In sickness and in health


Birdbath peonies

This past weekend while I was visiting A (not her real initial) in western Massachusetts, we played a seemingly interminable game of dominoes. Each night, we’d sit in A’s sunroom playing another few rounds over snacks and cocktails, and the train of our conversation grew as as long and meandering as the lines of tiles on the table.

Rainy day peony bud

Over the course of that weekend-long conversation, A and I decided why it is that old men around the world play dominoes on porches, in cafes, and in public parks: anywhere, that is, where old men congregate. The game is slow enough to allow for conversation, it requires a modicum of strategy or at least attention, and it is equally a matter of luck.

Ornamental mint

These three things, of course, could also be said of life in general and old age in particular: a truth that groups of old men would be especially mindful of. Yes, health and longevity are largely a matter of choice and attention: cultivating good habits and taking care to avoid obvious risks are smart strategies. But health and longevity aren’t entirely within one’s control. Healthy habits and avoidance of risk won’t prevent you from getting hit by a bus, and even the most skilled and strategic player of dominoes can be brought down by a poor hand.

Two books I’ve recently read explore the role that chance plays in our lives: Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer and Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved.

Rainy day iris

Ehrenreich observes that we as a culture are addicted to the belief that we can control our destinies through wise choices: we are conditioned to believe that with proper diet, adequate exercise, and the miracle of modern medicine, we can fend off (or at least quickly treat) illness. Ehrenreich argues, however, that this belief is misguided, as even the most healthy-seeming individuals sometimes succumb to diseases like cancer. Whether or not you make healthy choices, Ehrenreich reminds us, we’ve all gotta die sometime.

Bleeding hearts

Kate Bowler addresses this same issue from a theological rather than scientific perspective. A scholar of the prosperity gospel–the belief in some evangelical circles that leading a pious, prayerful life will lead to both wealth and health–Bowler finds her own faith questioned when she is diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. As a wife and mother to a young son, Bowler and her husband both grapple with the unavoidable (and unanswerable) question, “What higher meaning or purpose could a good God have in killing a good woman in her prime?”

Begonias

Both Ehrenreich and Bowler address in their separate ways the importance and limitations of faith. Ehrenreich argues that our trust in medicine is itself a kind of religion where doctors visits and other forms of medical treatment serve a ritual purpose. Whether or not it’s statistically true that annual mammograms lead to increased longevity, for example, we wrap ourselves in the reassuring belief that they do.

Rainy day begonia

For Bowler, prayer and religious fidelity serve the same reassuring purpose: instead of trusting your doctor to make you whole, you trust in God. The problem with both kinds of faith, however, is the inevitable disillusionment that comes when faith eventually ends in death. Both healthy people and prayerful people ultimately die: there’s no fighting the inevitable. No matter how many times you go to the boneyard, there’s no helping a truly bad hand.

Rainy day peony

Both Ehrenreich and Bowler describe the unfortunate shaming that comes when good people get sick. Well-intentioned friends and family who believe in either medicine or religion try to explain (and thus justify) a bad diagnosis, suggesting that illness or disability is somehow the sufferer’s fault because of poor life choices or imperfect piety. As a middle-aged women with several chronic conditions, I know firsthand the judgmental looks and unhelpful advice sometimes offered by folks who think slimness, stamina, and perpetual youthfulness are guaranteed by their preferred diet, workout, or devotional regimen. It’s too unsettling even for onlookers to admit that some afflictions don’t happen for a reason.

Rainy day roses

Every old man playing dominoes knows you can do only so much with the tiles you’ve drawn: whether you complain about, try to strategize with, or ultimately resign yourself to the hand you’ve been given, there’s no fighting the luck of the draw. The secret that happy old men learn isn’t how to win the game but how to enjoy it no matter how it ends.

Here's looking at you

Yesterday was Earth Day, and I spent the day at home nursing a cold rather than participating in the March for Science on Boston Common. As I skimmed friends’ photos and social media posts, I told myself I was there in spirit: scientists, after all, share many of my passions, and before I ended up as an English major, I’d briefly intended to major in biology. Although my spirit was willing to convene on the Common yesterday with other science-supporters, however, my cold-clogged lungs were weak.

Amber magnified

I’m careful about colds: as an asthmatic, I have to be. Two and a half years ago, I almost died from a cold that settled into my lungs: when I showed up at my doctor’s office breathless and trembling, my doctor checked my blood oxygen levels and marveled I’d been able to drive my car without passing out. Two and a half years ago, my doctor saved my life through the miracle of science: two nebulizer treatments and a round of antibiotics he urged me to start the second the pharmacist filled the prescription. Because of science, I didn’t die from a cold that developed into bronchitis, as many folks did in the days before modern medicine.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

As a student of American literature, I’m saddened by the now-curable maladies that routinely claimed lives in the nineteenth century. When Samuel Clemens was 11 years old, for example, his father got caught in a rainstorm and died of pneumonia. Three of young Clemens’ siblings had died from childhood diseases, so he did his part to help support his widowed mother by dropping out of school and becoming a newspaper apprentice. Young Samuel Clemens grew up to become Mark Twain, but how might his life have been different if his siblings and father had survived?

Harvard Museum of Natural History

In the days before modern medicine, lethal dangers lurked everywhere. Henry David Thoreau’s brother, John, died from tetanus, which he contracted after cutting himself while shaving, and Thoreau himself battled tuberculosis–consumption, a positively Victorian ailment–for much of his adult life. Thoreau’s case strikes me as particularly tragic, as the bronchitis that ultimately led to his death started as a cold he’d caught after a late-night hike.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

If the Thoreau brothers were alive today, John’s tetanus would have been prevented by a vaccine and Thoreau’s bronchitis treated with antibiotics. Had Henry Thoreau survived the bronchitis that took his life, what more might he have accomplished? Thoreau was more than a writer: he was also a citizen-scientist whose meticulous records of the blooming times of wildflowers in and around Concord, Massachusetts continue to contribute to our understanding of the evidence-based reality that is climate change. Had Thoreau lived to a ripe old age, who knows what more he might have contributed.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

It strikes me as deeply ironic and downright sad that science-deniers doubt so selectively. Donald Trump doesn’t believe the science behind climate change, but believes the science that flies his plane to and from Mar-a-Lago nearly every weekend, and he believes the science behind his smartphone’s Twitter app. Trump doesn’t believe the scientists who have proven vaccines don’t cause autism, but he trusts the scientists who developed the drug he takes to combat baldness. Apparently Trump believes saving his hair is more important than saving the planet.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

Before I was prescribed one of the asthma medication I currently take, I couldn’t walk a block without getting winded. As he wrote me a prescription for montelukast, my then-doctor said he had met at a conference one of the researchers who had helped develop it. “They deserve a Nobel Prize,” he proclaimed, and I agree. Whenever I swallow my daily asthma meds or take a puff from my rescue inhaler, I silently bless the scientists who developed the drugs that literally put air back in my lungs. Science isn’t some abstract, Ivory Tower pursuit: it’s an endeavor that saves and improves the quality of actual people’s lives.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

Everyone is free, of course, to follow the alternative facts of their choosing, but I sure as heck hope my mechanic, surgeon, plumber, and pilot root themselves in evidence-based reality: give me facts over alt-facts any day. In the Bizarro World that is Trump’s America, some folks believe the bolder the Tweet, the “truthier” it is. But a loud lie is still untrue, regardless of how many people fall for it. There might be a sucker born every minute, but I hope a couple of scientists are born just as often, too.

Click here to see more photos from a 2014 trip to the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Enjoy!

Emerging tulip leaves

I’m allergic to the dust, mold, and dead leaves that lie underneath the melting snow. Every spring when the snow starts to melt, my lungs react with chronic coughing and congestion. I love the liberation of early spring–a time when you can cast off coats and boots in favor of sandals and T-shirts–but my lungs do not agree, growing tight and wheezy at intermittent and unpredictable moments throughout the day.

Lone crocus

In early spring, my asthma inhaler is my best friend, giving almost instant relief every time I take a hit. In spring, I don’t venture far without an inhaler: I have one in my purse, another in a bedroom drawer, and others stashed throughout the house like nip bottles hidden by an alcoholic.

At some point later in the spring when fresh green growth has covered last year’s moldy leaves, I’ll be able to get through the day without coughing. But for now, my body reacts and rebels against the musty dust that emerges from underneath the season’s old snow.

I wrote this post during a five-minute timed freewrite in one of my Writing Workshop classes today, in response to the prompt “Underneath.”

Out of the snowpack

Inch by inch, we’re reclaiming our yard from winter’s occupation. Yesterday a desk-sized slab of ice slid off our roof, taking part of the gutter with it; the day before that, an avalanche of roof-snow tore a cable from its mooring on the side of our house. Considering the damage many of our neighbors and colleagues have suffered–collapsed drywall ceilings, peeling paint, and warped kitchen cabinets, all from roof leaks caused by ice dams–J and I have gotten off easy, with only a bit of indoor dripping and seeping.

Overhang

Yesterday J and I walked to lunch, and shoveled sidewalks were bare…but those sidewalks that hadn’t been shoveled were treacherous, with alternating patches of ankle-twisting snowdrifts and slippery-as-sin ice patches slicked with snow melt. The most reliable place for pedestrians to walk is still (unfortunately) the street, turning a simple lunchtime walk into a game of chicken with passing motorists.

In the afternoon, I drove to Lexington to stock up on office supplies, and the town center was well-shoveled, with wide, clear sidewalks. It was sunny and mild, with temperatures in the mid-50s, and anyone who didn’t need to be inside was outside, walking. After so many weeks of snowstorms and cabin fever, it felt like an unheard luxury simply to walk outside, reclaiming the cleared sidewalks as our own.

The top photo shows our formerly-buried patio table and chairs emerging from the melting snow, and the second is the last photo I took of the overhanging roof-glacier that hung over our back door before it fell.

Changing leaves

Today between classes at Framingham State, I took a quick walk around campus, venturing no further than a block from my office, where I now sit typing these words. Normally, taking a walk around the block is no big deal: normally, my midday walks are limited by time rather than distance, with at least one alarm to let me know when I need to stop wandering and resume working. But today is the first day since I’ve been sick that I’ve had enough extra energy to take even a short stroll, so walking around the block feels like a momentous occasion.

Changing leaves

This time last week, I was so exhausted from constant coughing, I had to stop and rest whenever I climbed a flight of stairs. This time last week, I ran out of breath on my way from my doctor’s parking lot to the reception desk: a distance of only a hundred yards. This time last week, walking wasn’t a relaxing, mind-clearing pastime: it was a strenuous, seemingly impossible activity that triggered coughing fits and crippling waves of exhaustion. This time last week, walking was an ordeal to be endured only when absolutely necessary.

Changing leaves

Today I had the strength to take a walk, and although it was a very short one, it feels good to be among pedestrians again. Your world grows very small when you’re unable to move under your own power. Instead of admiring the scenery, you focus myopically on distances, shortcuts, and the number of tiring steps between Here and There. When you’re too sick to walk, your body becomes an impediment: something to be dragged along rather than the source of self-sufficient power. Every day, I feel my body strengthen. On Monday, I was so desperate for a nap between classes, I laid my head on the café table where I hold impromptu office hours, not caring who saw me snoozing and drooling on my folded hands. Yesterday, I taught three classes without napping in between, and today, I took a walk.

This is my Day Thirteen contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Film the police

I’m back teaching today after having cancelled several days’ classes due to sickness last week. My lungs are still phlegmy and my voice is still froggy, but I’m slowly getting my energy back. There was a point last week when I didn’t know whether I had either the energy or the motivation to draw another breath, so after hitting that sort of rock-bottom, anything better is a vast improvement.

Black tags

While I was sick, I didn’t get much done in the way of paper-grading: I barely had enough energy to cough, do a middling-job with household chores, and drag my tired body to the classes I did hold. At this point of the semester, I’m usually feeling completely overwhelmed with grading, but this semester, being sick has shifted my priorities. I’m more behind with paper-grading than ever: I was falling behind when I got sick, and getting sick made me fall even further behind. Normally, this would be a source of unending stress: I hate being behind. But this term, I’m recalibrating my own expectations, having learned (or been reminded) that I can do only so much work before my body says “Enough.”

Somes

By this point in a typical semester, I’d be a slave to my to-do list, marshalling out an impossible list of tasks for each day in a vain attempt to catch up, then growing increasingly discouraged as I inevitably fail to check off each day’s ambitious goals. Today, I updated my daily to-do lists so that each day includes the generic list item “Read papers.” The item doesn’t say how many papers I need to read each day: it just says I need to spend some time doing it. Even such a subtle shift in to-do list nomenclature feels incredibly freeing. Compared to, say, lying in bed coughing, sitting and quietly reading papers sounds almost relaxing, at least when you have the energy to do it.

Graffiti wall

I’m learning, in other words, that what I dislike about paper-grading isn’t the actual reading and commenting on papers: it’s my obsessive fixation on the bottom of the paper pile. When I focus on how many more papers I have to read, I grow tired and anxious, eager for the work to be done. But when I focus on the top of the current paper pile—the paper I’m currently reading, and possibly the one immediately after that—reading papers isn’t too onerous a chore. You just sit there and read papers until you’re tired, and then you do something else: a lesson only being sick can teach you.

This is my Day Ten contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Doctor's office decor

I spent most of the morning at my doctor’s office receiving not one but two nebulizer treatments for asthmatic complications from a cold turned respiratory infection. When you take a nebulizer treatment, you basically spend five minutes breathing through a plastic mouthpiece connected to a machine that pumps a bronchodilator into your lungs. As I sat and did nothing but breathe this magic-working mist, I could immediately feel my congested lungs start to open. The treatment also gave me ample opportunity to examine my doctor’s office decor, most notably a print of Norman Rockwell’s “Before the Shot,” which depicts a skinny boy with dropped pants seriously scrutinizing his doctor’s credentials before allowing him to administer an injection.

This is my Day Six contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

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