Archive for February, 2008

Time for a quick break

February 25, 2008

The Sunday NY Times used many column inches of print to virtually declare Hilary Clinton’s campaign for President of the U.S. dead.

I suspect they’re right, unless the political machine can somehow put enough pressure on the “superdelegates” (one word, according to William Safire and the NYT copy edit desk, sort of like “superhero”) to swing the election away from the popular vote choice.

I’m sure the Republicans would far rather campaign against Clinton than Obama. She is a much more known quantity, with trunk-loads of baggage, her own and her husband’s, following her around. Many voters are too young to remember some of the financial scandals that swirled around the Clintons, but rest assured that the GOP hasn’t forgotten them or would hesitate to drag them out in a cutthroat campaign.

Obama, on the other hand, comes more or less out of left field. He’s a swirling, nebulous target who seems more than willing to confess to past peccadilloes. It makes him a difficult target.

One of the most interesting points raised in the NYT stuff was that of “experience.” If, the Times writer asked, experience counts for so much, how come Clinton’s made a complete hash of her campaign and Obama’s has been executed flawlessly? A question worth thinking about in someone you’re planning on electing to a high-level executive position.

The Times also pointed to “Clinton fatigue,” not so much with HRC as with the duo. It’s something that came into play the first time WJC stepped out like a little pit bull with both jaws bared and teeth snapping.

If course, I confess that I look with suspicion on anyone who really wants to run for high political office. If they want to be there, I probably don’t want them pretending to look after me. . .

OK, that’s enough break for now. It’s poetry competition time. Back to editing, formatting, printing, and all that other dull stuff.

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This business of dying is a strange business

February 22, 2008

Yesterday was Tom’s 50th birthday. Lisa decorated the house beautifully (Tom, a helicopter nut, said the streamers from the ceiging reminded him of standing under a Huey, and he really like them), bought and wrapped a present, and got up to share it with him at the best part of his day, early morning after a night’s sleep. She got him a cake and I got him a cake.

She said he seemed really excited about the fuss being made over his birthday. “You don’t suppose he thought we’d just let it pass by unnoticed, do you?” she asked me.

It’s hard to know what to think. Tom is on that roller coaster that goes with deteriorating health, down, then up again, but never quite as up as he was before, then down, and almost up again, and so on. He is essentially blind now, so most of the things he sees are hallucinatory. But the worst part of it for him is that he’s losing conversation. He tries, but it’s increasingly hard for him to pull out the word he’s looking for.

This morning I fixed him a scrambled egg (he ate a whole one with enthusiasm yesterday) and he asked where the ketchup was. I rummaged around til I found it and brought it to the table. I asked him how much he wanted and he started shaking his head in a horrified manner. Turned out that what he wanted was a Kleenex, another K word, not ketchup at all.

Yesterday he did seem excited. We ate chocolate cake with raspberry filling and ganache icing with our fingers (it’s easiest that way when you can’t see a fork). I cleaned the dropped chocolate from their white carpeting after he laid down again, and I think I did a passable job of it. I cooked him a birthday dinner of baked chicken and asparagus and biscuits that only Lisa and I could enjoy.

Today he was semi-comatose.

Last night he got up from a very deep nap to see the lunar eclipse with which the universe had honored his 50th birthday. I don’t think he could see it at all, frankly, but he pretended that he did, and he seemed excited about it, even chastising me for not bringing my telescope when I came to his house. It never even occurred to me to do so.

I lost a good friend about six months ago after a very long illness. Fred was nearly 80 years old and had been battling emphysema for some time. His actual dying was long and dragged out, miserable for him.

But like Tom, Fred retained his sense of humor. It was very hard to lose him even knowing how difficult living had become for him.

It is the same with my brother. I hate, hate, hate seeing him suffer like this, waking with excruciating headaches that are relieved only somewhat by the same drugs that produce the hallucinations that frustrate, frighten, or confuse him. It shouldn’t be this hard to die.

On the other hand, I know that when he is gone he will leave a void in my life. He’s much too young to be dying (he calls it “taking a shortcut to where we’re all going in the end”). In the natural order of the universe, he should be around to mourn me when my time comes. This is backward.

I have a sibling or two who won’t come to visit. One of them said she was unable to deal with the “emotional issues raised at times like these.” I understand her view, but I keep hearing the hospice nurse saying, “You will never regret the time you’ve spent with your brother during these weeks.” And I know she’s right.

I’m not sure where I am going with this, so I will say only that when I die, I want to just simply fall over dead (unless I can die in my sleep with no previous warning). I haven’t been afraid of death since a near-death experience when I was about 25 years old. But I am afraid of being maimed, incapacitated, unable to care for myself, dependent on the kindnesses of others no matter how much they love me or I love them.

Just let it be fast when it comes at last.

Two days with Tom

February 16, 2008

The cancer progresses.

I’m trying to spend a couple of days a week in Salem. The only thing I can do for my brother at this point is let him know how much I love him. So that’s part of it.

And the only thing I can do for my sister-in-law is give her a chance to have a few hours of normalcy in the course of all of this. So that’s another part.

Tom is a tall guy, and right now his skin looks like it belongs to someone three time his size. His visible tumors become increasingly swollen and red and angry. The worrisome ones are apparent only by the effects. The one in the brain  causes anxiety, paranoia, hallucinations, and confusion. The ones in his lungs are shortening his breath and causing a lot of congestion. It’s hard.

Somehow he still maintains a sense of humor, and periodically it surfaces. It reminds me why I love him so much.

I believe that we are not offered things with which we cannot cope. As Leslie Nielsen says in one of his insane movies, that which does not kill us makes us better. I take that more seriously than he seems to in the movie, but then Nielsen was never serious in public.

This is not killing me, but it is very, very hard to see someone you care a lot about suffering at this level. Hospice is great, and they’re keeping him physically as comfortable as is probably possible. But he still has enough cognition to feel what’s happening. And it hurts him.

I think at this point if I could give him one gift, it would be the gift of nepenthe, no sorrow, of oblivion. But I might be wrong about that. There is, after all, that occasional sense of humor.

That’s all for tonight.

Politics, pragmatism, and probity

February 12, 2008

I confess that for many years I’ve wondered how anyone could seriously want to be President of the United States. This comes from my experience of JFK.

He was the youngest President ever elected. He didn’t serve a full term. By his third year in office, he had transformed from a young, vital man into an aging man in pain with bags under his eyes and a deep note of sadness. This was a sobering lesson.

I started watching how other Presidents aged in office. It seemed to me that no one would seriously want that job. It made anyone who did suspect in my eyes, driven by ego at the very least.

I am a great fan of pragmatism. The philosophy of pragmatism dictates that actions be judged by the results they produce. This isn’t a case of “the end justifies the means” but rather an acknowledgment that a diverse society requires compromise and an understanding of “the Other.”

Our polarized and fragmented social structures seem to be missing both of those elements.

I think it is possible to be pragmatic without relinquishing probity. I also want someone leading me whose moral position is unequivocal. I suppose from a political standpoint I’d like to feel good again about waving the flag. It’s been a long time.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to agree with each and every belief of a candidate. If I had that sort of sure lock on right/wrong, perhaps I would be running for office.

But I don’t. I muddle along making the best decisions I can with the information I have. I don’t want to invest what limited physical and mental resources I have in knowing everything there is to know that’s important about our world today. I’d rather, frankly, write poetry and try to make sense of what I perceive as “the big issues.” And those have NOTHING to do with politics, or government, or status, or financial gain.

They have a lot to do with kindness, social justice, grace, and fiscal responsibility, pretty much in that order.

I’d like to know that the people I’m voting for value those things as well.

I see evidence of those qualities in McCain and Obama. The rest of them are just politicians. They may be “pragmatic” (do anything to get elected), but their values are different from mine.

OK, I confess I just can’t help it–my dream ticket

February 11, 2008

I don’t talk politics with friends. It’s just easier that way. But a day or two ago, Ben commented in this space that he thought this was the first interesting political year we’ve had in a long time, and I’m inclined to agree.

Clinton fired her campaign manager today. If she is determined to preserve her position as candidate presumptive, I can’t imagine a worse move. Even if she wanted to get him out, the right strategy would have been to promote him to some high-level, do-nothing position and have someone else of her choice actually pulling the strings. So apparently she is going to milk the underdog position, if she can manage that, for all that it’s worth. Which may not be much.

There was a terrific cartoon in The Christian Science Monitor this week. A pollster at the door of some suburban house was asking, “So, are you going to vote for the first woman president? The first Black president? The first Mormon president? The first POW president?” And so on.

The woman at the door responded, “I’d be happy to vote for the first honest president.”

I’m just tired of seeing only politicians running for office. I think the founders of this country envisioned a situation in which the most upright of our citizens put his/her life on hold for some period of time to go off to do the country’s/state’s/county’s/city’s business and then returned to live with the results.

It’s been decades, at the least, since we had that circumstance. What we have now are egoists determined to earn a living from the public trough while imposing their opinions on the rest of the world. If I am as apolitical as I think I am, that’s why.

Hilary shed “tears of passion” for public service. But it’s not so long ago (20 years, maybe?) that a terrific Congresswoman from Colorado, Pat Schroeder, was pilloried for weeping in public. It effectively ended her political career. I somehow find Clinton’s tears a lot less sincere.

This is the first election since 1960 that I can imagine myself actually voting “for” someone instead of “against” someone else. It intrigues me and makes me want to learn as much as I can about the someones running for office.

Like the woman in the cartoon, I want honesty. I don’t think that means I need to know all of the secrets of national security. But I want to believe that when my elected leader tells me something is in my best interests, I can trust him/her.

I find McCain interesting. I wish he were 10 years younger, and frankly, a lot will ride on who he selects as his running mate. It doesn’t bother me that he occasionally loses his temper. The world is so screwed up that it would be unbelievable not to lose one’s temper at times. He reminds me a bit of Harry Truman (which George W. doesn’t), a president who could be downright testy but was the right man at the right time. He was also a man who didn’t really want to be president and did not run for re-election.

Obama is inspiring. He is inexperienced at many things. But given my feelings about career politicians, this is not necessarily a handicap. However, given my assumptions about the state of the world and the U.S.’s place in it, it concerns me. If I knew that he would surround himself with a group of pragmatists like McCain and philosophers like Princeton’s Kwame Appiah, I might feel stronger.

The other candidates who have presented themselves interest me not at all. They are either old-time pols or just plain out-of-the-mainstream folks. I don’t think we can afford either.

I was impressed with Ted Kennedy’s “time to pass the torch” speech. I’ve never been a great Ted fan, but I thought he had something useful to say here. I’m part of the Vietnam generation, and I think there comes a time to let the past be the past. One of the things that impresses me about McCain is that after years as a POW he was among the first to lead the charge to reconcile with Vietnam.

So here’s my dream ticket: If I were presented with a ballot with McCain for president and Obama for V.P., it would be a no brainer. It’s not an unprecendented occurence in this country for the P. and V.P to be of different parties, although admittedly it has been rare.

But it’s not unthinkable. And it’s not even impossible. This year the Democratic Convention comes first. If the Democrats are so stupid as to use the power of the extra delegates to freeze out the most interesting candidate they’ve had in decades (the whole reason, BTW, that these delegates exist), they deserve what they get.

I can’t see Obama playing second fiddle to Ms. Clinton. But I can see him partnering with McCain to get things back on track and in the process seasoning himself.

Just my thoughts. If it ends up being McCain vs. Obama, I’ll have a lot of thinking to do.

Of course, we are all busy dying

February 10, 2008

That is not meant to be flip. The amazing thing is that we also get to cram so much living into the process. But every seven years, your body has replaced every cell in it with a new cell generated for one that has died off. How many bodies have you had?

One of my all-time favorite movies–perhaps my VERY favorite–is Zorba the Greek. The story is taken from a book of the same title by the Greek writer Nikos Kazantkakis. I suspect I must have mentioned this before, because my dear friend Phil sent me a copy of Kazantkakis’s Report to Greco that occupies a treasured place on my bookshelf. I share so much philosophy with this man. But that reflection is for another post.

It’s impossible for me to think about dying without thinking about Zorba. The movie is brilliant, with incredible performances by Anthony Quinn as Zorba, Alan Bates as “the Englishman” (a bookish sort who comes to this small Greek island with visions of imposing his orderly logic on the project he’s sent to manage), and Irene Papas as the young Greek widow who is stoned to death for canoodling with the Englishman. Then of course there is the unforgettable performance of Lila Kedrova as the aging courtesan, a character I seem to relate to more and more as the years pass.

There are many influences of this movie I can picture in my life. One of the most vivid is an evening drinking ouzo in a tavern in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District with a bunch of Greek sailors and dancing all night to bazouki music until I could hardly walk to my car, let alone drive home. I’m not sure I would have braved the dancing without the memory of Zorba resonating in my brain, but I can say that it was a highlight night of my life.

It also taught me not to drink ouzo. No matter how much I like the taste of anise and the mysterious way this crystalline liquer turns cloudy with a drop of water or melting ice, the next morning’s head isn’t worth it.

This really is relevant.

The young Greek woman played by Irene Papas is stoned to death by the villagers after spending a night with the Englishman. What follows is this (probably loosely paraphrased):

Zorba:  “Why do the young die?”

Englishman: “I don’t know.”

Zorba: “What the hell is the good of all your damned books if they don’t tell you that?”

Englishman: “I don’t know.”

As a book person, I don’t know either. I do know that books are important to me, that they give me a window into other people’s minds and other ways of seeing.

But I, too, still don’t understand why the young die.

I also don’t understand why sending this message off into the ether gives me comfort, but it does. And when I get notes back, the comfort is doubled. Thank you, Phil and Jeff.

When someone you love is dying

February 9, 2008

There’s a lot of that going around these days, it seems to me. But this one is particularly hard.

I know I’ve been absent recently. I just don’t feel like writing. I feel mostly like drinking, and playing Mario. I’d like to go for a walk, but walking in the rain when it’s raining inside my head already seems counterproductive.

Tom’s condition is taking the expected path. He’s losing the vision he has in his remaining eye, something that’s particularly frustrating for him. He has occasional conversations with people who aren’t there, asks whoever is sitting with him to hand him something that only he can see.

They’ve adjusted his meds to make up for his weight loss (at about 6′ tall, he weighs around 130 pounds at the moment), so at least he’s able to walk and talk again, although the words he’s looking for sometimes just aren’t there.

He’s short of breath occasionally, a sign that the tumors in his lungs are growing. Hospice has been terrific, but they can only try to help him be comfortable. They don’t have any miracles to offer either.

If he makes it a couple more weeks, he’ll be 50 years old. What he seems to want most at the moment (if he can’t be well again) is to die. It just doesn’t seem fair.

I feel that at age 50 I was just beginning to discover who I really am. Tom said a couple of weeks ago that he thought the two of us were more alike than any of our siblings. I suspect he’s right. And he was just coming into his strong period when the roof caved in on him. This stupid cancer that he’s fought so determinedly for about 20 years will not be denied. It’s determined to claim him. It probably will. We’re out of options.

So if I’m not around occasionally, it’s because I’m doing for my brother the only thing I can do for him at this point: I’m letting him know how much I care about him.

We’ve had some great conversations. As a very young woman, I had a near-death experience, one of those out-of-body things. It wasn’t my time to go, and I came back. The only thing Tom wanted to know was this: Did it hurt? Luckily, I was able to tell him no, no it didn’t hurt. And yes, yes there is something on the other side.

I’m going to just keep doing what I’m doing, hugging him whenever possible. I don’t know how much longer I’ll have to give him hugs. But I have an endless supply. I can hold out as long as he can. . .