A Matter of Choice

Image by Emily Quintero

My friend, I’ll call her Anna, is dying today. She was dying yesterday, too, and tomorrow she’ll be even closer to death than today. That’s true of all of us, I suppose, but she’s on the fast track: Her gut is so clogged up with cancer that there’s nothing left to do for her but pump her full of powerful pain meds and wait. She is thirty-something and has a gentle husband and a daughter not yet four.

A couple of weeks ago Anna’s gut seized up like an engine drained of oil. Normally, smooth-muscle contractions known as peristalsis propel food in waves through the digestive tract. In Anna’s ravaged body that process, finally, shut down. She’d already endured the excruciating pain of intestinal blockage; her life had more or less become a series of agonizing bodily failures. To “cure” her this time meant abdominal surgery, her fourth since her original cancer diagnosis. The surgeon had to divert the stopped-up bowel by installing a tube to the outside with a pouch that would sit against her abdomen to catch waste. When I hugged her, she held back: “I’m disgusting,” she said, and averted her red-rimmed eyes. “This is such a nightmare.”

My poor friend had already been through enough misery, including round after round of chemotherapy. Chemo seems so barbaric, doesn’t it? A toxic mixture dripped into the veins to beat the crap out of cells—but it doesn’t know sick cells from healthy ones and so pummels indiscriminately. You get horrible side effects and no promise of a true cure. Researchers are starting to use more targeted therapies formulated exactly for an individual patient, but such drugs haven’t been terribly effective on colorectal-cancer patients. Still, Anna tried a combination of therapies for a short time, just in case. But no matter which treatment, one side effect was to exhaust her such that she could barely lift her daughter into her arms. Continue reading

The Last Word

December 26 – 30, 2016

Last week, Craig’s house lost power. And in the darkness, Craig reclaimed the winterI turned the place into a constellation of oil lamps and candles. The wood stove flickers, sending shadows across the globe and behind the rocking chair. This feels like the best way to witness the heart of winter rise up and blot out the sky.

Ann tells a story about particle physicist Sidney Drell, who died last week, and gives the world more reasons to miss him: Consideration of the moral questions begins when science suggests applications; but the considering must be done by society, in a social debate.   “And having a debate on these things,” Drell said, “that’s what I call the moral obligation of the community.”

If you are considering your options for a New Year’s Eve date, you might find advice in surprising places, like the animal guidebook Sarah found at a thrift store: The challenge is identifying just which kind of nocturnal creature you are encountering. This may not be the same kind of creature you thought you had swiped right on. “Note particularly the length of the tail and ears,” the book cautions “and the shape of the head and body.”

Guest Emily Underwood writes from Greece, where she is working on stories about mental health in refugee campsI asked a 24-year old literature student and poet from Damascus, Mohammed Abbas, what he gets out of his weekly appointment with psychologist Zoi Marmouri. Someone to talk to, to tell the private things he can’t share with his friends, he said. . . Does talking make him feel better, I asked? “A little,” he said.

Erik writes about that “placebo holiday,” New Year’s DayBut think about it, just like with a sugar pill, the first of the year is an arbitrary day that we have convinced ourselves has power and meaning. And just like the pill, it can actually have positive effects on our bodies. After all, what is New Year’s, if not a time for self-improvement?

See you in 2017.


Photo Credit: Jay Huang

A Resolution For A New Year That Doesn’t Exist

Tomorrow is the last day of 2016. And good riddance. Boy, what a mess 2016 was. 2017 is bound to be better. Like 2015 maybe – man that was great year. Way better than that pile of crap 2014.

No matter what our opinions of 2016 are, for most of us January 1st will feel like a whole new world – a new lease on life and a new opportunity to take the world by it’s short hairs and give it a tug. Time to lose weight, aim for that raise we’ve been wanting, maybe get serious about meeting someone special.

In my mind I even see January 1st as a different color than December 31st – sort of a whitish hue to December’s dark green. (All the months tend to have different colors in my mind. I’m not sure if this is from all the construction paper calendars I did in grade school or some bizarre form of synesthesia.)

But of course months don’t have colors and we all understand that January1st is just the same as the days on either side of it. December 31st could just as easily have ended up as the first day of January, had we set up our calendars differently. In fact, there is nothing special about January 1st. It’s not an equinox or a solstice or the first full moon after a solstice – it’s just a random winter day.

Which is why I love that it’s the first day of the new year. It literally has no significance beyond what we humans put on it. In other words, it’s a placebo holiday. Continue reading

Guest Post: Filippiada, Faneromeni, Softex

I am in Greece right now, working on a series of stories about mental health in refugee camps. Yesterday I visited Softex, a military-run refugee camp outside Thessaloniki in Northern Greece where about 950 people are living in tents inside an abandoned paper factory. There were no electric lights, just sunlight filtering through a few peripheral windows. It was too dark to see by the time we reached the center.

Next to the factory, in a heated metal container where doctors from Médecins Sans Frontières see patients, I asked a 24-year old literature student and poet from Damascus, Mohammed Abbas, what he gets out of his weekly appointment with psychologist Zoi Marmouri. Someone to talk to, to tell the private things he can’t share with his friends, he said. A cold wind howled outside, shaking the container. Does talking make him feel better, I asked? “A little,” he said.

I am learning a huge amount about what mental health means in this context — how people are affected by the experience of being a refugee at different stages of the journey, and what governments, aid workers, clinicians, ordinary folks, and refugees themselves can do to heal. Everyone I’ve talked to agrees about the most effective way to ward off despair. After — or no, not after, while — basic physical needs such as shelter and food are taken care of, people need strong bonds with friends and family. Continue reading

Why dating is a lot like this animal guidebook I bought at a thrift store

Being single as a 35-year-old woman in the tech age is an interesting science experiment. There’s a lot that’s cool about it, like your time is all your own, you actually feel pretty good in your skin and you have some solid sense of what you want. You also get to tinker with tools of modern romance that your peers missed out on entirely, like Tinder.

If you don’t know what Tinder is, because you live under a rock (forgivable in these times, as it’s surely safer there), it’s a phone dating app that basically works like this: You set your age and gender preferences, set the mileage of your search radius, and then parse through hundreds of short profiles that the app pulls up for you, each with five or six pictures and a terse little bio, swiping left to reject and right to match.

My married friends and friends with children, who are legion in my social circles at this point, always seem to want to TRY my Tinder app. To them it’s both exotic and vaguely nostalgic, like a game on a Game Boy, if Nintendo had made a game where you were a rat trained to press a paddle over and over again expecting some reward, but then simply began pressing the paddle because there was ALWAYS MORE PRESSING TO DO.

Well, now I’ve discovered something that will truly illuminate the experience for the happily-attached-yet-curious. The other day I was buying, of all things, a baggie full of vintage wooden buttons, when I came across a battered 1972 paperback called READING the OUTDOORS at NIGHT: A complete guide to the sounds, sights, and smells of the wilderness after dark.

The book opens with what could be construed as an excellent explanation of what it’s like to when you first become single: “Many people find themselves in the dark, in the outdoors at night, for some reason or another. Some have gone for a walk and found the dark coming quicker than they imagined. Others may have a car break down and so be on a dark road for a while. Some, such as woodsmen and messengers, have to go through dark areas as a part of their work. … Some people go on hikes and get lost in the dark; they usually become thoroughly frightened.” Continue reading

Sid Drell, 1926 – 2016, Whom We Still Needed

Last Wednesday, December 21, Sidney Drell died.  I can’t imagine anyone called him anything except “Sid.”  He was 90.  He was a particle physicist who for a while was deputy director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator.  He had a persistent South Jersey accent which somehow seemed to go with his attitude that nothing was too frightening to look at and to tell the truth about.

In particular, he was a leader of the cadre of physicists who advised the government on how to defend itself against nuclear missiles and what to do with its vast collection of nuclear weapons.  He was, of course, intelligent; he was also complimentary about other people; he was kind, funny, perceptive, and humane.  Talking to him, you really couldn’t help but smile.  But this is a list of facts and adjectives, more of which are in a bunch of obituaries.  So I’ll tell a story. Continue reading

On These Long and Softly Lit Nights

Winter Solstice passed last week. I think of how far the Northern Hemisphere has pitched us into space this time of year, tipping us away from the sun’s light. This is when middle latitudes in the north get 9 hours and 30 minutes of daylight out of a 24 hour day. The North Pole sees no sun at all.

My house is solar, the batteries are old. It’s been cloudy and the generator back-up broke down last week. This means no power. Nights in the house went dark around the 21st. To get around, I turned the place into a constellation of oil lamps and candles. The wood stove flickers, sending shadows across the globe and behind the rocking chair. This feels like the best way to witness the heart of winter rise up and blot out the sky. Continue reading

The Last Word

A smaller wreath with a red ribbon and a bird on it.
This wreath was made entirely by a six-year-old, except for the hot gluing of the little bird. I should have let her do that part too; she would have done a better job.

December 19 – 23, 2016

The People of LWON, ever mindful of your comfort and convenience, have suggested some films to watch, should you happen to be sick and tired of holiday reality.

But since you need to do the holidays regardless, Emma has a national-forest-gathered evergreen wreath with a dead wolf-lichen-covered branch hot-glued to it you might want to consider.

Or maybe what you’re sick and tired of is political reality and you want to know what a writer should do about it.  Erik has three suggestions. The third one has to do with reality-based reporting.

And if you are in fact sick and tired of political and holiday reality both, Michelle suggests you could do worse than Poughkeepsie.  Or, actually, well, maybe you couldn’t, who knows.

Speaking of Poughkeepsie, a New Jersey mall that Rose lived near was probably haunted, if not by the cemetery then certainly by the elephant.