On Bodies

robinson

While surfing around for something to watch, I checked out Ted Talks. I clicked on “25 Most Popular” and was surprised to see the 15-year-old talk by Sir Ken Robinson still at the top of the list. I loved that talk from the first time (of many, many times) I listened to it. There was one part – and not a really central one – that has stuck with me for some reason. Robinson asserts that “the purpose of the education system is to produce university professors” and then goes off a bit sideways on that group . . . one that I belonged to more than any other at that time.

And I like university professors, but, you know, we shouldn’t hold them up as the high-water mark of all human achievement. They’re just a form of life. Another form of life. But they’re rather curious. And I say this out of affection for them: there’s something curious about professors. In my experience — not all of them, but typically — they live in their heads. They live up there and slightly to one side. They’re disembodied, you know, in a kind of literal way. They look upon their body as a form of transport for their heads. (Laughter) Don’t they? It’s a way of getting their head to meetings. (Laughter) If you want real evidence of out-of-body experiences, by the way, get yourself along to a residential conference of senior academics and pop into the discotheque on the final night. (Laughter) And there, you will see it. Grown men and women writhing uncontrollably, off the beat. (Laughter) Waiting until it ends, so they can go home and write a paper about it.

This section of the talk struck me so deeply because – except for the bad dancing part – I completely recognized my own relationship to my body. I lived mostly in my head, taking my body for granted and ignoring it as much as possible. It was basically just my head’s means of transport. I needed it to get my mind back and forth to work, to get my dog walked around the cornfield every day and to take my mind and heart on travels to different places. If my body ever needed my attention for some reason, it had to yell pretty loudly before I would listen.

And yell loudly it did last December.

One major change that has come from dealing with serious illness is that it has forced a realignment in the relationship between my body and mind. I have had to focus on my health and learn about every organ and system inside me. At the same time, I unavoidably and unfortunately discovered something else:

The human body is revolting.

Seriously, the body seems to have a hundred ways to shed and spread little pieces of itself all day long and every day. To continually eject its detritus out into the world in various forms.

Put aside the Big Five (Blood, Sweat & Tears, Number One and Number Two) and it turns out there are all these other ways for the body to get rid of stuff – from dandruff, to ear wax, to eye gunk. There are boogers and snot – sometimes aerosolized by sneezes. There is spit and drool and phlegm coughed up from the lungs. There are scabs and puss. There is burping and farting. There are secretions, menstruation, ejaculation, regurgitation. Hundreds of hairs and thousands (millions?) of skin particles departing every day. There are fingernail cuttings and callous scrapings. There is toe jam.

It is uncharacteristic of me to even talk about such gross things, much less write about them. In fact, words like “booger” in the paragraph above are probably making their debuts on this blog. I’m quite sure that “ejaculation” is.  But almost all of these bodily expulsions have become issues at one point or the other in the past three months. And with dignity being one of the first casualties of a cancer diagnosis, they have become topics of open conversation in my household. (It reminds me of our first days with Mitzi when we could spend hours discussing with fascination the changing color, volume, form, and consistency of her poop.) I haven’t been able to just ignore it all. And I sooooo want to. I want to get back to my more professorially distanced relationship to my body. But I am not sure that is possible.

In a therapy session I heard the theory that cancer patients see their lives as split into two – the Before and After Times, so to speak, separated by the day of the original discovery and preliminary diagnosis. I have been chewing on that nugget ever since. I have met cancer survivors who have called their tumors “a gift” because they were propelled into a whole new set of priorities and attitudes that changed their lives for the better somehow. My problem is that my Before Times Life was a pretty great one and not particularly in need of big changes. I don’t want to let it go – or to let go of the hope that I can get back to it someday.

And then there is my Trek* blog – a weird eclectic mix of memoir, reflection, musings, travel experiences, moments in parenting and teaching, silly daily life stuff, and the occasional rant about politics or religion. And chickens, of course. Goats sometimes too. The thing is – I like it the way it is. I don’t want it to turn into Cancer Blog. I don’t want to keep polluting it (like I have done here) with talk of disease and detritus, littering and splattering it with all the little undignified turds of the cancer experience.

So even though I have been writing and writing and writing, I haven’t been doing much posting. And I miss it! I need a solution. One where I can keep this Trek* the way it is and still share my cancer story with those who may be interested in that.

kraken01

So here is my little announcement . . .

I just set up a separate page where I will post all of the health-related stuff and where I will tell my whole cancer story from the beginning, one chapter at a time. You can get to that by clicking on “Let Loose the Kraken” up in the menu line. (I’m still working out the technical side, so expect some hiccups.) You can also get to it by clicking on this link:

https://circumstance227.wordpress.com/let-loose-the-kraken/

You can also ignore the page altogether, which, believe me, I will understand. Especially after this post, which gives you a little taste of what to expect there. It’s not all pretty.

Fifty-nine

My birthday was almost two weeks ago, but keeping with the procrastination subtext of this blog, I am just getting to the subject now. Each year I do a little birthday post in which I take stock of the state of my life. This year was a doozy.

I began almost three years ago to prepare for my impending retirement – originally slated for September 2021. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t fall into a confused funk, unable to enjoy filling out each day with whatever projects struck my fancy at that particular moment. I didn’t think I would do well with structureless time or the end of gaining new insights and stories through work. I started a mental list of retirement projects – new things to try out or tackle once I finally had the time for them.

It turns out all that worry was unnecessary. The list of “new experiences” I’ve had in just the past three months is already long. I was on an operating table for the first time and was “put under”. I got my first incision and scar. I spent my first night in a hospital. I had to use a diaper for the first time since potty training and smoked pot for the first time since high school. I had my daughter cut my hair off – the shortest it has ever been. I dialled the Austrian version of 911 for the first time in my life and then used a fire extinguisher to put out a wall of flames in my upstairs bathroom. I sat in an ambulance while they checked me for smoke inhalation. I had my first therapy session with a psychologist. I realized suddenly that I am already retired, and so far, it has not been at all what I expected.

Before you all start envying me, let me add that I also had two Christmases this year. With so many people worried about me, with all the packages and flowers showing up at the door, with all the cards and letters and messages and calls and wishes and presents, I got overwhelmed by it all. I experienced a new insight that I am surrounded and blessed by so many friends and family members who made an extra point of expressing their love and concern this year. I felt the warm wave of their support buoying me through these hard times. It keeps me going. It makes me wonder, not with trepidation, but with hopefulness and determination, what I will be writing in next year’s birthday post titled “Sixty”.

 

Letter to 2020

Based on all the videos and memes being bounced around the internet, all the cards and Christmas letters and text messages I have gotten, there seems to be an absolutely universal agreement that the year 2020 was the worst. thing. ever. and can only be despised. “Good Riddance!” is attitude of the whole world. I was on that wavelength, too, beginning my own Christmas New Year`s letter with a note to 2020 that no one will miss it (except maybe that one guy, whom no one will miss either).

But then something happened.

On the very last day of the year, December 31st, 2020, I got some very good news. I’m talking life-changing news. Suddenly, my heart began to soften. I started feeling sorry for the year. I mean, Coronavirus is not 2020’s fault! The pwesident was not 2020’s fault – in fact it was the year we got rid of him! It was time break with the herd and find something nice to say. I added an epilogue to my letter:

 Dear 2020,

As much as you sucked, you WERE a year of spectacular sunsets. I still won’t miss you, but I am thankful that you – in contrast to that other guy – clearly know how to make a beautiful exit.

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The Ghost of Christmas Present

I am late in sending out my customary blogworld Christmas greetings this year due to an unexpected family emergency. Gingerbread Man (of “My Velveteen Rabbit” fame) had to go to the hospital.

One week beforehand a problem had been discovered and all thoughts of work or Christmas preparations or Covid lockdowns dissipated. The focus turned entirely to health issues.

Last Wednesday, Gingerbread Man arrived at the clinic and was admitted. A whirlwind ensued. Two procedures were done on Thursday and Friday, the doped-up recovery began on Saturday. On Sunday, he was already allowed to go home – with a list of medications and a little less stuffing.  He’s a bit blurry about the whole experience but remembers A LOT of needles and that the food there really sucked.

The early release was lucky, because it gave us all enough time to do any neglected preparations and pull off – somewhat contrary to earlier expectations – a wonderful Christmas Eve.

I’m happy to be able to tell you that Gingerbread Man is feeling a little better each day. He spends a lot of his time now in the new recliner with his new electric blanket. Here he is,  staring at the Christmas tree lights, basking in nice memories and hopeful feelings for the future.

Happy Times

It is a Halloween tradition of this blog to post something ghoulish. This year’s contribution comes to you thanks to the pwesident, coronavirus, my mother, and the latest book on my reading list.

While looking around for the next book to start, I first landed on “Factfulness” in which a cheery Swedish sociologist tries to convince the world that it really isn’t in a handbasket heading towards hell. In fact, all sorts of statistics show that in many issues  – infant mortality, overpopulation, girl’s education, extreme poverty, etc etc. – things have been improving for decades. After four or five chapters of this optimism, I found myself getting increasingly irritated. It all just didn’t jibe with my dark sense of the current world.

In an act of uncharacteristic perversity, I put “Factfulness” down and picked up this one instead:

I say perversity, because the other half of my brain has been feebly attempting to tune out all the sources of my constant low-grade anxiety. I no longer obsessively track the number of coronavirus cases in my home state. Now that my vote has been sent off (and officially received!), I try to tune out the daily political outrages from Twump & Co. I purposefully attempt to put myself into “travel mode” – that wonderful, peaceful state of mind I have whenever I am on the road with its blissful acceptance that “whatever happens now happens” and all will be good.

So, it is a strange time to pick up a book that “travels” back to a time and place of particular misery, desperation, death, insanity, tragedy, etc. in Wisconsin history. It is as if this choice is the ultimate anti-antidote to my current efforts to tune out. And yet, it has been strangely cathartic.

The actual physical book has a history of its own. It first spent about a decade on my mother’s coffee table. Over the years she asked me a multitude of times if I had read it, but I had never done more that pick it up, flip randomly through it and scan some of the pictures. She never stopped recommending it and so I eventually “borrowed” it. That was about 15 years ago. In the time since, it has switched from collecting my mother’s Wisconsin living room dust to collecting my Austrian library dust.

A few days ago, I dusted it off and cracked it open.

It’s the strangest thing I have ever read. There are no page numbers or chapter titles. It has three sections, but I see no real thematic reason for having them. Other than a loosely followed year-by-year chronology, there is no apparent organization in the selection and placement of the pictures. In between the years, there is a section of photographs that seem to bear no relation to the texts that precede or follow it. Here is a small sampling of ones that caught my attention:

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The text sections consist of snippets of newspaper articles, records from the state insane asylum, and short book excerpts by contemporaneous Wisconsinite authors. It is just a relentless piling on – like a mountain of carcasses outside a slaughterhouse – of suicides, murders, arson, epidemics, deadly snake oil cures, bank failures and economic ruin, commitments to insane asylums, looting vagabonds, religious delusions, and infant-sized coffins. Apparently, this period of economic depression in Wisconsin history (1890 – 1910) was a particularly bad one.

The high level of early voting has led Michael McDonald, the University of Florida professor who administers the U.S. Elections Project, to predict a record U.S. voter turnout of about 150 million, representing 65% of those eligible to vote, the highest rate since 1908.

By the time I finished the book, the year 2020 suddenly didn’t seem quite as bad. Now I know that there was at least one era in which life was nastier, more brutish and generally shorter. Coronavirus is awful but imagine how much worse it would be if it afflicted children first and foremost – the way many diseases of that period did. The Time of Twump has often made me feel something like despair, but lately it also seems to have set off the largest voter participation since  . . . well, since 1908 – as I just read yesterday.

It’s Halloween, which means there are just three more days until the election. I think I will be able to get through them, too, without throwing myself into a cistern or setting someone’s barn on fire.

Ugly Chicken Update

As readers will know, I wrote a while back about my slightly deformed and unfeathered chick, Quasi the Second. At the time, I showed the pictures to expert chicken keepers, among whom the general consensus was that this bird would not be long for this world.

But she kept bopping along despite being ostracized and banned from the henhouse. Despite almost drowning in the duck pond. Despite the massive second wave of red fowl mites that had the husband cleaning out the henhouse in a Hazmat suit wielding a blowtorch.

Take a look at her now:

Okay, so not exactly a beautiful swan, but also no longer the world’s ugliest chicken. And more importantly, still hanging in there.

Speaking of loners and survivors, check out the latest “New infections in the past 14 days” map of Austria.

See the little green speck in the bottom right corner of the country? The only district in the entire country with no new infections? That’s where we are.

Our ears are filled with the crashing sounds of second waves all around us, but, apparently, we’re still hanging in there.

Ten Ten Twenty Twenty

 

I like today’s date. I like the sound and the numerical symmetry of it. Seems like a day to do something with. Something memorable. Maybe start something new or end something that has gotten old. Or both.

To get some inspiration, I turned to the Google and quickly arrived at the NationalDayCalendar.com website. Here’s what I found:

Apparently, angel food cake, handbags and costume-swapping all have their own holidays. I wasn’t aware of that, maybe because none of these things particularly interest me. I also don’t decorate cakes, play chess or ride motorcycles. All that leaves is yarn and mental health, but, fortunately, there is currently no crisis in my life for me to crochet my way through.

I would like to know, though, why there is a coffee stain on the calendar. And why is it circling the 11th instead of the 10th? And why do the week rows on this calendar start on Tuesdays and end on Mondays? These are mysteries I would like to get to the bottom of.

Maybe I’ll do that tomorrow.

 

Election Night in Loopyville

Let me start by saying that my daughters were NOT taking me seriously in my efforts to do absentee voting by the book. Thanks to Daughter 1’s boyfriend, I have dozens of pictures of each stage of the procedure to back me up.

There was the showing of the empty ballots
There was the anonymous filling out of ballots
There was the inserting into and sealing of the (naked) envelope
There was the signing of the certification form
There was the witness signing of the certification form
There was the affixing of the certification form to the naked envelope
There was the inserting of the naked envelope affixed with voter-signed and witness-signed certification form into a second envelope and addressing it
There was a Happy End

I mailed off our ballots two days ago. I can already say with certainty, even though I didn’t look, that the Loopyville contingent of Milwaukee’s Ward 132 went 0% for the current pwesident. I can also say that I feel different. Like maybe there is a proverbial light at the end of this crappy four-year-long tunnel. Like maybe it is no longer my civic responsibility to follow every outrageous or scandalous twist and every shitshow turn between now and November 3rd.

I have my final golf lesson tomorrow. After that I might do some gardening.

– – – – – – – – –

Postscript

I really should know better by now than to make predictions. After writing the above yesterday, I was too tired to post it and decided to wait until morning. The first thing I see after firing up my laptop is the news about the pwesident’s positive Covid test . . . .

Labor Day

 

NERD ALERT!

I’m not sure there was anything in my childhood that excited me more than the first day of a new school year.

I remember how I spent the last day of my summer vacation before beginning First Grade (and every year afterward) deep cleaning my room. How I then carefully chose and laid out my clothes, right down to the socks and underwear. How I lovingly fondled my new school supplies – the notebooks and pencils and whatever else was necessary in 1968 – and placed them next to my outfit in perfect perpendicularity.

I might have added “my new lunchbox” to the collection and experienced a similar feeling of excited satisfaction – that is, if I had had one. I would soon learn that the Elementary School cafeteria was segregated into the Cool Lunchbox Kids and the Brown Paper Bag Kids. I was in the latter group. Later, in the Third Grade, I would learn that there was a difference between the kids with real Converse shoes and those with the Target version. I was in the latter group. Even later, I would learn that there was a difference between kid with real alligator shirts and those without – but by then, I had stopped caring.

Despite these repeated revelations, my excitement for the first day of school – year after year – never diminished. After all the cleaning and preparation was done, I would go to bed at a seriously sensible time and then lie awake in happy anticipation for hours on end.

I loved school.

 

Back to the Future Present – 52 years Later:

 

I went to bed last night at 10:00 pm with “school supplies” prepared, but no concrete wardrobe plan. I had no trouble falling asleep.

I don’t think our first day of school could have gone any better. The remaining usual kids arrived with smiles and stories. The new kids arrived with exceptionally engaged parents in tow. They came with baskets full of donations to our first day breakfast. They came with appreciation and excitement and a desire to contribute and belong. They came with a desperately needed new and positive energy.

All three of our groups of students had a positive experience in their first hour of being together. They talked and listened and related. In the group I was in, our “integration student” – a kid who would have been called “mentally retarded” back when I was in school – had her turn to speak. She was taken seriously and respected.

In the break, about 20 0f our 37 kids spontaneously started a soccer match on the playground. They ranged from the ages of 7 to 15, but they worked out team arrangements equitably and the more powerful kids paid attention to and took care of the younger ones.  Among the non-soccer players, I could see that every “new kid” had already found a new friend. They all had fun.

At some point, in the middle of all the action, I was in the kitchen. I looked out the window and saw two new parents sitting on a bench, watching their kid on the playground. They were obviously beyond happiness. This was just what they had hoped for.

Eventually, the buses started to arrive, and the kids and families left for the day. I wandered back to the far side of the school – out of sight of any remaining people – and sat down.

“So, that was it.” I thought. “My very last first day of school.”  To my own surprise, I felt the tears coming.

So happy. So sad. At the same time.