The Big C and Me

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from the book “Reflections for the Future” that includes many of my dad’s writings (e-shrink). You can order it on lulu.com (hard back) or download the pdf of the book for free. Dad referred to this article in a recent blog post so I’ve copied it here.

They faxed the results of my CT scan the other day, and it showed no signs of reoccurrence. Briefly I felt a sigh of relief, such as I imagine the men on death row must feel when they get a reprieve to delay their execution. This journey began nearly a year ago, only a few weeks after my brother died of a rapidly progressing lung cancer. Fortunately, he had little time to suffer as he died only three weeks after he was diagnosed. My wife insisted that I should have a chest x-ray, and there it was, “a right upper lobe mass.” My hopes that it might be a benign lesion were dashed when the follow-up scan was interpreted as “Probable bronchiogenic carcinoma” and confirmed when the PET scan “lit up.”

One would think that my training and research interests would have prepared my to deal with this problem, for back when I was an academic my colleagues and students jokingly referred to me as the “Angel of Death.” This was due to my interest in thanatology (death and dying). At least on a conscious level I was interested in how awareness of our mortality affected such things as personality, super ego development, motivation, mood problems, suicidal and other self destructive behaviors. I now wonder if much of my interest had more to do with my own personal conflicts than a strictly scientific interest. My research led me to the believe among other things that Freud was correct when he stated that people generally were unable to imagine their own non-existence. He was also quoted as having said while he was dying of a painful malignancy that he envied those who believed in an afterlife. Billy Graham seems to have something in common with the Islamic suicide bombers in that he has said that he is looking forward to death for he is convinced that he will have another one much better than his current one. I have also seen many patients who yearn for or even attempt to hasten their death in order to rid themselves of unbearable physical or emotional pain. For some my studies seemed to indicate that there may even be a sexual component to their fantasies of death, and for others a reunion with loved ones who have “gone before’. These are attitudes which I labeled as thanatophilic.

Unfortunately, I am not a thanatophile, On the contrary I am quite thanatophobic, I love my life and as is the case with most things, with the threat of its loss it becomes more precious. My education in the sciences has given me an appreciation for the awesome complexities of life, and some understanding of its fragility, but it is more than the sum of its parts. Now more than ever I look out our kitchen window and marvel at the birds as they all struggle to sustain their life and are programmed to replace themselves so that “life goes on”. I am overwhelmed with their beauty and grace. Is life just a complicated chemical process or does it house something spiritual? I am certainly not the first person to pose that question. When I attempt to understand the physicists as they theorize about the nature of matter and the vastness of the universe, it seems my life must be very insignificant; however sometimes I act as if the world could not get along without me. I guess Freud really was right in that I can’t imagine myself as being dead.

When I first received the shocking news that I had cancer, it suddenly became very clear that my musings and “scientific” investigations into how people think about and cope with death were of little use to me. Kubler-Ross was a researcher at University of Chicago who had beaten me to the punch with her book on death and dying; consequently I had always criticized her for what I considered an overly simplistic explanation of the dying process. Much to my chagrin I found myself to be a poster boy in following her descriptions of people’s behaviors as they faced death. The 1st stage she described was one of grief, and I did that one well all the while attempting to hide it out of a sense of embarrassment. Initially I tried to regain control by trying to “get my affairs in order”, but that rapidly gave way to a feeling of intense sadness which was most severe when I thought of my Grandchildren. I found myself suppressing tears whenever I thought of them. I told myself this was ridiculous, for how could I anticipate feeling this sense of loss if I were dead. If I were dead I wouldn’t feel anything or would I?

It has been said that ignorance is bliss, and also that a little bit of knowledge is dangerous. I knew my body had betrayed me and that my own cells were attempting to destroy my vital organs. I could picture them as they would look through a microscope with their bizarrely shaped nuclei, many of them in the process of dividing as they rapidly reproduced themselves. I knew the traitors had spent the last several years quietly multiplying in my lung preparing for the final assault. The obvious defense against this army was to totally destroy them, and this could be accomplished only with surgery. There would be collateral damage of course, but pulmonary function studies indicated that my body could survive the loss of a lobe (approximately ½ of my right lung). Barb made me promise to “fight like hell” and I vowed to do just that; however as the day of surgery came closer I became more fearful. My fear was that I would wake up attached to a ventilator with my arms restrained and unable to speak, or of some other complication ( I could think of many) that would render me helpless. The idea of such helplessness had always been terrifying to me. The ultimate horror I could think of was quadriplegia with right sided stroke a close second. It turned out those fears were groundless and I tolerated the surgery well for an old bugger. The epidural almost completely eliminated the post operative pain for the first few days, and other than being tethered to a couple of garden hoses protruding from my chest wall I was reasonably comfortable, after Barb had raised enough hell to get me a more comfortable bed than the slab on which they initially placed me.

The pathology report was favorable with no tumor cells found in the lymph nodes ( the most likely route through which the they could spread) and although the tumor involved the visceral pleura ( the covering of the lung) it did not appear to have penetrated into the pleural cavity. This invasion of the pleural cavity is what had killed my brother. The five year survival rate with this type and stage of lung cancer is sixty seven percent. I am told that this could be improved by seven more percent with chemotherapy: however the side effects from the extremely toxic drugs designed to kill those little devils that might have escaped can also do serious damage to healthy parts of my body. I decided to take my chances without it.

My spouse who has been a cancer survivor for twenty years has been a rock, and we have rather deftly switched roles with me now dependent on her for support. She acknowledges my fears, discourages my somaticising, and encourages me to live in the here and now. I have gone through Kubler- Ross’s “bargaining stage”. In my case this involved pleading with God to allow me to stay here to see my grandchildren grow up. I have been amazed at the number of people who knowing of my illness say they are praying for me. This includes friends, casual acquaintances, and even patients all of whom seem to know of my ordeal. I have decided that with all of the problems facing God it is presumptuous for me to expect special treatment, so I have decided to keep my eye on the ball and do what I can to follow his will as I imagine it to be. I hope to stick all these death and dying fears back in some corner of my mind. It has been my experience that one of the major problems with worrying is that we usually worry about the wrong things and the bad things that happen to us are the ones of which we never thought. The fact that I don’t want to die is a testament to how fortunate I have been to have such a wonderful life. Maybe my luck will hold and I will die in my sleep in another twenty or thirty years.

SUCCESS

carterThe other morning I awakened to a pleasant surprise. CNN had someone on the screen other than Donald Trump. Jimmy Carter was holding a news conference about his illness and plans for the future, a future that one could safely assume was rather limited since he acknowledged that he was about to undergo treatment for a melanoma with cerebral metastases.

As a cancer survivor myself (see: THE BIG C AND ME) I felt my admiration grow even more for this man who had always been my hero. This 91-year-old man of unshakable faith, showed no bitterness or self- pity, but was determined to carry on with his life’s work as long as he could function. His response to questions about how he felt about his illness was typical Jimmy Carter: “I will hope for the best and accept what comes.”
As I considered the accomplishments of this person who had come from inauspicious beginnings as a peanut farmer in a small town in Georgia, a feeling of awe came over me. As a young man he left the small town of his childhood to attend Annapolis, bent on a career in the Navy. Subsequent to that, he attained an engineering degree and was involved with Admiral Rickover in the development of nuclear submarines. After returning home, he not only was elected governor of his state and then to the highest office in the land, but won a Nobel Peace Prize after negotiating a treaty between Israel and Egypt that may have saved thousands of lives. It would also seem unlikely that a son of the deep south would become an outspoken foe of bigotry and a strong supporter of human rights throughout the world, but he did. A failed attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran is said to be responsible for his defeat for a second term as president.

Mr. Carter’s presidency was labeled by many as a failure, and his many achievements in economic and foreign policies have been largely ignored. His integrity however has never been challenged. His fulfillment of his promises to “never tell a lie” and to “never avoid a controversial issue” did not enhance his popularity, for as any successful politician will admit, truth telling is not a winning strategy in the political arena. His successor however could have used the tune “don’t worry, be happy” as his theme song.

The loss of his presidency would prove to be the beginning of even greater exploits. Most ex-presidents build libraries which are more like monuments to themselves. They seem to be very concerned about their legacy, which shouldn’t surprise us, after all those with weak egos are unlikely to ever make it to the top spot. Mr. Carter; however, used his monument as a platform on which to establish a center to “wage peace, fight disease, and build hope.” He did confess in his news conference that he has cut back his schedule somewhat, but still plans to remain involved in The Carter Center’s operation. When asked about his most fervent wish, he replied “to outlive the last guinea worm.” For those not familiar, the guinea worm has been a prevalent cause of much suffering throughout many parts of the world and has been almost totally eliminated through the efforts of the Carter Center.

Not only was I impressed with his vigor and enthusiasm, but by his abiding concern for issues he obviously considered more important than his own. Now I ask you, how could you not love a guy like that? For me, listening to him was very emotional. I experienced an intense feeling* of respect. A few days later, a grandson happened to be visiting and we were discussing my blog. As reigning patriarch, I have issued a hard and fast rule that all family members must read this stuff whether they like it or not. Accolades are appreciated, but not required. On the other hand, those who are critical should expect to move down a notch or two on the Christmas gift list. After successfully passing the quiz on the contents of my last blog (although not a fan of Ronald Reagan, I do subscribe to the trust but verify policy) he went on to suggest that I do an essay on success.
Since both my grandsons are beginning their senior year in college, I could understand why such a topic might be on their minds. I also felt the topic particularly serendipitous due to my recent encounter with Jimmy Carter. An analysis of his career brings up the problem of defining exactly what we mean by the word success, and how do we make that judgment? What do we mean when we say a person is a success or a failure? Does it make any sense to make such all encompassing judgments about people since the inconsistent conclusions arrived at by those who are judging would seem to prove that such distinctions are quite subjective. Is success like many other things in life in the eye of the beholder?

There generally seems to be a consensus that Carter was the most successful ex-president in our history, but the agreement ends there. As to the rest of his life, there are those who applaud and those who consider him a failure in many ways. One could say that his political career was a mixed bag. He lost his first bid for governor of Georgia, and his Camp-David_wareelection for president. His presidency was mired by so called “stagflation” for which he was blamed by some while others gave him credit for initiating policies that got the economy back on track. I believe most historians would agree that the negotiated peace treaty between Israel and Egypt was his most laudable success. In spite of this, he was accused of anti-Semitism for his book on Israeli politics: “Palestine Peace not Apartheid” in which he presented the Palestinian side of the story.

With this in mind one must conclude that the distinction between success and failure very much depends upon one’s values. Those of us of a more liberal position are more likely to judge Mr. Carter as a successful person than those of a different political persuasion. Our success in competitive activities such as sports can be more easily determined by winning. We also have developed tools, even though crude, to help us measure academic success. In business, success is generally measured in terms of profits generated, but we have no way to assess the most important facets of life such as honor, compassion, fidelity, fairness, integrity, parenting, and citizenship to mention a few.

The term success is usually viewed favorably by society, but can also have negative connotations. The most succinct definition I could find was “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose”. Obviously if that goal is nefarious in nature the accomplishment will not be viewed in a positive light. For example there are successful criminals, con-artists, and other asocial people. There may also be an issue with the means of accomplishing the desired goal. There may be not only illegal but unethical factors contributing to an individual’s success. Unfortunately such behaviors are many times ignored as successful people are often idealized.

Is the Key to Success Linked to the Courage to Fail?

With all this in mind I have come to the conclusion that each individual is the only one who can judge his success. Of course we need to set goals if we want to be successful in reaching them, but if the goal is to leap tall buildings in a single bound our chances of success are diminished. I have known people who are reluctant to set goals for themselves presumably due to fear of failure. I can only assume their life must be very boring. Success requires risk, and one must be prepared to accept failure for in spite of our best efforts we will not always succeed. It is said that many of the most successful people throughout history have had multiple failures prior to achieving their goals. In my own case, although I have never aspired to lofty goals, I figure my success rate to be about one success for every 10 failures. It is therefore logical that success usually requires a certain amount of determination, and the ability to not be dissuaded by failure. It also lends credence to the age old admonition: “If at first you don’t succeed, try try again.”

Flexibility in interpreting results may also be helpful. At times it may be necessary to revise or reframe one’s expectations. There may be unintended consequences of reaching one’s goal which may exceed or diminish expectations. If a goal is not attainable, it may be possible to modify it in such a manner that one can still enjoy the feeling of success. I have a brilliant close friend and colleague who has written much about psychiatry both for lay and scientific consumption, most of which has remained unpublished. I sense that he thus feels as if he is a failure even when I point out to him that he has been successful in producing thoughtful extremely well written material, and further remind him that his judgment is at least as good as the editors who reject his writings. It is always dangerous to allow someone else to be in charge of one’s self-esteem.
Most successes go unnoticed so it is important that we acknowledge our successes to ourselves. Patting oneself on the back does not necessarily denote arrogance, and will help us develop the confidence needed to pursue more successes. Failure sucks, but even an occasional success will rid us of that feeling. Mankind has undoubtedly been motivated by the search for that feeling one associates with reaching a goal.
At this point in my blogging career, I find it necessary to modify my goals for success. I have come to accept that my writings will not be appearing in the New York times, be going viral or be considered for a Pulitzer Prize; consequently my quest for fame and fortune must end. To that end, I will reread this thing and convince myself that it is worth reading, and crown myself a success.

*One of my friends who reads this stuff has questioned my definition of respect as a “feeling” in my last blog . The highlighted word is for her.

FAMILY

Does parenting make us unhappy?

In a recent conversation, I heard about a young couple who was quoted as saying that they had decided not to have children.  They had allegedly made this decision based on their belief that childless couples were happier.  It is true that one gives up a lot of freedom when they choose to become parents. Children are a long term financial liability not to mention the fact that at times they can drive you crazy.   In spite of the downsides, I strongly disagree with the premise that parents are unhappy because they have kids.  Granted, as children go through the terrible teens, they may not seem to be very interested in their parents’ happiness.  Nevertheless; in the many years I have spent attempting to help people deal with unhappiness,  I found those without children were by no means happier.  One of my patients who had never conceived once said to me that she felt “incomplete.” Conversely, I don’t recall ever hearing anyone say they regretted having children.

The benefits of parenting.

Some may suggest that the urge to reproduce is simply due to a pursuit of sexual satisfaction; however, I submit that the need to nurture is an even stronger emotion.   My wife frequently mentions the wonderfully warm feeling she experienced when those little guys had been bathed and tucked in for the night; although I recall she looked exhausted.  We were fortunate that it was possible for her to be a stay-at-home mom until the kids reached an age of relative independence (a situation that is frequently impossible to implement in today’s families).

Children are also useful in helping enhance our personality development.  I have long insisted that having a child is the most effective treatment for narcissism.  They teach us to look outside of ourselves.  They provide us with an opportunity for a “do over” to correct our mistakes and to vicariously act out our failed accomplishments.  Although they often disappoint and anger us, we continue to care about them, protect, encourage, and sacrifice for them.  These qualities are ones that I once read somewhere as the definition of love which went like this: “love is caring for another as much or more than for oneself with knowledge and without compulsion.”    Nowhere is this statement more apropos than in the feelings we have for our children.

Oh yes, there are glaring exceptions and I have witnessed the crippling effects of child abuse, but even in the most abhorrent of these cases one often finds examples of love gone awry.   One horrible example of this received my attention when a mother was brought to our hospital after she had drowned her two children.   She had a history of mental illness, but had always been overprotective of her children.  She turned out to have been delusional and convinced that demonic forces were coming to sexually abuse and torture her children, and that their death was the only way to protect them from the horrors which she thought were inevitable.  As has been noted by many, victims of child abuse frequently become abusers, but one might consider that by being denied a loving relationship with their children, second or third generation abusers continue to suffer by being denied the most gratifying experience of life.

Children become even more important to people like myself who have been fortunate enough to reach a “ripe old age” (when I hear this phrase I am not comforted by the thought that when things ripen they soon begin to rot).  As our limitations increase and we find ourselves spending more time in doctors’ offices and funeral homes, we become more dependent on others.  I recall responding to a young man who said he did not want children with,  “Who will come visit you in the nursing home?”  An occasional visit from social worker types is not the same as one of your own flesh and blood. The idea of growing old alone is very frightening to many people (myself included), but even when their offspring are not particularly attentive, older folks seem to find some solace in the knowledge that they exist.  Even those who have been totally neglected may continue to have rescue fantasies, and even in the midst of their angst often make excuses for their children’s neglect.

Our brains are hardwired to repress most painful memories; consequently, if you want to know what is most important in life, ask an old person to reminisce.  You will find them to be very accommodating: reminiscing is a favorite pastime for us old folks.  In most cases their reminiscences will be largely dominated by the good times in their lives.  You will also note that many of these resurrected memories will be times with family.

Family vacation

It was during a time of my own reminiscing that I was motivated to write this essay.  The process was triggered while planning for our family’s annual vacation which has become a tradition with my gang, but has become increasingly difficult to initiate as grandchildren grow older and develop more commitments. This year was especially difficult as it turned out there was only one week in the entire year when everyone would be able to attend, and then only after manipulating schedules.  At first it had seemed unlikely that everyone would be able to go, and we might be forced to cancel.  I found that thought very depressing.

Now that everything has been ironed out, and I am trying to decide whether to pack my bathing trunks and risk the derisive comments of the kids about my less than magnificent corpulent body, my thoughts have turned to all those prior vacations.  It has been over 50 years since the first, and it was monumental.  We checked into a hotel with its southern traditions intact in Nags Head.  This was a place where the family was introduced to their waiter who would care for them the entire time they were there, and dinner was a grand affair with everyone expected to “dress.”  Barb was in her glory, dressing up the kids  and showing them off.   Later there would be trips with four kids in a station wagon without air conditioning or video games, but the misery of getting there was dwarfed by the excitement of finding a motel with a pool.

Vacation from hell.

It has been more than 40 years since we went on our last sightseeing type vacation.  I had terminated my general practice, and we had decided to have a grand adventure prior to my starting a psychiatric residency.  It was destined to go down in the annals of Smith history as an unforgettable experience, and indeed to this day remains a topic often mentioned when we are all together.  The kids refer to it as the “Vacation from Hell.” It all began as most disasters do, innocently, when a friend showed me his new motor home.  Now at that time this was a new innovation in the travel business and I was most impressed.  It presented an opportunity to be closer to the flora and fauna, and would save money on hotel and food expenses.  I also was naïve enough to think that with more space when on the road the kids would fight less, and I would not need to scream as much.  Indeed, I pictured us becoming an on the road version of the Cleaver family.

Further  investigation revealed that these motor homes were very expensive.  I was convinced  I could build one myself for much cheaper.  With that in mind, I bought a retired dry cleaning truck and set about to make it habitable.  After the installation of a stove, refrigerator, and toilet, it suddenly looked a little tight spacewise.  I think one of the kids used the sardine analogy  to describe it.  There would be many other smart ass remarks before this trip concluded.   Nevertheless; the vehicle (which would come to be known as Smith’s folly) was packed and stocked with  provisions .  As an added measure of security, I hung my  motorcycle on the back and we were on our way determined to explore all points of interest in the wild west.  Unfortunately, this trip would rival that of the Griswald’s in the Chevy Chase movie Vacation.

We made remarkably good time our first day on the road.   We made it past Chicago, and I was feeling vindicated.  The kids had engaged in only minor fisticuffs, but that may have had something to do with the fact that we had managed an early start, and they had slept a good part of the day.  We had lunch in the “motor home” (some might suggest that I use that term lightly),  and the self-contained facilities solved the problem of poorly synchronized bladder functions.   As we were looking for a place to hook up to water, electricity and sewage disposal, it suddenly became very cloudy and we found ourselves in the midst of a thunderstorm with rain so heavy that it was difficult to see the road.  Suddenly the idea of spending the night in a campground lost its appeal, and we checked into a motel.

The following day began uneventfully.  It was bright and sunny, with not a storm cloud in sight.  All went well until the late afternoon when we decided to pull off the highway in Galena, Illinois, the mention of which never fails to elicit a chuckle from Barb.  Like most vehicles of its vintage, ours had a gear shift lever attached to the steering column.  While pulling away from a traffic light, I attempted to shift gears, and found myself holding the unattached gear shift lever in my hand.   Even in the face of this catastrophe, Barb was overcome with laughter at my facial   expression as I struggled to understand what had happened.   With the gear shift lever broken off at its base, the truck (at this point I no longer addressed it as a motor home ) was stuck in low gear which created some significant problems for the traffic following us and not surprisingly, they became impatient as our top speed was about 10 miles per hour.

It turned out that God had not totally forsaken us, for we stumbled upon a Chevrolet auto agency after “driving” only a few blocks.  I must have still had a silly look on my face for as we pulled into the service department, the mechanic who greeted us supressed a smile as I held the lever in my hand and asked if they had one of those.  Of  course they didn’t, but I was told they could probably have one by the following day.  With that we limped at 10 mph to the closest motel.  Although the savings I had projected by sleeping in Darell’s folly was taking a hit, the kids were happy because the motel had a pool. The replacement part arrived later that next day, and we were back on the road after our second night in the motel.

Are we there yet?

If you are thinking it could not get any worse, you would be wrong.  After a few hours on the road the sun disappeared never to be seen again for the next three days.  As a matter of fact, it became dark enough that I decided to switch on the headlights. One black cloud to my left looked particularly ominous, and as its funnel shaped appendage moved down towards the earth, I figured correctly that we were in big trouble.  Now, as a native of the southern Ohio hill country my acquaintance with tornadoes was limited to what I had read, which wasn’t much.  As it advanced straight across the cornfield toward us, I attempted to tone down the terror from my voice to utter some hollow platitudes. Of course as every parent knows, kids read us like a book and my attempt to reassure them only caused more fear.

It only made sense to me to seek some shelter, so I stopped under an overpass, but was soon interrupted by a siren and flashing red light which had pulled up next to me.  I was thinking, “Can this guy be serious about giving out tickets in this situation?”  Then I noted that he was waving and pointing ahead apparently wanting me to move on.  I was angry that he was forcing me to go back out into the storm, but being a law abiding compliant soul, we struck out again.  I would later learn that under a bridge is the worst  possible place to be in a tornado, and perhaps that patrolman saved our lives.

After vacating what I thought was a safe haven, I found I could only see where I was going by straddling the center line. The wind was so intense that it blew water right through the rubber seal of the windshield. Then suddenly I realized that we were traveling on the berm  of the road.   The highway was  perfectly straight and I had been white knuckling the steering wheel to keep on that white line; consequently, I was confident that we had been simply lifted off the road and set gently back down on four wheels.  In a short time the wind died down, and it was evident my promise that this trip would be a grand adventure was being fulfilled.

The tornado had moved on, but the sky still looked  ominous and once again the idea of sleeping in the camper lost its appeal.  Clouds and rain continued to dog us for the next couple of days and we continued to hear that conditions were right for tornadoes. These announcements were meaningless to us as we had no idea where we were, so the wisest thing to do seemed to be to turn off the radio and hope for the best.  The kids were not impressed when we drove through the badlands.  We did manage to catch a glimpse through the fog and mist of Mt. Rushmore but the kids were still not impressed.

Soon the sky would brighten and I was convinced that we would still salvage this vacation.  I was hopeful when we got to Wyoming, bought cowboy hats all around, and stopped at a dude ranch which advertised trail rides for five dollars.  It turned out as you might suspect: it was a short trail, which became shorter when I heard Barb scream for help.  She was bringing up the rear and her horse decided he would rather go back to the barn at a rapid pace.  Unfortunately, there was no dashing cowboy on a white charger to run her horse down and rescue her. I was having my own problems hanging on.

Our next major attraction was to be Yellow Stone park, and I was looking forward to finally testing the sleeping accomodations of the camper and awakening to the smell of bacon frying.  It was a gorgeous night and after getting the kids bedded down, Barb and I decided to sleep under the stars.  I quickly fell asleep, but was  awakened by loud clanging sounds. Upon closer observation, the sound was coming from bears on a foraging expedition and had knocked over all the garbage cans they could find. Barb beat a hasty retreat to the camper with me close behind.

At that point, we decided we had experienced enough adventure, and after an uneventful swing south to glance briefly at the Grand Canyon, and an equally brief visit with Barb’s brother in Phoenix,  we headed back north for home.   Through all her travails our trusty land schooner had performed admirably, save for the minor gearshift problem. As we rolled along Kansas, confident the rest of the trip would be smooth sailing, I noticed a lack of responsiveness when I depressed the accelerator.   It soon became apparent the clutch of the “motor home” was going out.  This did not present much of a problem in the flatlands, but as we got into the hill country , the steeper ascends were a challenge.  With the clutch slipping, and the engine racing we were barely able to top most of the hills.  In  spite of this minor impediment we were finally relieved to arrive home with no  lives lost.

Flashforward

Since those days our group has doubled in size and family vacations have consistently been for me the highlight of each year.  They were suspended for the past year following the untimely death of my oldest, yet the family T shirt commemorates this one as the 21st of such get togethers.  They have all been deliciously chaotic affairs, but none that could match the “ vacation from hell.”  We were forced to leave a day early from a South Carolina beach due to a hurricane, and there have been the usual sunburns, jelly fish bites, a broken leg, a sizeable gash from attempts to break up a dog fight, and a fall down the steps resulting in my eyeglasses having impaled my head; otherwise, they have been relatively benign afffairs.  Most have involved a week at a beach and they have all been at different places as we always seem to wait too long to make reservations.

This year’s family vacation is only a few days away, and I find my feelings analogous to those I experienced as a child a few days before Christmas.  I always look forward to seeng the progeny of course, but to witness them all together interacting not only with me, but with each other is a most exhilarating experience.

photo

Here I sit three days later with a magnificent view of the Gulf.  The trip down here was relatively uneventful.  There was a minor issue in a parking garage in which one of the grandkids who is learning to drive ( and who shall remain nameless ) backed into a parked  car.  Her Mother violated every tenet I had ever taught her by leaving a note with her phone number.   Well maybe I might have inadvertinately mentioned that “honesty is the best policy” rap when she was little, but never thought she would take iit seriously.  Meanwhile the kids have managed to trash the place in short order.  They are at times loud, argumentive,  constantly in motion, and in short wonderful.

By the way, I feel compelled to mention that one of those guys who said he did not want children was my son who is on course to be nominated as Father of the century.

NOTE FROM ESHRINK’S Editor. We recently returned from our 21st Annual Smith Family Vacation (these are the vacations dad discussed above…a tradition started when Simon and Carter were babies in 1994). Unfortunately, I don’t have pictures from the “vacation from hell” but I’ve added some pictures for family of previous trips during our 21 year vacation history.

vaca2010 group shot

This is the vacation where dad impaled himself with his glasses when he fell down the steps. Jim pulled them out, and we took the picture BEFORE dad went to get stitched…we Smiths don’t let anything get in the way of the family photo 🙂 but maybe that’s why the picture is so blurry.

 

 

This was vacation we took in Michigan. Jim proposed to Trudy on this vacation. I think it was 2005.

This was vacation we took in Michigan. Jim proposed to Trudy on this vacation. I think it was 2005.

 

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Horseback riding at the ranch. Summer 2007.

Horseback riding at the ranch. Summer 2007.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Life

There was a fly on my bathroom window this morning.  As I prepared to swat him, I was reminded of my mother saying “He wouldn’t hurt a fly,” a complimentary phrase used to describe a person of gentle character. Although my mother was a gentle soul herself, that saying did not apply to her as she was an avowed hater and ferocious killer of flies.  Her swatter was always within reach and during times of heavy infestation, she would hang a fly catcher from the ceiling light.  The latter was in the form of a sticky tape which would attract flies and then hold them until they stopped fluttering, a sort of weapon of mass destruction.  The flies did not appear to be very smart for they continued to land on the fly paper in the midst of hundreds of their dead buddies.

As I stood poised to murder that poor little guy with my bath towel, it also occurred to me that to see flies in the house is now rather uncommon, compared to my childhood when it seemed they were everywhere; undoubtedly a testament to indoor plumbing and pesticides. A frequently heard admonition delivered in semi-panic mode was: “Close the screen door, you are letting in all the flies,” and believe me there were often a lot of flies to let in.  Once in the house, the only solution was death by whatever means available.

We are a culture which professes a reverence for life, but I doubt even the vegans among us would feel much compunction about swatting that fly. The rest of us find only the lives of our own species or perhaps those of our pets to be important.  I am told there are some eastern religions which forbid the taking of any animal life no matter how small or insignificant, which leads me to believe they find life itself to be a holy condition.

As I grow older, I find that I no longer take life for granted.  This shouldn’t be surprising since economists explain that as a commodity becomes less plentiful, it accrues more value. I suspect that is one of the factors which has inspired me to write this little ditty.  Life is one thing that fly and I have in common; although, our experiences with it obviously differ considerably.  Much has been written about the mystery of death, which is understandable since we have not experienced it personally, but I submit that life is much more complicated and mysterious.  As a matter of fact, when I consult my favorite reference (Wikipedia), for a definition I become even more confused until I find it defined as the opposite of death.  That was not very helpful as I think I already knew that.  I believe my tenth grade biology teacher did a better job when she described life as the ability of an organism to respond to its environment, and to reproduce itself.  Using these criteria one must conclude that Mr. Fly is indeed alive.

Life and Consciousness

In the midst of plotting my strategy as to how to take him out without breaking the window, I found myself wondering if the fly knew he was alive, or if he was even aware of his own existence. Recently I have been reading about some exciting research that attempts to understand how our brains work, but there still appears to be a lot of questions about consciousness.  In addition to the imponderables of why am I here and how did I get here, man is also faced with the even more vexing question of how do I know I am here?

The earliest recorded writings on the subject of consciousness were contained in an essay by John Locke in 1690 (side note from editor: this connection won’t be lost on devotees of the television show Lost).  He defined it as “The perception of what passes in a man’s own mind.”  There has been much disagreement even in the description or definition of the word.  The one I liked best was the translation from the original Latin namely: “knowing that one knows,” but then I have always been a sucker for simplistic answers to complex questions. Not so with the world’s greatest philosophers who have found the subject fertile ground for their speculations and opinions.  I tried googling some of that stuff and found that I had no idea what they were talking about, but felt a great sigh of relief when I stumbled upon a quote from Stuart Sutherland in the 1989 Macmillan Dictionary of Psychology where he wrote “Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon: it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it has evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written about it.”  That last line made me feel much better.

With the marvelous advancements in discoveries about the brain, and the ability to actually witness its functions via scanning techniques, neuroscientists have now thrown their ideas into the mix; however, they are limited by the problem of objectively measuring a subjective experience.

Recently I wrote a spoof abut a future in which robots populate an earth where the human race has become extinct.  My wife thought it was crazy, but I now feel vindicated after discovering that Alan Turing (credited with inventing the computer) had written a paper on the subject of computer intelligence in 1950.  Now there is much discussion about artificial intelligence, but one wonders, “What is the difference between artificial intelligence and the genuine article?”  There is some debate as to whether computers can actually be programmed to be conscious.  Many learned people dismiss this idea as preposterous, but then people shared that same attitude about going to the moon.  After living on this planet long enough to witness many “preposterous” discoveries, I have learned that the adage “never say never” makes a lot of sense.

What about the fly?

Those of you who are still reading this may wonder what this has to do with the fly on my window, and I don’t have a very coherent answer, other than I have a tendency to wander off on tangents when I am thinking “great thoughts”.  This is a phenomenon we psychiatrists call loose associations often found to be a harbinger of impending psychosis.  I prefer to think that I am perfectly sane; however, if I am suffering from an altered state of consciousness I may be totally unaware of my mental problems, and as a matter of fact this is one of the factors which often makes it difficult to treat the more serious mental illnesses. After all, it would make no sense to undergo treatment for an illness that does not exist; consequently, should we be surprised that many seriously ill patients resist treatment as have I?

Consciousness and animals

Consensus among the experts regarding consciousness in animals seems to be lacking.  Some are convinced that this is an exclusively human function while others feel that some mammals and birds are so endowed.  Others believe that only subhuman primates, chimpanzees in particular, exhibit consciousness, and that other creatures including insects like my fly friend operate on instinct.  Of course we don’t know much about instincts either.  Although instincts are thought to be encoded on the organism’s DNA, we still face the mystery of how that process occurred. The limited research I performed to help me answer my housefly question has convinced me that the fly in the window, although satisfying the criteria to be called alive, almost certainly could not experience consciousness.  I did learn a lot about flies for example: 1) they only live from two to four weeks, 2) they undergo a complex life cycle as maggots, pupae, etc, 3) they have large protruding eyes with multiple lenses which allow them to see in all directions at once which explains why you can’t sneak up on them, 4) they have been aggravating us humans throughout history, 5) they can carry a variety of diseases from the garbage and feces on which they feed, 6) enlarged photographs show them to be truly ugly.

Obviously, in order to be conscious we must have a functioning brain, an organ of such marvelous complexity that it defies our total understanding. Most experts agree that the ability to experience emotions is essential for consciousness, and this is what sets us apart from other life forms, yet we know that elephants for example go through an elaborate period of mourning at the loss of a family member, and many of us remain convinced that our pets demonstrate all kinds of feelings based on their behaviors.  The idea that the brain is the seat of emotions is fairly recent, and for most of our history had been ascribed to the heart.  The tradition lives on; however with phrases like; “my heart goes out to you” or “her heart is broken.”

Consciousness and theology

Discussions of consciousness are almost certain to lead to theological considerations.  Indeed some philosophers would contend that the soul is simply the state of being conscious. Throughout history, man has left evidence of his belief in a spiritual component to his being, which is separate from and survives his death. Such a belief has crossed all boundaries and cultures throughout the world; although with different versions of the same theme.  Of course without consciousness, man would have been incapable of conceptualizing a spiritual aspect to his being or for that matter even the realization that he was mortal.   One might ask, is it not possible that our conscious mind is incapable of perceiving the “soul within us,” or as some insist, is this idea simply a fairy tale devised by man to deal with the awareness of his mortality?

There are those who operate under the assumption that if you can’t see it, hear it, smell it, taste it or touch it; it doesn’t exist.  I submit there are many things which we cannot perceive which are known to exist.  Gravity for example, does not pass that test for we cannot perceive it directly, although we are certain that it exists because we can witness its effects.  We even have an equation to describe it.  As a matter of fact our universe is so well ordered that theoretical physicists insist that everything can be explained by mathematics. By making use of these principles, they have been able to predict the discovery of many things in our universe both in the field of particle physics, and the other end of the spectrum namely, astrophysics.  One of the more famous examples of this was the discovery of black holes in the universe 55 years after Einstein had predicted their existence based on his calculations. It is little wonder that a guy like me who struggled with ninth-grade algebra has difficulty understanding these guys.

If you thought Einstein and his relativity theories containing terms like a fourth dimension, space time continuum, and how straight lines are actually curved  strange, take a look at quantum mechanics which is really weird.  Among other weird things, devotees to this line of thought explain with a straight face that an object can be in more than one place at the same time.  In an earlier time if someone presented me with a story like that, I would probably have suggested he come with me and spend a few days in the psych ward.  Some also postulate the existence of parallel universes.  While all this is going on subatomic studies are turning all we learned about the atom and the nature of matter on its head.  We were taught that the atom had protons, neutrons and electrons, now we are told there are quarks and leptons and other kinds of things in there doing weird stuff.

You may be thinking “here he goes off the deep end again” but the point I am attempting to make is that there are many things going on which our brain can’t contemplate due to the limitations of our special senses.  With that in mind it doesn’t seem like a big leap to think there may be spiritual stuff going on both within and around us of which we are totally unaware.   I would not be shocked if some modern day Einstein would not come up with an equation some day that would confirm the existence of a spirit world, God included.  In the meantime we are left with the admonition to believe.  This has always been difficult for me as I have always been a skeptic by nature and like things to be proven.  In spite of this, I try to believe as I am told that only believers will get their tickets punched to the pearly gates and the other option does not sound good at all.

Meanwhile the question remains unanswered as to what all is involved in consciousness.  Is it simply a byproduct of life, the end result of the evolutionary development of the human brain?  Is the condition unique to humans?  Is there a mystical component involved?  I know these are all questions I raised early in this writing, but did you really expect answers?  As I have said in a previous blog, more wisdom is usually found in questions than in the answers.

By the way, in case you are wondering about the fly, I swatted him.