Coming to terms with the complexity of life and the fear of death

I thought I’d write a lighthearted, cheery post, sort of a gift that keeps on giving throughout the year ahead, so naturally, I wrote (and made a video) about how complicated life is and how we’re all afraid of dying, but we shouldn’t be, because zombies and vampires… Wait, what?!

“We trouble our life by thoughts about death, and our death by thoughts about life.” ― Michel de Montaigne

“It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much… The life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.” ― Seneca

“You are mistaken, my friend, if you think that a man who is worth anything ought to spend his time weighing up the prospects of life and death. He has only one thing to consider in performing any action – that is, whether he is acting rightly or wrongly, like a good man or a bad one.” ― Plato

Here’s (more or less) what I talked about in the video.

Whatever your beliefs about life after death, one thing is for certain: this life you’re living now will end within the span of a few decades. That’s pretty short and it’s no wonder we have a hard time dealing with that notion.

I’d like to submit to you that one way we grapple with death is through the introduction of death-less characters into popular culture. Nowadays, those characters are vampires and zombies. We call both of them undead and we’ve made up all sorts of fiction to explain their existence and ways they survive this event that scares us so much. And yet, neither character is something we’d choose rationally, if we were faced with that choice. Both vampires and zombies must continually kill in order to survive and in that sense, they’re terribly selfish: they sacrifice the lives of many innocent others in order to preserve themselves. In escaping death, they force it upon others. And zombies, those putrescent, barely alive corpses, are never first on anyone’s list of ways to prolong existence.

Both these characters though, are ways in which we’re not only dealing with the question of death, but with the question of life. Both offer simplified ways to view and treat an existence which many of us find to be complicated and stressful. Zombies are the perfect example. Instead of dealing with life’s mind-numbing complexity and options, upon becoming a zombie, you have only one option: eat brains. That’s it. No more jobs, bills, taxes, children, etc. Vampires are a bit more complicated and I think that is because they were invented earlier, in the 19th century, whereas zombies, as a manifestation of popular culture, only appeared midway through the 20th century. The more complicated real life will be, the more simplistic the escapism tends to be.

If we’re to stack these deathless characters by level of complexity against others invented throughout history, we find them on the lower rungs of life. If we step back in time, we find that people invented many deathless gods, most of which led far more interesting and complex lives than the humans who believed in them. But as life started to move faster and became more complex and harder to deal with, as we experienced world wars that terrified and scarred entire continents, we began to look for simpler characters and the unfortunate “best” we came up with were blood-sucking parasites that slept in coffins and blabbering, putrid corpses that dragged their rancid meat through cities and the countryside looking for brains. It’s quite sad really, to see where we’ve arrived.

I for one miss the more lofty deathless characters of old, gods who lived interesting, full lives, were articulate, powerful, higher and better than man (though sometimes just as petty and vindictive) and gave us something to look up to. Now we’ve got coffin-sleepers and tomb-climbers… It makes for good escapism through books, TV shows and movies but it does not make for a good alternative to death, nor does it ultimately help us deal with the complexity of life. Instead, we end up terrifying ourselves even more with the various “end of days” scenarios that are fed to us when we watch or read about these characters.

There’s no easy solution to this. Life is only getting faster and more complex. At least it seems that way, because we haven’t yet learned to filter all that is coming our way, and we haven’t learned to only deal with things that are of immediate concern to us. That’s what people did 100 years or more before our time. They didn’t have access to all that we have now. We should do the same. Just because we can have access to something, it doesn’t mean we should introduce it into our lives. We need to turn off the TV more often, put our phones away and spend more time with our selves, getting to know who we are, developing the skills that we deem valuable, exploring nature, sitting in silence. This won’t take us all the way, but it’ll put us in a much better place so we can deal with life. As long as we continue to be terrified by its complexity and by its quickly-approaching end, we’ll continue to look for quick fixes that are sorely inadequate and unrealistic, grotesque versions of ourselves that end up inflicting yet more of the pain and suffering that’s been scaring us but (in theory) take us out of the routine of daily living and offer us a simpler way to see our existence.

Meet Rita and say goodbye to Fritz

First, the bad news. It turned out that Fritz was indeed from Brazil. Only it wasn’t Brazil, the country, but the mythical place from the movie Brazil, where things are all screwed up. Only a bunny from “Brazil” could survive a trip in a hot car engine on a disgustingly hot day and die from an unknown malady a couple of weeks later. One day he was fine, prancing about in the yard, eating whatever he wanted, happily, and the next he was lying on the ground, unable to move, barely able to react. We took him to the vet, who didn’t know what was going on with him, said it could be a number of things, gave him a couple of injections and pill, gave us more pills to give him, and we took him home. The next day, he was a little better, and the next morning, he was stiff as a door knob.

Goodbye, little grey fur ball, we will miss you dearly.

We shouldn’t get so attached to pets, they all die in the end, some sooner than they should…

Now for the good news. We still have Rita. I mentioned her before. She’s a white bunny with a grey nose whom we got as a companion for Fritz. They got along well together while he was still around. Now it’s only her, and she doesn’t seem to mind so much. She goes about her business, munching whatever she likes from the yard and garden, mostly grass, weeds and unfortunately, flowers. And she loves to poop little rabbit bonbons. She walks and poops, walks and poops… She even has a few favorite spots where she does her little dirty business, full of rabbit bonbons. Here are a few photos of her.

Let’s hope she sticks around in this world for a bit more time than Fritz…

Follow the PCB and Mercury trail in our oceans

Marine biologist Stephen Palumbi gave a talk at TED about the massive problem with pollutants in our oceans, and the disease and death this causes everywhere in the world, throughout the food chain, including us.

Keep in mind what he says, then read this article, where the problem of toxins found in whales is shown in grim detail. Quoting from the article:

“The researchers found mercury as high as 16 parts per million in the whales. Fish high in mercury such as shark and swordfish — the types health experts warn children and pregnant women to avoid — typically have levels of about 1 part per million.”

“Ultimately, he said, the contaminants could jeopardize seafood, a primary source of animal protein for 1 billion people. ‘You could make a fairly tight argument to say that it is the single greatest health threat that has ever faced the human species. I suspect this will shorten lives, if it turns out that this is what’s going on,’ he said.”

“‘The biggest surprise was chromium,’ Payne said. ‘That’s an absolute shocker. Nobody was even looking for it.'”

“He said another surprise was the high concentrations of aluminum, which is used in packaging, cooking pots and water treatment. Its effects are unknown. The consequences of the metals could be horrific for both whale and man, he said.”

“‘I don’t see any future for whale species except extinction,’ Payne said. ‘This is not on anybody’s radar, no government’s radar anywhere, and I think it should be.'”

Guess who is the largest manufacturer of PCBs in the world? Monsanto.

Is the US government doing anything about this? No. They’re too busy blocking the press from seeing and reporting on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The little deaf tomcat

Updated 10/22/10: You can see better photos of Felix here.

In the summer of 2006, we visited family in Romania, and we met this wonderful white tomcat at my mother-in-law’s place in Tulcea, Romania. He was still a kitten, a growing boy, scruffy, dirty, and completely adorable. He was also deaf as a post, the poor thing.

Having been born pure white with blue eyes, that doomed him to a life of silence. He couldn’t hear a thing. Thankfully he’d feel the vibration of the ground as you approached him and turned around, but you couldn’t count on that, so you’d often have to touch him to get his attention and watch your step around him. The price for those eyes was heavy, sure, but get a load of those sparkling sapphires!

My wife and I fell in love with him immediately and thought seriously about adopting him, but there was an overseas trip to think about, and a visit to the US Embassy in Bucharest to arrange for his passage. Then he’d have had to live in an apartment, albeit a nice one, but still, he wouldn’t be outside, in nature. And we’d have had to hide him from the building administration, since pets were no longer allowed in our building. After a lot of consideration, we decided to leave him where he was, and hope for the best.

I still regret that decision. The next year, we found out he’d been run over by a car, right outside the yard. He climbed over the fence, and since he was deaf, didn’t hear it, and splat, his light was put out. At least it was quick, but it didn’t have to be that way. He’d still be alive today if we’d adopted him, condo rules and customs rules be damned. He’d be three years old now, a happy, content, white tomcat.

I also regret not taking better photos of him. The ones that I have are of barely adequate quality. The framing isn’t right, the lighting is poor, I’m not showing him from the best angles, etc. At least I have him on video in all his scruffy glory, playing with my camera strap and playing with a puppy whose photo you can see here.

You can watch the video below or on blip.tv and YouTube. You’ll notice the play between him and the pup gets pretty rough at times; don’t blame me for not stopping it. He could have run away, but he stood his ground and drove the puppy away in the end. That’s one brave little tomcat! Gosh, I miss the little white fluffball!

Although he couldn’t hear and respond to a name, I called him Felix, and this year, when we adopted a little black and white tomcat rejected by his mother, I named it Felix as well, to honor his memory.

A mummified rat

In the process of replacing our roof tiles, I found a mummified rat. It’s stiff, fairly well preserved, and it’s the second one I found (I threw away the first one out of disgust). It’s probably the combination of the warm and dry air in the attic that kept it like this. I don’t know how old it is. It could be only several years old, or it could be hundreds of years old. (Our house is over 200 years old.) It looks like it’s going to hold together for another several decades, if not more. You may not want to look at the photos if you’re easily disgusted.

mummified-rat-skeleton-1

mummified-rat-skeleton-2

Three psychics exposed as frauds

I’ve always thought and said psychics were fake, along with ghost stories. Sure, it makes life (and books) more interesting if a ghost pops up here and there, but unfortunately, when people die, they’re dead as doornails. They’re gone. Out for good. Goodbye. That’s why life is so precious. Every day must be spent carefully and cherished, because when our days are over, they’re over.

That’s why it’s great to see psychics exposed as the frauds they really are, as one BBC show did, recently. The host made up a fake story about some chocolate factory manager, printed it in a leaflet about the factory, and also put it up on the factory’s website. When the psychics were invited to the factory and asked to channel any ghosts that might be around, they all “somehow” picked up on the fictitious manager’s ghost. When they were told the ghost was fake, each did their best to cover up for their slimy behavior and slinked off camera to lick their wounds. Disgusting.

BBC 3 Bullsh!t detector exposes three mediums [via Boing Boing]

As for questions about what really happens in the afterlife, or if there is one at all, see item #26 on this page. That’s what I believe, and whether it makes sense to you or not, please note the explanation includes no ghost stories.

Happy Birthday Tataie

It’s my grandfather’s birthday today. He died just a couple of weeks ago after a painful struggle with mesothelioma, a form of cancer caused by asbestos exposure.

He’d been coughing for a few years. It was a persistent cough, but it wasn’t a severe cough. He coughed here and there, and especially after he came into a cooler room after working outside, in his beloved garden. Then things got worse. He kept getting cold-like symptoms and coughing more. When doctors in Romania examined him, they discovered water in one of his lungs. They started drawing it out with syringes regularly, liters at a time. A lesion of sorts developed at the site where they kept inserting the needle. A biopsy of the lesion revealed nothing. Things didn’t improve.

My parents hoped that the Florida weather would do him good, so they brought him to the States. He loved the weather, but didn’t get better. They thought US medical care would be better than Romanian medical care, so they put him in a hospital here. Doctors literally paraded by his bedside by the tens, specialist after specialist, all of them clueless. Oh, let’s try this, let’s try that, blah, blah, blah — that’s how the story usually goes. X-rays and CT scans and urine and lab tests every day, and still they couldn’t figure things out.

Finally they decided to open him up and see what was going on. That’s when they discovered he had mesothelioma, with a few “localized” tumors in his right lung. But they still couldn’t figure out what to do about the water accumulation, so they proposed to insert talcum powder between the lung walls, in the hope of sealing that chamber and stopping the leaks (that’s apparently a standard procedure for this sort of thing).

So they opened him up again and inserted the powder. Water still accumulated, this time more slowly, but it still happened. Then he developed difficulty swallowing. They stuck tubes with cameras down his throat. More CT scans, more X-rays, and still no idea why. Well, let’s enlarge his esophagus and cardiac sphincter (the opening from the esophagus to the stomach.) That might help… Well, it didn’t. He still had trouble swallowing.

They didn’t know what else to do for him, so they released him from the hospital. The bill came to well over $100,000, and my grandfather was no better than before. He was worse, and now he had to contend with pain from the surgery and the other procedures done on him while in the hospital.

My mother had to blend everything into a soupy puree before feeding him, and still he had trouble swallowing. He withered and dried out and lost tens of pounds. He was hardly recognizable, but his spirit was still well, and he hoped he’d get better. That was the hardest part, to see him trying to eat and unable to swallow, then leave the table with a horribly sad look on his face.

We knew he wouldn’t last long like that, so we convinced him to return to Romania, where at least he could die in his own home, if it were to come to that. Once he got there, my aunt, who took care of him, put him on IV fluids. He got a little better. We decided to try seeing some specialists there in Romania, so she took him to the hospitals in Sibiu and Timisoara.

If you don’t know how the healthcare system works in Romania, I’ll tell you. It’s based on heavy bribes. If you don’t bribe the doctors and nurses, no one cares about you. No one even looks at you, and you’re treated like scum. If you have the money to give them, you actually get somewhat decent service, depending on how much you give. You can’t lay the blame entirely on the medical personnel for this practice though. Doctors’ salaries are horribly tiny, smaller than the salaries of some janitors at well-to-do companies. So they need cash infusions from the patients in order to be able to live properly. But the way they go about it is disgusting to me. And there’s no telling when they’ll make up stuff about your condition just so they can get more money out of you. They’ll even do extra procedures (if they’re unethical people) so you’ll pay them more.

Once in the hospital, they slipped a feeding tube through his nose and into his stomach. In Sibiu, they opened him up again and discovered some lesions on his esophagus, and some on his stomach. They said he needed his esophagus replaced, but that they couldn’t do the procedure, and that he needed to be sent to Timisoara. We believe the doctor who operated on him at Sibiu twisted his stomach or intestines around and caused a severe blockage in his GI tract, because his digestion and regularity were never the same after that.

In Timisoara, the specialist who was to replace his esophagus with a silicone stent bragged to high heaven that he was the only one doing the procedure in Romania and in the entire Western Europe. If that sounds phony to you, don’t worry, you’re right. He just wanted to make sure he got enough money for the job. He ended up operating on my grandfather, but replaced less of the esophagus that he’d originally said. We’re not sure why. Things went completely downhill from there.

My grandfather never recovered from that operation. His situation got worse and worse every day. Now he couldn’t digest his food at all, even the soups he was fed through his tube. He coughed up blood and fluids of various colors. He got thinner and more dehydrated every day. My aunt put him back on IV fluids, but they didn’t help. He was in horrible pain, throughout the day and night. He moaned in agony. He couldn’t sleep. When he did manage to sleep, he would writhe and cry out in anguish. He was dying.

Four days before he died, he asked my aunt to make the preparations for his burial. He knew it and he was ready. He asked her to let him go, to stop trying to keep him alive. She couldn’t stop caring for him, but she knew it was going to end anyway. He looked forward to joining my grandmother in the grave next to hers.

And then he died in the evening. I got the call from my mother. She was crying. I couldn’t cry. I knew what he’d been through, and wanted him to get the rest and peace he so badly needed. I was angry with everything that had happened to him, and still am. Why did he have to die in such pain? Why did he have to encounter the utmost morons in his quest for decent medical care? Why did he have to suffer so much?

We don’t know when he got exposed to asbestos. It wasn’t uncommon in communist Romania to get exposed to dangerous conditions or materials. He worked at the same factory all his life, and got promoted to chief technical engineer from a humble line worker. He came up with various inventions and improvements during his career, and was even decorated by Romania’s dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, for his contributions. I’m not saying this because I care about Ceausescu, who was a horrible man, but I care about my grandfather and about his life’s work, and was glad to see him get recognized.

For me, my grandfather’s suffering serves to underline how little medical science really knows about the human body, and how horribly few things they can do to cure people. In spite of all our technology and advances and drugs, when it comes to treating disease, our options are very limited, and very primitive. We can:

  • Mask the symptoms by treating them with drugs
  • Cut into people and butcher them with plain knives or sear them with electric knives, then sew them up with string
  • Poison them with radiation therapy and chemotherapy

I remember my frustration with this while in medical school, and perhaps it had something to do, subconsciously, with my leaving it to return to IT work. At least in IT you can find out what’s really wrong and can fix it either through code or hardware replacements.

What my grandfather’s death also showed (amply) is how many idiots there are in the healthcare system. My God, we have so many doctors out there that can’t diagnose their way out of a paper bag, and they run test after test and try this and that and still can’t figure out what’s wrong. I’m fortunate enough to know there are good doctors (although they’re few and far between) who know how to diagnose with much less information at their fingertips, because I’ve met some of them.

If all these retards can graduate medical school and can pass the boards, then clearly medical education isn’t doing its part in weeding them out. I had plenty of them in my class in med school, too. They were the ones who got by very nicely by rote memorization. Worked great, until you asked them to analyze something — then they looked at you like a hen looks at a newspaper.

Another one of my beliefs was reinforced: that the overwhelming majority of nurses are lazy asses that don’t care at all about their patients. I’m sorry if that offends you, but that’s the truth. I know this because I saw they way they treated my grandfather, and I saw the way they treated other patients over the years.

All nurses seem to want is more money and more benefits for as little work as humanly possible. Oh sure, they put in a lot of “hours”, but most of those hours are spent socializing at the nursing station, not by the patient’s bedside. What’s unfortunate is that the market is tilted so much in their favor right now (and will continue to be for the next several years) that nothing significant can be done about it. There’s a nursing shortage, and that means we’re going to have mediocre, good-for-nothing nurses in all of our hospitals until supply meets demand, and hospitals can start to weed out the non-performers.

I tell you, the nursing profession will not emerge unscathed from this. The stink caused by these bad nurses will taint the good ones, too. The good ones are out there, I’ve met some of them, and when I say they’re good, I honestly mean it. They’re great, and they care, and they know a lot, but they’re few and far between, and they’re mostly in academia.

Coming back to my grandfather, I think of my grandmother’s death two years ago, also in June. A week or so after her burial, it was my grandfather’s birthday, and I remember him celebrating it with us, his family, but without his beloved wife. The sorrow was evident on his face, even through his smiles, and there was nothing any of us could do for him but to try and cheer him up.

Now, he’s resting in the grave, and it’s his own birthday. There’s no birthday celebration now. Just pain and a feeling of irreplaceable loss.

Rest in peace, tataie. You taught me how to build and fix things and work in the garden, and how to use tools and paint and be the man I am today. You were the first man I looked up to, the first one that made me want to learn how to shave. I saw you do your best, every day, to care for and protect your family. You never spoke much, but you did much. You were loved, and are loved. Rest in peace.