Monday, December 17, 2018

Health and Hope, My Medical Nihilism

This is a recent sunrise from our apartment, zoomed in from the balcony to the Rainey Street area. Our views keep getting more and more restricted. So it goes. Things change. But if you live another day you will see the effects of us spinning toward the sun in a daily event we call sunrise but which we all know if just us spinning around old Sol.

I am a medical nihilist. I learned this from one of the last doctors I saw regularly. I was describing how, generally, I felt things would get better on their own or, if not, that the diagnosis and proper and effective treatment was a pipe dream. He said they learned of such patients in medical school and they were called 'medical nihilists.'

I know how this attitude came about.

When I was about ten, scaly red patches that had some 'structure' (seeming to go into layers of the dermis) appeared on my body and scalp. My dad took me to a doctor who correctly diagnosed this as psoriasis. I learned to spell it. I learned that there was really no cure, only treatments. Pine tar baths. UV. I was actually treated to an intense sunlamp in a clinic with the nurses carefully exposing specific areas of skin for timed minutes. If I got one of those beach sunburns that we did in the 1960s, lesions would magically disappear, the only evidence being an unburned circle of skin. (You are thinking skin cancer, I bet. Maybe I have it. Hasn't been diagnosed.) So I had something that wasn't going to kill me but wouldn't go away except when you hurt yourself. I'm 70 and neither disease nor cure has killed me.

When I reached puberty and started having periods I felt the worst most unrelenting pain I'd ever felt. My mother took me to doctors. Not when I was in pain, mind you, that would be gross to visit a doctor while bleeding. The doctors (male and female alike) assured me that it was 'normal' or 'all in my mind.' I remember telling one female doctor that I bought OTC pain meds and abused them by taking lots more than the directions said was safe. That was OK, she said. I suffered monthly. I used heating pads and pain meds. Noone really cared except for my mother and sister. They seemed to feel helpless. After college when I was working I was living temporarily with my parents. One Saturday I got up and was going to Denton to see some friends. (I went to college there.) I felt weird. I wasn't having my period, but I had a little abdominal pain. Not as bad as a period. But I had this weird feeling that something was in my gut tugging on my insides. If I'd been having a period, I'm sure I would have thought nothing of the pain or feeling. My mother worried I had appendicitis when I described the pain on the right side. She drove me to a nearby osteopathic hospital instead of letting me go see my friends. The doctor on duty pressed his fingers into the right side of my abdomen and released quickly. This is apparently a time-honored way to diagnose an infected appendix. It did hurt. Then I think they took blood, saw a high white blood count and took an Xray. After the Xray, the doctor stopped them prepping me and rushed me to an operating room. His distress was apparently palpable because my mother became distressed. I had been given a sedative preparatory to anesthetic and, being very susceptible, was out of it. I believe the surgeon thought my appendix was ruptured. He did an abdominal exploratory and discovered not a rupture but an outsized ovary, an infected appendix and many adhesions attaching to stomach, intestines, abdominal wall, etc. He believed it was endometriosis, a condition where endometrium tissue appears in some other place than the lining of the uterus. But he sent some of the tissue from the removed ovary and adhesions to a lab for testing. My mother was distraught, certain it was cancer. She finally found my dad and he sat up all night with me. It isn't pleasant to have such surgery without advance notice not to eat or drink. But, yes, all my pain in the past? It was real. But it was only diagnosed when my appendix became infected, perhaps incidentally, perhaps because of the monthly internal bleeding and sloughing into my abdomen. It wasn't cancer. At least this was curable (get rid of the misplaced tissue, which the surgeon did amazingly well apparently). But what a way to finally get a diagnosis. I had never heard of the condition. I later learned that it often kills people with bowel obstruction and other things.

Something will kill me. Maybe the flu. Although I get a flu shot these days in spite of my nihilism. I do it for the 'herd' hoping that mine and others vaccinations will save other people. Maybe a heart attack. Maybe a stroke. (My sister had a hemorraghic stroke when she was 55. This is a genetic weakness of a vessel, aneurysm, in the brain that ruptures or leaks. My mother acquired a mysterious convulsive condition at 55 and I wondered if she had an aneurysm that just never burst. I was glad to glide by 55 without either condition.) Maybe I'll get cancer. My dad had prostate cancer. The treatment nearly killed him years later. He was diagnosed in the heydey of the PSA test. They biopsied multiple times to find a small cancerous tumor. Today it might not be treated. The radiation scarred him so that years later he started to bleed to death from it. My mother died from Multiple Myeloma. After a few years of frustrating misdiagnosis and treatment of my mother as a someone who had psychosomatic illnesses (sometimes by the family), she was diagnosed at stage four. I'd never heard of the disease. It finished killing her in three months. She never got to come home from the hospital. At the time this cancer was a certain death sentence, essentially incurable and barely treatable. A forgotten blood cancer. Things have changed some in the last sixteen years, but it's still not pretty. It's hard to see how my mother's 'care' really helped her.

So, yeah, something will kill me. But I mostly eschew drugs and tests and doctors. Oh, I might discover something 'early' and survive instead of succumbing. But really, I am happy to be 70 and not suffering that much. I can still walk good distances. I need to lose weight and exercise more and eat better foods. But you can't really cure old age. I wonder what my end will be like. Through the lens of social media and the experience of close friends and family, I see many endings. Dementia, stroke, heart attack, accident, cancer. One friend has survived Multiple Myeloma for twelve years albeit with all kinds of invasive and debilitating treatments. I have friends with ALS and MS diagnoses. Another friend with a recent Multiple Myeloma diagnosis. I lost count of the people I know who've been treated for breast cancer. My husband had a diagnosis and treatment for a rare cancer, sebaceous cell carcinoma. He was very lucky. But...it was not caught early and rather misdiagnosed for over two years.

I'm sure I'll pay a price for my casual attitude toward the wonders of medicine. I'm not anti-science. All the rest of you should get tested for everything, take statins, etc. etc. (And get a flu shot for heaven's sake.) I'm the control group. Some of us have to get old without all that intervention. My first goal was 70. Now I'm looking at 75, which, really is enough for anyone. I'm just hoping to avoid dementia so I can appreciate my victory!

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Enjoying the Holidays

The picture is of our building (with the red and green lights for Christmas) and the new, as yet unoccupied office building across the street. I shot it as we walked through our magical urban neighborhood the other night.

I think I'm enjoying the holidays this year more than any other year. It's calm and very much about doing what we please. I haven't bought and wrapped a single gift. (Money went to my sister and her clan.) I sent 87 holiday cards and have gotten, so far, 20. Most days one or two come, mostly from people I already sent them to. I got one from a friend I met over four decades ago that included a trip report from her visit to my company when we met. She found it while cleaning out her workboxes stored away in a basement. In the report, she mentioned meeting me and my husband (who also worked for the company). What a weird surprise.

We've been going to parties and going out for eats and drinks with people. We've seen a holiday chorale, a musical "Christmas Carol" and "The Nutrcracker." We've gone out to eat and drink, just the two of us. Today we walked to the University of Texas to see a Women's Basketball game.

We've finished our annual puzzle. We are watching cable and Netflix and Amazon Prime shows. It's a delight to sit in the apartment and read.

Best holiday ever.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Puzzled

There's FFP (the hubby) adding the last pieces to our holiday jigsaw puzzle. We like to work them but we only allow one during the December holiday season. Otherwise, we'd waste too much time on them. When we started this 1000-piece puzzle I wondered if we'd finish before the new year. We invited someone over on the 27th so I wanted it done, admired, deconstructed and perhaps even given away by then.

I find it interesting to observe how people do puzzles. Most people start a jigsaw by finding the edges and assembling them to give everything a frame of reference. We sort pieces by color or shape sometimes. During this puzzle, FFP sorted out the X-shaped pieces at one point. At the end, we just pushed all the remaining pieces around the edge and tried to fit them in.

I had one job where we started putting a jigsaw in the break room. We'd all work on it over lunch or coffee breaks. I found observing my co-workers strategies instructive. I found looking at it for a minute or two would take my mind off some gnarly computer code and help me refocus on that when I went back to my desk. Some manager thought we'd perform better without such distractions and decided we couldn't have a puzzle around! I guess I see the point since I only allow myself one a year but I really doubt it hurt our productivity. Programming work is subtle and often gets done during distractions like showering or driving to work. The kind of chores I do in retirement is more time-sensitive...stuff like dusting, scrubbing the shower, balancing the checkbook, or vacuuming.

I find it amusing to observe myself attacking Suduku or Ken-Ken or crosswords, too.

Here's our finished jigsaw:

We will enjoy looking at it for a day or two and then probably give it away. 

Friday, December 14, 2018

Books, Books Everywhere and No Time to Read!


We have a lot of books. Ten years ago when we moved into the condo we jettisoned a bunch. Boxes full of Kennedy Assassination books and monographs. Stacks of computer books. A couple of bags of books on Bridge. Inevitably, if we become vaguely interested in something, we collect books about it. Sometimes our interest remains and sometimes it doesn't. Often the books stick around. I have quite a collection of Nabokov novels as well as a collection of his lectures, probably some letter collections and his autobiography (Speak, Memory). Also a story collection. I have a shelf full of James Joyce biographies, copies of novels (several of Ulysses), etc. Even our artwork can take on a book theme as seen in the altered books of Lance Letscher. 

All these books and how many have I actually read or consulted? I keep one beside my bed at all times and, usually, finally finish it. My husband reads about four times as many as I do and so there are lots that he has read and talked about and that I want to make time to read.

I think I could become a recluse and never venture out to bookstores or the library or get another newspaper or magazine and could read for years without reading the same thing twice. As it should be, I guess. Never be short of words. I even have old yellowing copies of The New Yorker in my car just in case I ever am caught without words to read. Of course, these days we usually have a gadget that links us to books, news stories and more. 

Even our annual jigsaw puzzle is on theme:

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Retirement Routine

Retirement is 'doing whatever you please,' I suppose, but really every life needs some routines. One of mine (when I'm in town and sometimes when I'm away as well) is to get up every morning and have coffee and work the NY Times crossword. If it is Monday-Wednesday, I copy it first and try to get FFP to play along. If it's Sunday, I copy it a couple of times just so I'll have worksheets and won't interfere with FFP reading the NY Times Magazine where it appears.

I find myself looking forward to getting up at 7ish and doing this coffee and puzzle ritual. I often work other puzzles in other papers. (We get the local rag, The Austin American-Statesman. and The Wall Street Journal.) If it's a weekday, I turn the TV on to CNBC to see how the financial markets are doing. If it's Sunday, I've recently taken to turning on a Sunday morning jazz station. I record CBS Sunday Morning and watch it later.

Another routine I have when in town is to go to my club and play casual tennis on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

A lot of days, after the coffee and the stab at the puzzles (I also do the nearby Ken-Ken puzzles in the Times), my day is shaped by things we've agreed to do: entertainment, meals, events. Sometimes with others, sometimes just us. Sometimes we take a walk and have a meal or snack and see what's happening within the three-mile or so radius that is our limit. But the routines, the things we usually do, give life some shape. Sixteen years after retiring from the life defined by work routines, it gives some comfort.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

My Boycott of Football

A 1950's page from the Sears Catalog.

I was born into a culture of football. Not that my dad had a lot of time to spend thinking about football when I was a kid. (He ran a little farm where we lived and grew a little cotton and corn and had dairy cows and pigs and some beef cattle and, mostly, sheep. He also worked a midnight-8a.m. shift at a VA hospital as an attendant.) But one of my favorite stories he would tell was about he and a buddy who got away to see a University of Texas football game in Austin one day and then drove to College Station for a game that night. I think that's how the story went. It was a big deal to go that far away from our home on the farm. Plus two places? Plus football. When I first heard this story, I had probably not been to any football games except maybe our Junior High or High School ones.

Football was, in my world, the school. In Junior High, we sold booster ribbons to pin on for games to raise money for activities. I worked for the activities director. She supervised the cheerleaders, variety shows and football concessions. (She was also a dynamite history teacher, but that's another story.) Sometimes our Junior High band performed for football. We didn't have uniforms, but we bought some matching sweaters and slacks or something. The band existed for us to learn music, but mostly for pep rallies and football, right? I played in the band in High School. We had actual uniforms (which I loved). We had concerts, yes, but really we existed to support football.

I was a girl, of course. (Although not always happy about it.) I wanted a football and, if I'm honest, a uniform. I finally did get a football. I learned to throw and kick it. And sometimes catch it. I didn't often have a playmate on the farm, though, so I did a lot of kick, retrieve, kick. Football was everywhere even before we had a TV. Real players were boys and men. The main thing about schools was football and football was for males.

In college, I was attracted, let's say, to the counterculture. We sort of ignored football. (It was easier at my college where the team wasn't that great.) Still, football. I began to watch on TV. Got to see a Dallas Cowboys game in person. It's a fun sport to watch even if you aren't allowed to play it.

I watched a lot of football. The man I married liked to watch sports, but not play them. He knew players from decades back for the University of Texas. UT was and is football first, everything else an afterthought. I thought I could detect correctly penalties and bobbled catches. Of course, I usually watched on TV while doing other things during the boring parts.

Then, two years and some months ago, I quit. I refused to read about football, listen to sports news on TV about it, watch it, etc. I would literally turn away from a TV in a bar with football. And that includes the ads, too, because I don't want to hear about products advertised in football spaces.

If you read this far, I'll bet you have questions. Here are some answers.

1. Why?
Because football has become equated with the school. It overshadows everything about the school. Because of CTE. (Someone who played football when I was in high school suffered from it. The sport kills and in a quite unpleasant way.) Because of assualts, crimes and sexual harrassment forgiven because school=football so if you play football you are more important than the victims.
2. But what difference do you make?
None, probably. But I won't be complicit. I grew up in what I know now was a toxic atmosphere that promoted this game as a central element of school and life. A game only played by men and boys. And only the biggest, baddest and toughest. And then: we hurt them in a terrible way sometimes. 
And, I think, one does what one can do to escape things in the culture that are, after all, not all that great. We can and should as individuals reject them. That's how society grows more just and reasonable.
3. How does it feel to withdraw from football?
Like most habits you kick, there is a nice liberated feeling. And, of course, the temptation to just watch a little. Mostly, though, I see the periphery of this major phenomena. People on the street in their team's gear. Sometimes they are drunk. One time in the elevator of our building a rowdy drunk reveling in the victory of  'his' team grabbed my husband's shoulder and injured him. (This has ended his watching of football, too, which has made my boycott easier.) I see pictures of small children and their parents at football games on social media. I think: "What is that little girl thinking? She's wearing a miniature cheerleader's outfit? Does she think that's what she should aspire to? Does she think whatever she does in school will be in service to this game for big, tough boys and men? What is that little boy thinking? He's wearing a miniature jersey? Does he think he should aspire to be on that field and represent the school?" I see how upset people are when the team loses. As if it reflects on them. And I see how defiant and unreasonably elated people are when their team wins. From where I now stand, it all looks pretty silly. But I remember being there and feeling those things. And lingering over a page like that in the Sears catalog.
Isn't it funny that boycott has 'boy' right in it? Although I have just this minute learned that the etymology of the word boycott and it's an eponym!

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Many Prompts I Couldn't Follow

I didn't write a blog entry yesterday. I started one. The title was: "Objects of Desire." This was an old topic that I've written about until I seem to have exhausted my enthusiasm for it!

Yesterday I really had no excuse for not writing. I have, after all, made a list of over a hundred topics for my 'by the numbers' memoir. And I never showered or got out of my sweats that I slept in. I didn't leave the apartment. I put a few pieces in the jigsaw. I worked crosswords. My husband made some lunch and dinner. I wrote a few Christmas cards and letters and reviewed my bank accounts and bills. I read some of the three newspapers that arrive every day.

But I just couldn't write a blog entry!

I did get out of my jammy sweats to go out and play tennis today. And I took a shower. And I voted in a runoff election. We walked around taking a few pictures at hotels and other businesses of decorations. (See above.)

I still have lots of topics I want to explore: my boycott of football; the dynamics of keeping up with friends; graffiti; my aches, pains, injuries, and medical nihilism. But not today.