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And Now, a Totally Off-Topic Political Screed

Can we do better than democracy?  Or, more precisely, can we do democracy better than the way it is currently done in much of the world?  Winston Churchill said that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried.”  I think he would have emphasized the “worst form” part of the aphorism today, what with the UK (primarily England) voting to leave the EU to avoid sending £800 million a month to Brussels (not unremunerated, mind you) and finding its market assets plunge $350 billion dollars (roughly 36 years worth of EU payments at current rates). Plus the Bank of England will have to dump a lot of its reserves to shore up sterling in foreign exchange markets.  Of course, Churchill was also an unabashed imperialist, life-long member of the upper crust, and Peer of England, so one might expect him to be somewhat skeptical of popular sovereignty.  But his ambivalence should remind us of two things: democracy in any form is not an unalloyed good, and our current understanding of what counts as “democracy” has not been the prevailing view at all times and places.

The framers of the US Constitution, particularly the Federalists, were not particularly democratic by modern standards.  This is true even if you ignore those pesky slavery and “three-fifths of a person” parts of the Constitution—which, by the way, a disturbingly large number of Americans would prefer you to forget. Behold the byzantine, anti-majoritarian Electoral College that chooses presidents, an institutional form that was also present in the Holy Roman Empire (and it had empire right in the name, for Pete’s sake).  The electoral college isn’t what the vast majority of us would consider democratic, and that is after the 12th Amendment got rid of bizarre outcomes that matched nobody’s preferences, namely the occupation of the office of Vice President by whoever got the second-most electoral college votes (can you imagine President Clinton and VP Trump, or vice versa?). States also started assigning the electors in the College to candidates according to their respective popular votes rather than the will of state legislatures (absent any binding constitutional amendment.  And Maine and Nebraska are weird–don’t ask).  State legislatures, as you will remember, also used to elect US senators until the 17th Amendment made that go bye-bye.  Basically, the framers didn’t trust us plebes enough to give us a hand in selecting the highest statesmen (at the time, definitely men) in the land.

The framers’ lack of modern democratic bona fides was due to their status as lower-case “r” republicans, not liberals (liberal in the classical sense, not the modern US understanding).  They were much more concerned with constructing political institutions that would check the ambitions of politicians and prevent tyranny, more than the democratic representation of the wider population.  They did not conceive of freedom so much as a property of individuals, as is the case today, but rather the political community.  This is what the notion of “civic virtue” is partially about.  In this tradition, freedom is conceived not as individuals being able to entertain whatever preference has momentarily flittered into their minds (as with classical liberalism), but the moderation of one’s self-interest in light of the interests and principles of the body politic. In this tradition, allowing individuals to be in thrall to their personal passions and transient whims while isolating themselves from the public sphere is not thought of as freedom, but practically its opposite.  And clearly, republicans often don’t share liberals’ faith in humanity’s rationality and ability to better itself.  Per James Madison (or possibly Alexander Hamilton), people aren’t angels, and we’re not likely to achieve some facsimile of heaven on earth.

What is more, modern research has shown that the founders weren’t that far off in their skepticism of the electorate to make wise decisions.  Part of the reason that people elect representatives is that we don’t have the time or interest in politics necessary to gather the relevant information necessary to make reasonable policy decisions.  People in the US and elsewhere know strikingly little about politics or policy, even as the number of people receiving higher education has multiplied.  You could call this “rational ignorance” in that, in a country of millions who have a lot of shit to do other than scour outlets for political information, it makes little sense to stay highly informed.  You could also argue that people are good at using “heuristics”, or mental shortcuts, to figure out whether a candidate will effectively represent their interests or not (e.g. “she’s a Democrat/Republican, and I identify with the Democratic/Republican Party, so I don’t need to read her specific policy proposals  to know that I’d agree with her on most things.”)  The problem is that our heuristics can often lead us astray; many people (including “experts”) are bad at learning from mistakes; we’re not particularly good at predicting our future preferences and feelings; fear and a sense of threat make us intolerant, take big and typically foolish risks, and embrace charismatic con artists; and politicians are adept at manipulating us.

This ideology coincided with the political disenfranchisement and oppression of more than half the US population, though frankly that was more a function of racist, sexist, and classist beliefs than a necessary outcome of republicanism, which actually emphasizes non-domination as its over-arching theme.  And while republicanism was the prevailing ideology, the US rose to be an economic and foreign policy superpower while gradually—painfully so—undoing some of the original sins present at the country’s founding.  Not too shabby.

If you went back to the ancient Greeks in Athens, they would have thought the American framers’ idea of democracy was nothing of the sort.  Athenians would likely have balked at the idea that democracy could exist in a political entity with millions of citizens, something Madison knew.  These ancients’ idea of democracy was to throw on your toga and sandals, pack yourself a knapsack of olive oil and wine, check to make sure you had some land and a penis, and go hash things out through direct deliberation in the square.  This direct style of politics meant there were no representatives save the ekklesia that set the political agenda for debate, and the dudes on that body were selected by lottery.  Imagine if instead of getting randomly called for jury duty, you got a call out of the blue saying it was your turn to be the head congressional parliamentarian or chairman of the House Rules Committee (“Bad news Ted.  We got a letter saying you have to report for Rules Committee duty next week.  No closed amendments, bro.”) The idea of relying on people who wanted to be politicians to run our collective political affairs after a vote would have sounded to the Athenians like a recipe for disaster, and they were on to something. A person who wants to be in political office is often one of the last people you would want to be there.  To wit, the US Congress has regularly received single-digit approval ratings over the last half-decade or so.

At this point you are probably thinking, “OK Debbie Downer, what’s your solution for all this?”  Two points:  first, I am probably deluding myself that most people have the patience to put up with this much of my soap-boxing (TL;DR version:  “Democracy’s flawed, dead people would have laughed at our concept of what democracy is, and the electorate is kinda dumb”). Second, I intend to write a briefer conclusion, but at the moment my final chemo session for the foreseeable future (yeah, that happened) and the events of the past 24 hours have made me fatigued and nauseated, so that will wait for another day.

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Chapter 16: Five Down, One to Go

Aaron here, writing to you from my chemo chair with a little doo-hickey sticking into my chest with a pre-chemo saline solution flowing into it.  As my title alluded to, this is the fifth of six treatment sessions that were scheduled for me after my surgery in February.  The idea is to prevent or at least stave off recurrence of the c-word (not that one, the other one).  This regimen features Oxaliplatin (the combo is FOLFOX, cousin to my previous chemo mistress FOLFIRI).  This one doesn’t affect my hair at all, so people always tell me I’m looking good for someone getting carefully calibrated doses of poison on a bi-weekly basis.  Unfortunately, Oxaliplatin is pretty much worse in every other single way, from fatigue to nausea to this interesting side-effect where, for 48 hours following treatment, anything cold literally stings my mouth.  But, one to go.

I’m also reminding myself I’m in a much better position, health-wise, today than I was a year ago.  Facebook helpfully reminded me that this week last year I had posted telling everyone I had stage IV colon cancer.  I enjoy using Facebook, but man, that thing has a bias towards people who are always happy.  I realize that nobody is actually always happy, but at least it has a bias towards people who only post happy things, like pictures of brunch or a mouse sleeping in a flower.  As a result, I have unfriended myself so I won’t have to see any of my old crappy news, terrible puns, or half-baked political analysis.  Though in fairness to me, most political analysis is only one-quarter to one-third baked.  Mine merely causes bloating and indigestion, not E. coli or salmonella.

In a piece of good news, I recently found out that I had been mistaken in my belief that my non-citizen/non-permanent resident status in the UK prevented me from cashing in on that sweet, sweet socialized medical coverage on the Continent (you know which one; the E-word).  As it turns out, you only have to be what is called “ordinarily resident,” or present from year-to-year.  This a description that definitely fits Joyce and I.  We’ve been going bonkers being stuck on this island over the past year. More precisely, we’ve existed between Cambridge and London, since neither of us have a UK driver’s license or a car.  Travelling out of the country using private insurance would have cost us so much that you couldn’t even fit the monetary amount on one page using Zimbabwean currency (yes, I know about scientific notation.  Stop ruining things).  But now we’ve applied for European Health Insurance Cards, or EHIC, the same noise Goofy makes when he laughs.  When we get them we’ll be eligible for healthcare throughout the EU.  Unless of course Britain votes to leave the EU on June 23rd.  Which with our luck trying to travel, it will.  That’s right, I’m making the call.  You heard it here first.  This analysis is probably about one-tenth baked, meaning you should probably all go to your doctors and check to see if you’ve gotten MRSA from it.

Things will be a little more interesting, travel-wise, when November and February roll around.  I’m supposed to go to a friend’s wedding and an academic conference in the US, and am wondering if I’ll be able to afford insurance coverage for both without having to sell some organs, which have both declined in number and value due to cancer.  True story: at a post-op meeting with the very talented doctor who did surgery on my liver, I asked him, “by the way, do I still have a gall bladder?”  The answer is no, no I do not.  Up until that appointment it had basically been Schrödinger’s gall bladder, simultaneously present and absent until somebody opened up my medical chart.  Anyway, I am doubtful I will be able to raise a lot of money on a GoFundMe page declaring “help send a recovering cancer patient to an academic conference in Baltimore this February where he will present an incomplete analysis of alliance dyads and spend time in his hotel room eating Subway sandwiches slathered with mustard and watching college basketball on ESPN2, because England’s Subway restaurants don’t serve mustard [again, true story] and its idea of basketball is this thing called netball where you’re not allowed to dribble or jump [insert your own white-guy joke here].”

Well, my hospital-made lunch has arrived (it’s as good as it sounds) so I’m signing off for now.  I get PET scanned in July, so I’ll have more to tell you about the state of my innards and what organs I may or may not have then.

 

 

 

 

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Chapter 15: Pondering Imponderables

It’s been just past three months since I had liver surgery, so I’ve reached the point where my doctors informed me I could partake in alcohol again if I so desired.  I had the opportunity to do so last night at a Cambridge college high table dinner, which per usual featured pre-dinner drinks, unlimited wine during the meal, and then a post-dessert gathering with port, claret, etc.  I literally have no idea how anything gets accomplished at this university with so much booze sloshing around campus, and can only imagine that in its absence the collective brainpower of the faculty would probably have figured out faster-than-light space travel amongst other puzzles by now.  All that being said, I am still fairly shy of alcohol at the moment, what with its correlation with certain colonic diseases I have become familiar with over the past year.  At the same time, I feel uncomfortable without a drink of some sort in my hand when others are partaking, which is how I came to find myself having way too many cups of coffee late in the evening as others were draining the port, and being unable to fall asleep.  And then, as the sleepless are prone to do, pondering some imponderables while I stared up at the ceiling.  And writing blog posts about said thoughts at 5:30 in the morning.

As another preamble, let me say that I would feel it improper for me to make the post which follows if the story wasn’t already publicly known.  That’s because it mainly concerns another person with whom I was friendly in school, but certainly not close to in any reasonable sense.  She’s the one in the center of the bottom row of the featured picture (I’m the one with the little-boy haircut wearing the yellow tie and khaki pants that, if I recall correctly, had a very user-unfriendly button fly).  Katie and I were in many of the same classes; in the aforementioned photo we and some of our classmates were being recognized by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis for writing laudatory essays on the history of capitalism (those were heady days).  It also wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that we traveled in similar social circles, in the same sense that it’s not inaccurate to say Neptune and Mercury travel in similar circles despite being separated by a pretty comfortable distance.

In school Katie was very well liked for all the reasons a person should rightfully be esteemed, whereas I would think it fair to say that, though not lacking for friends, I was something of an acquired taste.  Our primary similarity was random: we were both born on October 28, 1980.  Amongst our primary differences, Katie was by an order of magnitude a better athlete than me, and as a corollary could thoroughly embarrass me—if she had ever been inclined to—in feats of strength and gastronomical aptitude (i.e. eating contests). I distinctly remember sitting across from her at lunch one day at a Mexican place near school where some of us seniors had gathered.  She had a perplexed and somewhat concerned look on her face as she observed the tepid pace at which I ate my burrito, as if I had never been properly trained in the fine art of chewing. Bless her heart, she was probably hoping I would find a remedial eating program after graduation for deserving but scrawny youths.

Katie and I would briefly reconnect after high school when both of us were living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2009.  Katie had completed a graduate degree in international relations, and oddly enough I was finishing my PhD in the same subject as a fellow at the Kennedy School, so we had coffee (damn you, coffee) a couple of times based on this mutual interest.  Katie, not surprisingly, also had degrees from Harvard in literature and art history while playing varsity soccer. This meant she was well-rounded, cultured and erudite, whereas I was becoming a wonk who could talk with her about Kenneth Waltz’s ideas about nuclear proliferation, but couldn’t articulate the aesthetic differences between Michelangelo’s David and a Kirby Puckett bobble-head doll. I likewise thought Thomas Pynchon might have been the back-up catcher for the 1984 Oakland Athletics.  But the conversation was still OK.

2009 was my last contact with Katie, as I moved off to take a job in Atlanta.  I wouldn’t really hear of her again until 2012, when one of my friends from school, much closer to Katie than I had ever been, informed me that she had been diagnosed with a rare form of liver cancer.  I immediately experienced a nauseating dread, as Joyce had first been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010 and the memory of hearing that news came screaming into my head. I simultaneously felt a feeling of kinship with Katie and her husband, whom I had never met.  And yet, stupidly, I never reached out to see how things were going or offer well wishes, both because I thought of us as friendly but not quite “friends”, and because I was honestly scared to engage because my wife’s experience was quite fresh in my mind, a fact made plain to me by my initial reaction upon hearing Katie’s news.

Hopefully I will turn 36 this 28th of October.  I feel like I have good odds, though you never know.  It will be Katie’s birthday too, but she won’t experience it, at least not as I think I will.  She died nine months after her diagnosis.  Having a rare form of cancer often means that even the best doctors have no promising treatment options to offer.  I, on the other hand, despite being diagnosed as Stage IV—a similarity I wish I did not share with Katie or my wife—have a “common” cancer. People like me on average have a poor prognosis, but the treatment possibilities available actually provide some hope of a cure.  And I’ve been in the relatively small pool of people eligible to have their metastases surgically removed.

Of course, none of this was pre-ordained.  There is no logical rationale for why I am here and Katie is not, instead of vice versa, or why both of us can’t just be living what might be plausibly called normal lives of 30-somethings.  I know this, and at the same time I feel guilty.  Not only guilty for not trying to reach out to Katie after hearing she was sick, but guilty that I’m alive and she isn’t.  We share a birthday.  We went to the same school. We were interested in the same subjects.  As it turns out, we even married our respective spouses on almost the exact same day, though a year apart.  And then we got cancer.  But I got mine later, and had more treatment options than her.  Our lives moved in quasi-parallel arcs, which are eerie in retrospect given the human brain’s stubborn insistence on trying to impose an ordered narrative on chaotic events. Rationally, I can say that the parallels are as arbitrary as the divergences.  And yet part of me insists on thinking an injustice has been imposed; the parallels demand that fate lets both of us see at least 36.  Similarly, I find myself demanding that my wife’s trajectory map every piece of good fortune I get sent my way, and feel guilty if this isn’t the case while still knowing I’m dealing with events beyond my control.

These dual and dueling thoughts, which coexist in my mind despite their contradictions, are some of the imponderables I ponder.  I can console myself somewhat with the fact that, regardless of my status on October 28th, people will be thinking about me, and they’ll be thinking about Katie, who is still held in esteem for all the reasons a person rightfully should be.   And that will be true for the indefinite future, which is a credit to those who care about us and for whom we care.  Please go to http://www.katiemoore.org/ to learn more about rare cancers.

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Chapter 14: Nobody Likes a Sad Clown. Well, Maybe the French.

Once again it has been several months since I’ve blogged here.  This isn’t because things have taken a turn for the worse for me health-wise; far from it.  In January I was surprised to learn that I was going to be able to have surgery to remove the cancerous portions of my liver, about a third of the organ.  I was originally told it was very unlikely I would be able to have this procedure because of the number and location of my tumors.  However, the chemo treatment I had been on worked well enough that while the surgeons told me the operation would be complicated, it was definitely possible.  Great, I said—paté that motherfucker.  So that’s what happened in February.  Unlike my last surgery, this time around I spent a bit under 9 days in the hospital rather than 19.  No hallucinations from morphine or anti-nausea drugs.  Due to a bed shortage, I did get stuck in the intensive recovery unit for longer than I was supposed to.  That unit is fine when you’re so addled with post-anesthesia fog that you don’t know what’s what, but once you gain lucidity it’s a freakin’ madhouse.  Patients are coming in from surgery whacked out of their gourds, moaning and babbling incoherently.  One dude in particular kept crying—practically shrieking–about his hand hurting.  I was very tempted to tell him that if he didn’t shut up I would solve his problem but cutting the whole thing off at the wrist.  In my defense, in addition to the noise, the intensive recovery unit has no windows, so you feel like you’re in a subterranean bunker; it’s usually pretty well-lit by incessantly humming fluorescents regardless of whether it’s two in the afternoon or two in the morning; and is basically designed in an optimal fashion to assault every single one of your senses.  In medical terms, this made me “cranky.”  Like, I would have slapped Pope Francis cock-eyed if he looked at me funny level of cranky.  I finally got moved to a regular ward, and even had a private room.  With a sink that wouldn’t stop leaking.  You do not go to the hospital to sleep.

All my complaining aside, I recovered with minimal complications and even got to seriously experiment with facial hair for the first time since graduate school.  Speaking of getting slapped cock-eyed, that’s what Joyce would have done to me if I insisted on keeping the beard I had grown; it was all she could do not to choke the life out of people who told me I looked good with it.  Instead she was just tell them “You’re not helping” while her eyes kind of bugged out and the vein on her forehead pulsated ominously.  So I’m smooth skinned.  Except for my abdomen, which has about a six-inch vertical scar starting at my navel and around a 10-inch horizontal scar at belly button level as well.  It looks like I was bitten by a very precise, medically-licensed shark.  But I have the least amount of cancer in me (knock on wood) than I’ve had for almost the entirety of the last year.  Recall that my blood marker called CEA, an indicator of colon cancer, was initially around 2000 when I was diagnosed?  2.5 is normal.  My CEA is currently between 17 and 18, the same level you get if you tongue-kiss Miley Cyrus, or watch Fox and Friends, or stick your head out the car window while driving through Beijing.  I’m currently undergoing another round of chemo to try to prevent recurrence and give me an excuse to shave the left side of my chest again.  To quote Dr. Evil, “It’s breathtaking.

So this is all for the good.  That said, I’m in a weird place mentally.  I have no idea how I came to be a stage-four cancer patient.  I have no idea how I came to be one of the 20% or so patients with my diagnosis who is eligible to have liver surgery.  People talk about fighting cancer.  That is bullshit.  Every step of my journey has struck me as pretty arbitrary.  Aside from not deciding to start smoking four packs a day, I have been a passive observer as my cancer has been assaulted by modern medicine. I have been poked, prodded, sliced, diced, poisoned, and every so often rectally violated, and I have literally taken this lying down for the most part.  I am not a particularly bad person, but I’m definitely no saint.  I’ve read stories of much better people than me being killed by this disease.  Then there’s Lance Armstrong, a piece of excrement in spandex and a helmet, still kickin’ it after 20 years.  Your personal efforts, resolve, etc., make a fun narrative to reason about why you’re still alive, but ultimately it’s a delusion.  Fiction.  A belief in magicks.  I’m doing better because of the efforts of some brilliant doctors and nurses, the support of my family and friends, and a great deal of random chance.  If I find out later on that the cancer has spread to my spine or lungs or eyebrows or what have you, it won’t because I didn’t fight hard enough, or because I used to be amorous with the Victoria Secret catalogue in junior high, or because I wiped a booger on one of my cats when the Kleenex box was out of reach.  Control is not entirely an illusion, just around 80% of it is.

I also find it less fun to do these blog posts now that I have gotten better (not cured, but way, way better) while my wife—who has shown both an “extraordinary” and “fantastic” response to her chemo, in the words of her oncologist—still has much more of an uphill path moving forward than I do.  It felt fine to be self-deprecating and make cancer jokes when it was just on me.  Now, it feels a bit like I’m Jerry Seinfeld going “What’s the deal with those little bags of airplane peanuts?” while the person next to me is having a severe allergic reaction after swallowing one.  Not that this would happen with Joyce.  She does not like nuts.  Not even smooth peanut butter.  She is an avid foe of Order Fagales.  Still, you get the point.

So I may post more in the future, but it probably won’t be as fun.  And I refuse to make this one of those “I have deep thoughts about life now” blogs, because a) I don’t and b) even if I did, I find it unbearable to listen to people like that.  I would rather go to open-mic night at a slam poetry fest MC’d by [insert name of most pretentious d-bag you can think of here–looking at the link to the picture of Steve Doocy above might help] and watch people with no self-awareness perform what they think is art because shouting and wild gesticulations and references to menstruation and other subjects they think are way more taboo than they actually are because society just has to deal with it, man. I’s an angry and judgmental cancer clown who thinks slam poetry is insufferable.  Suck it, Kanye.

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Chapter 13: Return from Hiatus

Hi again.  I’m back from my several months of silence.  You may remember (read: there’s no way you would remember) my first post where I said there may be long interregnums on the blog due to work, boredom, mortality, etc.  I’m glad to write that my break from blogging resulted more from the first two reasons rather than the last two—especially the dreaded “miscellaneous” category.  The end of term was busy for me, what with undergraduates waiting to write all their essays until the last second before break, even though I told them at the very beginning of term that They Would Regret It.  I’ve noted that undergrads, in a manner similar to my own, generally respond to such admonitions with the notion that “Well, that’s my future self’s problem—and F that guy.”  It is also hard to blog when one has been stuffed to the gills with mince pies, a British Christmas delicacy that I didn’t really care for the first time I tried it, but slowly grew on me until I found myself decidedly more spheroid in my middle section, my loathing for the little pastries redirected towards my own lack of willpower.  Along with my other holiday duty of watching college football games with names like “The Poulan Weed-Eater Independence Bowl”* and “The Friendship Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman”, there was precious little incentive to get off the couch and write.  What’s that?  I could have written while on the couch?  I’m still sticking to my initial position, literally as well as figuratively.

To ease myself back into things, this blog entry will be presented mainly in list format, the training wheels of budding satirists and mimes who are looking for a career change but still want to entertain people without having to hear what is (undoubtedly) their own embarrassingly high-pitched, nasal voices.  Catching you up on what you’ve missed**:

  1. Some couples take holiday trips to a spa together. Making a more unorthodox choice, Joyce and I took a trip to our respective radiologists one day in January, where we both laid in tubes while being bathed with waves from various parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.  Radiologists call this “ordering The Sampler.”  So far our respective scans have shown progress in our treatments.  My oncologist has asked for an additional ultrasound of my liver.  I’m pretty sure I know what the results are going to be: it’s a boy.
  2. I haven’t had chemotherapy for a month, this after receiving 11 treatments. While chemo didn’t cause all my hair to fall out, it did make it thin.  There are pluses and minuses to the regrowth I’m experiencing. On the one hand, you have no idea how valuable nose hair can be until it is gone.  Whenever I walked outside on even a slightly chilly day my schnozz would start running and, with little to impede it, I would arrive at my destination looking like a snot-caked toddler who had just finished throwing a temper tantrum. That dam is slowly being plugged.  On the other hand, my eyebrows are very fond of each other and normally don’t like to be separated.  Chemo actually thinned them out to the point where they were two distinct entities, but now they’re joining forces again.  I’ll let you know when they’ve gone full Frida Kahlo.
  3. My parents, brother, and sister-in-law were in town for Christmas. We all went for a ride on the London Eye, the giant Ferris wheel on the Thames.  This served as good preparation for my trip to the radiologist: one waits for a very long time for a chance to sit in an expensive machine for a half hour, during which nothing much happens that you’re aware of.
  4. Multiple friends from the US came to town. As Donald Trump’s poll numbers rose back in the States, some of them decided to adopt fake names and try to slip into England’s general population. Several of them could do accents no better than Dick Van Dyke as Bert in Mary Poppins and were quickly identified and deported.  Another opted to try a hodgepodge of different European accents combined into one nonsense drawl, further complemented with an invented gibberish language that is mostly mumbling.  I understand she is doing quite well operating illegal card games near tourist venues in the city.

That’s it for now.  I’ll try to big more conscientious about blogging in the near future, although the pay is terrible as you are probably aware.  If anybody out there knows Perez Hilton and wants to mention my site to him, that would really be doing me a solid.

 

*Fine, Poulan Weed-Eater hasn’t sponsored the Independence Bowl since 1996. I was accidentally watching ESPN Classic; I should have been tipped off by those ads for Nintendo 64.  Yes, I still want one.  By the way, is the plural of Nintendo 64 “Nintendo 64s” or “Nintendos 64”?  I know at Taco Bell if you want more than one Taco Supreme you order several “Tacos Supreme”, but then again at McDonald’s you would ask for “Big Macs”, not “Macs, Big”.  This was a dangerous road to go down.

**I know, I know—“I wouldn’t say I’ve been missing it, Bob.”  We can all quote from “Office Space”.

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Chapter 12: They say it’s your birthday

I turned 35 last Wednesday.  I had gotten good news two weeks prior: the various assortment of drugs getting pumped into me on a bi-weekly basis seem to be doing their jobs.  The tumors in my liver had shrunk by around 15%, and the cancer markers in my blood (CEA markers, to be technical) had dropped by around 70%.  In short, it turns out that poison has the capacity to kills things, including stuff like cancer cells.  The big reward: six more rounds of chemotherapy—I’m currently on round eight of twelve. That’s the odd thing about success in cancer treatment: you are awarded with more kinda awful things.  For instance, if things have gone really well after my twelfth round of chemo, I’m bound to hear something like “Congratulations!  Now we can remove 50% or more of your liver!”  Fortunately, just like gecko tails and neoconservatism, livers grow back even after taking a beating.

The funny thing was, the night before my birthday I couldn’t sleep.  Part of this had to do with me worrying about my wife, whose treatment hadn’t been as effective as mine and as a result had been switched onto a tougher regimen of chemo drugs.  But it was also because, as a cancer patient, you get to thinking: how many more of these birthdays am I going to get?  I was incredibly cheered by all the warm wishes I received through Facebook and cards, but couldn’t help but notice that I had received a lot more birthday acknowledgements this year than I had gotten the year prior.  My thoughts turned to a basic axiom of economics: as an asset becomes scarcer its value increases, and maybe people wanted to get in on the ground-floor of this whole birthday wishes thing before I was out of stock.

But you know what?  My 35th birthday rocked.  I went with my family (my parents were over from the US) and a friend for dinner, where the food was exceptional AND my fragile masculinity was reinforced when I told the guy sitting the next table over to shut off his damn cell phone that he inexplicitly was using to play what sounded like 8-bit video game music.  There were presents, including a sweet new briefcase that literally came with a catch: I couldn’t figure out how to unlatch the thing the first time I brought it to my office, but my wife came to my mechanically-enfeebled rescue on her way to work and showed me how the thing functioned.  Remember, I do not work in the Engineering Department.  For Halloween, we had a bunch of friend over in costume (or “fancy dress” as it’s called in England) and served birthday cake.  My wife and I went as the Coneheads, which took some explaining to the Brits, even though the costume is pretty self-explanatory (“I say, that chap’s head is distinctly conic.  It’s as if someone has coned his head!  Must be French”).  Fittingly, we also “consumed mass quantities”: wholly too much sugar/cheese dip/ants.  I’m not joking about the last part.  Somebody brought a tin of dried ants, which I first thought was caviar or snuff. I tried a little.  The experience was somewhat regrettable, taste-wise, but on the upside I didn’t accidentally inhale any under the impression they were snuff.  There’s always the chance they could come back to life and burrow into your brain through your nasal passages, you know.  Remember, I do not work in the Entomology Department.

To sum up, I had some unpleasant existential anxiety the night before my 35th.  I’m not too surprised—even before I was diagnosed, the night is the time when my brain conjures all sorts of worries and/or reminds me of the time I farted loudly in front of Carmen Electra (this is a true story, for another time).  But once the day itself arrived, my brain basically said “F*^k it.”  And then I had a good time.  See you at 36.

xray-of-homer-simpsons-tiny-brain

Chapter 11: Welcome to Scantober

October in the US is a special time of year.  From the perspective of diet, it becomes OK—nay, expected—to put pumpkin in just about everything, as long as it is accompanied by multiple table spoons of sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, whipped cream, vanilla extract, Mike and Ikes, and sprinkles.  Fine, so pumpkin is basically inedible unless you’re willing to flirt with type 2 diabetes or are an adorable porcupine, but it’s keeping with the spirit of the season, dammit.  If it’s not a pumpkin spice latte, you’re eating soup from a bowl made out of French toast.  Likewise, people consume vast quantities of nachos, BBQ, and alcohol before football games on Saturday and Sunday.  And sometimes Monday.  And now also on Thursdays.  And, if the NFL has its way, a brand new day during football season called Flursday to accommodate Roger Goodell’s planned 18-game season, a scheme hatched in collusion with neuroscientists who want more grant money to study the effects of slamming your brain at high speeds into 300 pound men moving in the opposite direction from September through February.  Spoiler: where do you think tapioca pudding comes from?  This NFL-neuroscientific industrial complex is also appropriate for the ghosts, goblins, and zombies type spookiness of October:  you can practically hear the scientists moaning “brains, BRAINS, BRRRRRAINS!!!” within earshot of any National Science Foundation review panelist that might be nearby.  This all culminates with stuffing children with candy that they wash down with cans of Monster Energy Drink on Halloween.  Fortunately, all this over-eating comes to an end in November and December.  Not that people start consuming less calories, but rather baseline expectations have changed such that eating a duck stuffed inside a genetically modified turkey the size of a 1960s-era computer, followed by a month of parties that revolve around plates of cookies in the shape of pine trees and flying hooved mammals, all seems normal.  As does losing a foot before you turn 50.  But I digress.

October is also breast cancer awareness month, which is kind of a joke in our household.  Joyce was first diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2010.  To put it as mildly as I can, we are pretty fucking aware of breast cancer at this point in our lives, this month in particular.  It doesn’t help that we are both American football fans (which you can tell from the preceding paragraph either makes us very emotionally conflicted or your basic run of the mill hypocrites), and the NFL has insisted on adorning its giant athletes with ridiculous pink shit for the entire month.  I’d hope this raises a lot of money for breast cancer research, but seeing as how this is a league that accepted millions of taxpayers’ dollars in the guise of honoring US military veterans, and also routinely bribes cities into using (again) taxpayers’ money to build new stadiums for fear that their team will be moved to LA, my guess is that it’s mainly about trying to draw more women fans to the sport and getting them to buy jerseys and other paraphernalia.  As I write this, I’m feeling worse and worse about being a football fan, but if you think I’m not going to watch the Vikings play the Broncos tomorrow, you’re out of your pumpkin-spiced addled mind.  PS:  I’m a Vikings fan, and Joyce is a Broncos fan.  Stuff might go down.  We’re inviting friends to act as buffers.

For Joyce and me (yes, it’s “me”, not “I”; just deal with it), October is also Scantober.  I will have had six chemo treatments as of Monday the fifth, after which I will have a CT scan to see what exactly has been going on in my liver since the end of July.  If everything is going to plan, I’ll be rewarded with six more rounds of chemo— O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! Second prize is a set of steak knives; third prize is I’m fired.  And seeing as how we got a pretty good set of steak knives as a wedding gift (h/t to my Aunt Judy and Uncle Dan’s daughter Laura), I’d prefer the result be more intravenous poison and to go on living for a while.  Joyce also gets a scan a week after I have mine to see how her initial chemo treatments have been going.  We’re basically going to be spending (relative to the rest of the population) a good amount of time in tubes absorbing radiation.  Unless you count tanning enthusiasts, in which case both of us are going to be dangerously under-radiated.  Being in the tube can be kind of unnerving even if you’re not claustrophobic, but I find it helps to pretend I am either a) a torpedo about to be launched at a U-boat captained by Jürgen Prochnow, or b) the soon-to-be reanimated corpse of Spock being shot at the Planet Genesis.  Basically, I like to pretend I am a projectile, whether loaded with high explosives or Vulcan remains.  I don’t know if Joyce also likes to play make believe while getting a CT scan, but if I had to guess I’d say she imagines herself as being inside the world’s largest tube of chapstick.  Woman loves her chapstick.  Freaks out if there isn’t some chapstick nearby.  So my money is on chapstick.

In any event, wish us luck with our coming scan-related activities.  You may now return to drinking pumpkin-based beverages and wondering if those Madison Avenue marketing SOBs are going to have the cojones to start advertising for Christmas before a quarter of the leaves have fallen off the trees.