Back to Montaigne

When I find myself in times of trouble,
I go back to read Montaigne.
Seeking words of wisdom,
Read some more…
(to the tune of Let It Be, with apologies to the Beatles)

Michel de MontaigneI was up late these last few nights reading Michel de Montaigne into the wee, dark hours. Although I used to read him rather frequently and found him an inspiration for several posts, some years back, I hadn’t picked him up in ages. But a passing mention in Sterne’s Tristam Shandy made me pick him up again starting with his long essay (69 pages in the Screech edition; 57 in the Frame translation) of “some verses of Virgil.” Which, in typical Montaigne fashion is less about the poet Virgil than about his views on aging, dying, sexuality, religion, marriage, virtue, honesty, and more. Strands of seemingly random thoughts woven into a longer piece. And, of course, abundantly sprinkled with quotations from a wide range of authors.

Montaigne’s greatness doesn’t lie with scientific breakthroughs, astounding discoveries, feats of endurance or strength: it lies with his ability and willingness to both question everything and to think through to his answers. Clearly, reasonably, openly, creatively. And then to put pen to paper and collect his thoughts for the world to read (the printing press has only been in use for just over a century when, in 1580, the Essays were first published). His essays are marvellously witty, thoughtful,  insightful, and remarkably down-to-earth, even more than 400 years later.

You have to admire his willingness to commit to paper his doubts and uncertainties, as well as his passions and his views. This was the century of the Reformation, the Counter-reformation, of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and Martin Luther. The Roman Inquisition was in full swing, snaring Galileo, Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, and others in its repressive, orthodox net. Yet Montaigne wrote a spirited defense of the fifteenth-century theologian, Raymond Sebond, whose views about the nature of Christianity were under attack by church conservatives. That was a bold, and dangerous act.

Montaigne was, almost unheard-of for his time, frank and honest (sometimes brutally so) about his views, even when they ran counter to popular, church, or official opinions. His range of interests is broad, and he delights in throwing in tidbits from history, geography, agriculture, war, economics, fashion, philosophy… and in doing so gives us a picture of the 16th-century worldview (complementing that of my other favourite 16th-century author, Niccolo Machiavelli; but Montaigne is even more well-read — and even mentions Machiavelli twice).

Even when I don’t share his views, his faith, or his perspective — often, although not surprising given the chronological divide — I can respect his honesty, his integrity, and his passion for truth and understanding. But the sheer breadth of his vision and his willingness to ponder and question so many things and ideas accepted or rejected in his culture makes him heroic.

Continue reading “Back to Montaigne”

The Cancer Diaries, Part 11

Three Stooges, nyuck, nyuck, nyuckAnaesthetic must be one of the most remarkable inventions of the 20th century. While various forms of anaesthesia have been used since the ancient Egyptians (with varying degrees of effectiveness), it really wasn’t perfected  until the last century. It’s difficult to imagine the horrors of surgery before it became commonly used and as effective as it is today.

Here I was, lying on a table in the operating room, Thursday morning, being covered with a warm blanket by one nurse, while another nurse held a mask over my face to breathe from, and a third prepared to administer my anesthetic via the IV drip (that spelling is for my American readers). The latter nurse said, “In the next thirty seconds you’re going to drift off to sleep…” And then I did. Lights out, like flipping a switch.

Sleep. Mercifully deep and absolute. No dreams, no tossing and turning. No having to get up to pee three or five times. No pushing the cat or dog off my legs. Don’t feel a thing as I am poked and prodded internally. Just sleep.

And then I awoke. Just like that: bang the shutters of the eyelids popped open and I was awake. No slow rise to consciousness, no lingering dream state. No memories either, just a sort of ellipsis between the operating table and the recovery room. And just like that, my surgery was over. Amazing stuff, anaesthetic. Where was I? Ah, yes, my latest surgery.

I know there are readers in the world, as well as many other good people in it, who are no readers at all, who find themselves ill at ease, unless they are let into the whole secret from first to last, of everything which concerns you.

That’s from Chapter IV of Laurence Sternes’ delightful 18th-century novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, more commonly simply referred to as Tristam Shandy. I’m reading it right now, among other books, and this bit amused me. He continues, apologetically, 

It is in pure compliance with this humour of theirs, and from a backwardness in my nature to disappoint any one soul living, that I have been so very particular already. … [I] therefore must beg pardon for going on a little farther in the same way: For which cause, right glad I am, that I have begun the history of myself in the way I have done; and that I am able to go on, tracing everything in it, as Horace says, ab Ovo.

From the egg, that Latin bit from Horace’s Ars Poetica; means from the beginning. So to follow in Shandy’s (or rather Sterne’s) literary footsteps I must go back a bit and explain for those who have not read the previous ten pieces on my cancer, why I was on the operating table again. Put it all in perspective, as it were. I do recommend you read the previous entries, however, to get a more robust story than this precis.

Continue reading “The Cancer Diaries, Part 11”

The Cancer Diaries, Part 10

My father died of esophageal cancer several years ago. It was a horrible, lingering death, and I watched him shrivel and die, in constant pain towards the end. On one of my last visits to his bedside, he asked me whether I thought it was better to die with the full knowledge of what was happening to you, or to be unaware.

It was a startling, unexpected question. My father and I had had few, if any, philosophical discussions in our lives together. Without giving it a lot of thought, I replied, “With knowledge.” I probably thought he was talking about the pain-killing drugs he could ask for, the sort that also numb your mind and make you oblivious, put you into a narcotic coma that takes away the pain and stress.

I have always wanted to know what is happening to me, to be aware of everything around me. I would hate to be unable to read as I do every day now. I would have assumed he would too — both my parents were voracious readers — but he never gave me back his own response, just looked up at the ceiling. I probably thought he was having a pain spasm and didn’t try to pursue it further. I should have noticed then that he was reading less and less as the cancer progressed.

But later I thought more about it, about his question and my response. I still do, but he died before I could return to discuss it with him.

By the time my father was sent to the hospital for his remaining time palliative care, my mother had already been placed in a nursing home. My father had resigned himself to the fact he could no longer care for her as she needed. She had had a stroke in 1960, leaving her left side paralyzed, and by the mid-1990s, was pretty much wheelchair-bound. My father continued to care for her every day, stoic and uncomplaining as he had for almost four decades, but at 92 he simply didn’t have the strength to move her in and out of her chair or bed, or lift her when she fell. The move to a care facility was mandated by both their ages and declining health.

Continue reading “The Cancer Diaries, Part 10”

It’s *NOT* Junk Mail

Littering admailI recognize that we all like to apply labels to categorize things, as shorthand in communication and in conversation, and to identify common views and beliefs. I do it myself; we all do: labels are our everyday metaphors. They are fast and easy shortcuts. But I weary at times of trying to explain to people that the unsolicited material they get in their mailboxes several times a week is not simply “junk” mail to be tossed into the recycling bin without another thought.

Or worse: at their community mailboxes some people simply litter it rather than taking it home to dispose of properly; leaving it for others to pick up, or to scatter around the neighbourhood and make everything dirtier, as shown in the image above. Littering is reprehensible, immature, anti-social, and anti-Canadian behaviour no matter what is being littered. But I digress.

I, on the other hand, look through my admail every time, every piece; I look to see who is advertising, what the offers are, and look at the printing and design — even the spelling (is it Canadian or American?) — of each piece with a critical eye. I look at the typefaces, the graphic elements, how the coupons are perforated, even when the subject (such as discounts on meat, metal roofing, or fast food like burgers) does not interest me. It’s difficult to shed habits built from working decades working in print and media.

Perhaps it’s because I was raised in an era when a lot more advertising came by mail than today that I see it in a different light.

Back when I was a youngster, the arrival of some of this advertising material – seasonal catalogues from Eaton’s and Simpson’s, for example – was greeted with excitement and pleasure. I cannot count how many fall days did my brother and I pore over the toy sections of these catalogues looking for the presents we hoped to get in the coming Christmas. We carefully compared the offerings from each company to determine the best deal on toy soldiers and model kits. Or the titillation of my early pubescent years looking through the pages of lingerie and women’s undergarments. The mysteries unveiled in the pages of power tools, TV sets, and home furnishings. The fashion trends for upcoming seasons (in which I never participated but enjoyed critiquing). There were both education and entertainment in catalogues.

Back then, of course, I read a lot of advertising with a sense of wonder that my later, cynical years have long erased. Back then, I read the offers on cereal boxes, on milk cartons, in TV guides, in comic books, on matchbooks, and even in the British magazines and comic books my grandparents would send over regularly (I eagerly anticipated each shipment of The Beano and like magazines for many years). I never considered it an imposition to have advertising in or on anything, but rather saw it as just another thing to read.

Would that I had saved the X-ray glasses, Rat Fink decals, or the magic decoder rings I purchased through those ads.

Continue reading “It’s *NOT* Junk Mail”

The Cancer Diaries, Part 9

Good news/bad newsWell, I suppose it’s a good news/bad news story for this post, although I dearly wish it was better. Would that I could have put it all behind me, finished my recovery, and moved on. Not to be: I receive comfort like cold porridge (to quote from The Tempest). Still, I came away from my consultation with at least some sense of relief: after all, it might have been much worse. The anxiety of waiting for the results was far more stressful than actually hearing them.

My recent PSA blood test showed a greatly-reduced number (less than 1, which is very low, considering it was over 8 before my surgery), which is a relief, but it’s still higher than the doctor says I should have returned two months later. So I have another blood test booked for the end of the month. If it goes up, it probably means the cancer is still gnawing away at me.

Whilst rank corruption, mining all within,
Infects unseen.
Shakespeare: Hamlet, Act 3, Sc. 4

The doctor reiterated that the cancer had been very aggressive, and the surgery difficult, and had already spread outside the prostate before my surgery, hence his “going wide” to remove my diseased organ (and taking with it some nerves that had once helped me rise to the occasion of sexual performance). On the positive side, the pathology for my lymph nodes after surgery came back positive (no cancer, which was a relief; lymphoma is a particularly nasty cancer).

Plus, while I am emptying my bladder, I do so too slowly; slower even than some weeks back. The stream is too weak for my stage of recovery, so the urinary tract may be thickening or be suffering some blockage (was I too enthusiastic in doing my Kegel exercises?).  And for that he wants to stick a camera into my penis and snake it down to my bladder to see what’s happening. What he can do about any problem he encounters, I don’t know.

I’ve had the procedure before, and while it wasn’t particularly painful, it sure wasn’t any fun. Not the least of all because it was done with a local anæsthetic, so I could see everyone looking at my tackle (are they smirking?) while the doctor threaded the scope through my urinary tract. And I could look down and see what seemed to be a golf ball on a tube being inserted into my penis. Had I wished to entertain myself, there was a small screen showing the view as it travelled within me. Netflix it wasn’t. 

Not that I have much dignity or self-respect about my private parts being on display at this point. Inhibition is an early victim of this cancer. And after the surgery, well, it’s not like it’s worthy of proud display any more. But still…

Continue reading “The Cancer Diaries, Part 9”

The Cancer Diaries, part 8

Diseases desperate grown
By desperate appliance are relieved,
Or not at all.
Shakespeare: Hamlet, Act 4 Sc. 3

Those Kegel exercises sure work. I had my doubts at first, but I stand as living proof they are effective. My pelvic muscles could probably lift a car — well, whenever the doctor tells me I can start lifting things again, that is. And my anus can clench more tightly than a conservative’s when he is confronted by a liberal suggestion to raise the minimum wage to a liveable amount.

It’s been 51 full days since my surgery. I can also count it as:

  • 4,406,400 seconds;
  • 73,440 minutes;
  • 1,224 hours;
  • 7 weeks and 2 days;
  • Approx. 14% of the year.

Funny, though. It seems so much more recent than that. As if it was only last week, not seven. I suppose that’s because every day I am reminded of it in a dozen ways, so it stays fresh in my memory. And being reminded of it, i am also reminded daily of my own mortality. Not morbidly, just that I am still a week away from learning about my condition and future (was the cancer removed or does it still eat away at me? if so, what does my future hold?).

Incontinence is a minor (at its worst) issue, and most of the time doesn’t even arise. Unless, of course, I sneeze. Or fart. Or cough… those explosive actions often (but not always) squeeze out a small drop. Nothing much, but enough to remind me I’ve still some time to go before I am fully recovered. 

But otherwise, not a squirt comes out during my daily activities, and I seldom even think about it. Still, I continue to do my exercises, just in case. And to build towards the day when I have no need for any sort of protection. I did try an experiment a couple of weekends ago of not wearing a pad one day, but it was a bit too optimistic to do it so soon. Maybe I’ll try again in a week or so.

Continue reading “The Cancer Diaries, part 8”