Flu / Not-the-flu

Image from ramdass.org.

I’ve got the flu. It was very bad Tuesday night and all of Wednesday. 
When you’ve got flu-like symptoms no one wants to see you. The cancer center didn’t want me to come in at all even though this is the lowest I’ve felt since my fainting / fever spell in December. I considered going to the emergency room. 
I went to urgent care and strange enough, I tested negative for flu. The doctor immediately starting talking about false negatives. The paperwork I left with still says I have the flu. I know what you’re thinking– don’t think that. It’s not. Is it some universal joke that after I survive the big C-word that now’s there’s another c-word that’s scaring everyone? Another c-word. Great.

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Everything and Nothing

Photo by GEORGE DESIPRIS from Pexels

[Preface: I have amazing support from my family, Paige, my church, friends, doctors & other health professionals. I am lucky. But it’s still a struggle.]

“It’s a terrible thing, I think, in life to wait until you’re ready. I have this feeling now that actually no one is ever ready to do anything. There is almost no such thing as ready. There is only now. And you may as well do it now. Generally speaking, now is as good a time as any.”

Hugh Laurie

For me, the revelation came after a sequence of words. Like a certain combination and cadence unlocked a door. “You’re not feeling yourself today, are you?” That was what my nurse asked at my latest cancer center check-in. Before the question was even done I felt the tears welling up in my eyes and then hot streaks down my cheeks. “No,” I answered weakly.

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The DMV and David

An image from Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America, not a picture of David.

On Monday I had to go to the DMV to register a vehicle. I had planned for it to take the entire morning. Most depictions of the DMV regard it as a sort of place of misery and torture- it’s comically referred to as hell and the workers there are often cast as uncaring, cold, and lovers or bureaucracy.

But for me, the second I walked into the office door, it was completely different. Yes, there was a long line, but I like lines and I am carefully not to take out my phone during lines (I’m a believer in the right to be bored). The line twists around in a strange way that it required some pacing around to find the end. Once there, I saw other people come in and do the same thing. The line snakes in front of the entryway so people in line had to move for the door to open. As opposed to being annoyed or giving off frustrated sighs, people gladly moved and helped others find the end of the line. When I looked around I saw every sort of person in the City, every color, well-off and not-so-well-off, lots of different nationalities. People were being friendly in line and making each other laugh. 

I think the last time I was in a public place for government business was to vote. The lines and demeanor there was completely different. Everyone tight-lipped. Anxious sighs and glaces at watches. People guarding their space carefully and making sure no one cut the line. 

The DMV was a welcome change. A lady in line in front of me helped a younger gentleman with all of the paperwork he’d need to complete his task. He realized he was missing some items and left the office. The lady called out from the door, “And you’ll have five days to change your insurance!” She’d either just been through the same thing or was an expert in DMV procedure. 
I got to the line and told them why I was there, showed them I had the paperwork, and got a ticket. I took a seat and waited. I was called up and the nice lady at the counter helped me out and asked if I was ready for Valentine’s Day. This is how cancer survivorship can just come up in conversation. I told her I wasn’t sure, we’d been talking about just agreeing to not doing anything given our state at the moment, and it’s been rough going for a bit. She genuinely looked concerned and asked why, and I mentioned survivorship. She was sympathetic for me, but still urged me to do something for my wife like cook a meal or get her something small. She had this conversation with me while working on all my paperwork. She finished and wished me well, as I did to her, and I was on my way. I actually really like the DMV.

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The Fellowship of Survivors

Photo by Helena Lopes from Pexels

There is a certain form of a secret handshake among survivors. A knowing nod. A recognizable depth to the eyes. When a person has gone to the edge of the unknowable and yet is still present in this world, that person cannot hold themselves the same.

Survivors speak the same language. Cancer has its own vocabulary. While some forms might require new terms or lingo, we still understand each other– like an American and a British person speaking to one another.

One afternoon I was in a doctor’s exam room. It is actually one of Paige’s doctors. This doctor in particular had advanced stage breast cancer and was absent from her practice for a long while. Eventually, she returned as a survivor but forever changed. On a checkup, Paige heard her story. Then when everything happened to me, Paige told her my story. The doctor and I actually have the same oncologist and radiation oncologist. I remember sitting in that chair and drifting in and out of sleep, exhausted from the high-dose steroid fatigue and lack of sleep.

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Suffering and Oneness

Despite some recent health setbacks, I’m not going to start up the weekly updates tab again. Instead, I’ve decided to write a post and then put some health updates at the end for those interested. If you’re mostly concerned with the health update, then jump down to the writing below the 2nd divider.


I’ve been thinking a lot about suffering since New Year’s Day. I’ve endured my own small form of suffering (more on that below the divider) and I’ve read some fascinating ideas about the subject. 

Previously, I’ve mentioned suffering in a post with some quotes and anecdotes from Maharajji. “I love suffering. It brings me closer to God,” he is quoted as saying. As I deal with my small issue and think about my trials since last April, I can realize the truth found in that statement. There is something very real about suffering. It forces you to be in the moment. I read recently that some mystics have thought that all suffering is the same, that there is only one suffering. When you suffer, it’s almost a sacred and communal act.

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John rambles about his health, Ram Dass, and 2020

I don’t have anything distilled to impart to you today. No book, no music, no movie. This time it’s just me, typing away about a few things I’ve been thinking about. Hopefully, one of them holds your attention.

My health has been relatively stable since passing out before Christmas. Nobody is really sure what happened to me. I think they threw the kitchen sink at me to get me healthy for Christmas, and it worked. (Kitchen sink = IV fluids, IV steroids, and 7 days of antibiotics.) I took a trip to Tampa with my daughter after Christmas and was there until New Year’s Eve. I started noticing something strange about my stomach and felt some slight head pain.

When I came back home I noticed the head pain was made worse by the cold weather. After some experimentation, I found that keeping my head nice and warm staves off this pain. So sometimes I’m now sporting unseasonably bulky head covers. Wool beanies are my favorite. At a December appointment I found out that there is an small open space between my skull and the titanium plate in my head. The plate is attached to the skull by 16 different screws. But my theory is that the space between my skull and the plate is especially sensitive to the cold and can cause some pain. So hats provide some nice coverage.

The stomach pains lasted for another week and I’m still dealing with them in a small way. It’s tough not to jump to the worst possible conclusion for what’s behind the pain. For me, there’s not much space between “This is nothing, it’ll pass,” and “The sky is falling!” In talking about this with Paige she captured it perfectly, “Ever since immunotherapy, your body is a question mark. So much of immunotherapy isn’t even understood yet, who knows what’s going on in there.” Yep. Today my stomach is feeling pretty good, strangely. Human bodies are weird.

I found out through Paige that Ram Dass passed away before Christmas. I’ve written about Ram Dass on this blog before. I have some of his books and have listened to a collection of his lectures (Experiments in Truth). I think he is a fascinating spiritual figure, drawn to different understandings of suffering, God, being and non-being. One of the anecdotes he tells in Experiments in Truth really sticks with me. He was talking about being on a speaking tour (I think) and checking into a hotel room, feeling exhausted and wishing he was home. In his hotel room, he stopped, and starting to think of himself and his surroundings in a cosmic sense. He started to zoom out from his point of view. The hotel room, the city, the state, the country, the continent, the world, the solar system, the galaxy, the entirety of space. Given the vastness of space, he realized there’s not too much difference between his hotel room and his actual home. This universe and everywhere in it was his home. If I can’t be at home in this universe, what’s the point? he thought. Then he decided to be home, there in the hotel room. He opened the hotel door and shouted into the hallway, “I’m home!” He learned to be home everywhere. That’s a lesson that sticks with me. Be home everywhere. On delayed flights, in doctor waiting rooms, in traffic, at parties when you don’t know anyone. Be home. And you know what? It freaks people out. Next time you’re at a party and you don’t know anyone, try to be home. You’ll see other people become uncomfortable on your behalf– it’s crazy. They’ll say or think, “Why isn’t he talking to anyone? Why isn’t he checking his phone? Why isn’t he anxious?” And suddenly they’ll start talking to you. They’ll leave quickly because you’re not buying into the dominant culture. But you can just continue to be home.

I like the way that Pete Holmes said it on his podcast. He doesn’t say Ram Dass died, but that he “left his body.” It’s like ice melting into water or a wave disappearing into the ocean. As a Harvard professor from a Jewish family, I think he distinquished himself from attention-obsessed pyschedelic drug adovcates like his one-time colleague Timothy Leary. Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) actually went to India to seek deeper spirituality. The appeal of the pyschedelic drugs were gone because they were superficial to begin with. He did not shy away from talking about Christ as someone who transcended all material things.

I do agree with Pete Homles that if you’re interested in his stuff, listen to his speaking as opposed to reading his books (at least, at first). He has stuff on youtube, and two collections of lectures: Experiments in Truth, and Love, Service, Devotion. There is a short Netflix documentary with him called Going Home. I need to see that.

And 2020 is here. I kept seeing all of these lists about the end of the decade. It didn’t feel like the end of a decade to me. But when I read stuff like Kotaku’s The Cost of Being a Woman Who Covers Video Games it’s a reminder of both how far things have come and how deep things have decended. Social change seems glacierly slow but I suppose when you can look back at a decade you can notice some positive advances.


Essentialism

A little health update to start. I passed out last Friday. I was rushing to get out of bed, get the kids to school, and get to work. I woke up feeling awful- I knew I had a high temperature and my throat felt like sandpaper, but I wanted to get moving in a hurry. I went to the bathroom to get the day started and began to take my temperature. That’s when I passed out.

When I came to, Paige was telling me to move. I had passed out in a perfect sitting position (no falling injury) and was blocking the door. She got me a cold washcloth and ordered me back to bed, wisely. I would not be taking the kids to school or going to work.

Paige and I were both fearing a Christmas at the hospital and potentially cancelling a lot of holiday plans. And even worse portents.

I ended up at the Cancer Center later that day. They got me on an IV with fluids. The labs didn’t say much so they gave me some more steroids (through the IV) and a prescription for an antiboitic. Those IV fluids were freezing! I spent the rest of the day recovering and resting. I was ordered to return Sunday morning for more lab work to ensure that I was okay.

Fortunately, I woke up feeling very good Saturday. When I started to get out of bed, Paige wisely advised me, “Sit straight up in bed for 2 minutes before you stand up.” I did, and everything went fine. I was evening driving Saturday, which surprised both of us. We were driving to lunch, per our usual Saturday routine, and I mentioned, “Oh, look. I’m driving.” “Oh yeah, you are. Good thing you’re feeling better.”

My labs Sunday came back with good results. I’m not sure what is was, maybe something viral. It wasn’t the flu. But it was a strange way to slide into the week of Christmas.

Thankfully, as long as things keep going smoothly, I’ll be spending it close to family.


In a way it’s fitting that I’m writing about this book, Essentialism by Greg McKeown. Instead of focusing on my health and well-being (something critical, essential) I was chasing down a daily routine and checklist (non-essential).

I came by this book sometime last year, before my surgery, diagnosis, and treatment. But it’s really stuck with me. The book speaks for itself, and if you’re not grabbed by the excerpt I’m posting then move on, I suppose. But one thing McKeown does emphasize as important to essentialism is something highly underrated in our adult culture and society, creative play.

This can take different forms for everybody. In Stillness is the Key, Ryan Holiday talks about Winston Churchill being a “mediocre painter and a worse bricklayer”, but those leisure activities helped restore his energy and give much needed respite in the most tumultuous times of his political career. It helps explain why ambitious people have (unrelated) hobbies. It supports McKeown’s assertion that creative play is critical to essentialism.

For me, it’s video games. I like to get lost in them. But I don’t get carried away, and being a father doesn’t allow me. I also am a big LEGO enthuiast. I believe that a $50 LEGO set put together by an adult in solitude can perhaps be the most inexpensive form of therapy available. I’m also known to get a bit too into coloring sheets or painting pottery at kids’ parties sometimes. I think someday I’ll graduate from video games into gardening. Maybe.

Once I was talking about video games with a friend (who also plays) and someone in our group exclaimed, “I don’t have time for games!” Well, if it’s not games then I hope it’s some form of creative play like painting or bricklaying.

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Walk with Me

Image from Walk with Me.

There is a documentary currently on Netflix called Walk with Me. It’s about a commune in Plum Village, France when Thich Nhat Hanh (author of Living Buddha, Living Christ) resided there. (Hanh has since moved back to his home country of Vietnam.)

The pace of the documentary is slow and deliberate. There is seldom any dialogue. Occasionally, there will be a scene depicting something in nature with a voice over from Benedict Cumberbatch. He is reading from Hanh’s collection of early journals, Fragrant Palm Leaves. I read somewhere that Cumberbatch took on this work as part of his preparation for the Dr. Strange movie he was cast in.

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The Darkness

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[Preface: I received my PET scan results this week. It looks all good. I still have a small nodule in my bottom right lung but it continues to shrink. Otherwise, no spread of the disease. So the healing continues to go well. Thank you all for your thoughts, prayers, and positive energy.]

I think I’m inadvertently starting a series of posts on a topic. Last week I wrote about Addiction and Recovery. Today I’m writing about darkness.

Some people suffer seasonal depression around this time of year. I never understood that before, but I am feeling it acutely this year. I’m also feeling a bit of survivor’s guilt. Which, for me, is wrongly named. It should be squander’s guilt. I don’t feel bad about surviving– I feel bad about looking back and thinking I should have accomplished more with this time that I didn’t even know I would have back in April.

Writing it out, I can see that I’m putting the intention in the wrong place with that feeling. It shouldn’t be about accomplishment, it should be about practice and love– which I try my best to engage in daily. But somehow, especially this time of year, it doesn’t feel like enough.

I heard something last year that put a radical spin on my understanding of this dark time of year, the season that the church refers to as Advent. The following text is from the Rob Bell (a spiritual writer) podcast, called the RobCast. This episode is called Darkness and Hope but I’m focusing on the darkness here. If you’d like to listen to it in its entirety, it can be found here. The podcast is an interview with Alexander Shaia, who has a background in anthropology, studied under Joseph Campbell, and is from Birmingham, Alabama. After listening to this, and finding this again this year, I need to read more of this guy.

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Addiction, Recovery, and Transformation

Image from Pixabay.com.

The subjects of this blog might seem oddly timed, but I’ve been focusing on addiction and recovery in the past few weeks. I think that the seasonal depression that some of us might be experiencing (whether it’s from the holiday blues or the early darkness) call for this exploration.

I have a family member struggling with addiction. I pray for recovery and transformation for this family member. It’s hard to hear about, hard to accept the powerlessness, and hard not to become cynical about all of it. In the book An Other Kingdom: Departing the Consumer Culture, one of the writers tells about his ex-wife who was an alcoholic and eventually died from it. While she was still struggling, the writer had a breakfast with Ivan Illich and the writer went over all of the measures he and the family had taken to try to get her conquer her alcoholism. Exasperated, he finished with, “I just don’t know what else to do.” Ivan Illich responded: “Grieve.” Indeed, I am grieving for this family member.

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