s not to say there’s no effect. The chief of which is a floaty, not grounded sensation. Am I living or am I dying? To be sure both are always true, but in this instance I’m not sure whether the dying has gotten the upper hand. Leaves me unmoored. The dirigible of my Self has broken loose from its tie down on the Empire State Building and has drifted out to sea.

Result. Not sure what comes next. Motivation hollowed out. Sense of purpose broken up like ragged clouds in a high wind.

Ikigai (生き甲斐) – Reason for Being “Finding it requires a deep and often lengthy search of self-discovery and reflection… The word “ikigai” is usually used to indicate the source of value in one’s life or the things that make one’s life worthwhile… In the culture of Okinawa, ikigai is thought of as “a reason to get up in the morning”; that is, a reason to enjoy life.” from Creative by Nature.

Right now the reason I get up is to feed Rigel, Gertie, and Kepler. After that I write Ancientrails. On three days I follow breakfast with a workout. After that my day begins to wander, to pull away from my choosing. Not used to that. At least not for any length of time. I don’t want to be at this in March of next year.

Maybe my ikigai right now involves finding my ikigai for a place between life and death. So the search is the thing. Not the destination? I don’t know. Wish I did.