What Not to Say to a Cancer Patient

Jane Brody in The New York Times:

CancerWhat do you think is the most commonly asked question of a person who has, or has had, cancer? If you guessed, “How are you?” you got it right. But as caring as those words may seem, they are often not helpful and may even be harmful. At a celebratory family gathering a year after my own cancer treatment, a distant relative asked me just that. I answered, “I’m fine.” She then pressed, “How are you really?” “Really” I was fine, I told her. But what if I hadn’t been? Would I have wanted to launch into a description of bad medical news at what was supposed to be a fun event? Would I have wanted even to be reminded of a bout with cancer? Although my relative undoubtedly meant well, the way her concern was expressed struck me as intrusive. A diagnosis of cancer can tie the tongues of friends and family members or prompt them to utter inappropriate, albeit well-meaning, comments. Some who don’t know what to say simply avoid the cancer patient altogether, an act that can be more painful than if they said or did the wrong thing.

…Another author of very helpful books on living with cancer is Dr. Wendy Schlessel Harpham, who has had a recurring cancer for more than two decades. She suggests that people offer specific ways they can help. For example, they may say they can shop for groceries, care for children, take the dog for a run, or accompany the patient to the doctor, and then be sure to follow through with the offer. Many people now use online sites like caringbridge.org to keep people up to date on their health and needs or organizing platforms such as mealtrain.com or lotsahelpinghands.com to ask for specific help. Dr. Harpham said she came to dread the query “How are you?” because “no matter how it was intended, being asked ‘How are you?’ rattled my heightened sense of vulnerability. I found myself consoling those who asked and then fighting the contagion of grief and fear. Even when the news was good, I didn’t have the energy to include all the people who wanted updates.”

More here.

Tuesday Poem

Saigon, The Movie

James Bond flies into Phuket, which he pronounces
Fukit and this announces the demise
of the colonial era.
My mother sits on the Left Bank, harvesting rice.
The Baron announces his arrival
with a slice of lemon between his teeth and
Panama with razors embedded in its rim, to wear
to restaurants with a view of crossfire.

The iron butterfly folds back her wings, and rests awhile
on the pillows of this city.
But they are soaked
with the formalin of diplomacy
and the perfumes of an irresistible corruption.

Finally the old merchants
dig up their gold and re-invest in a
coat of arms they wire to a security gate.
Guard dogs with degrees, and lap-dog breeds
that do not bark.
Here a childhood made sensitive to bombs,
a kindergarten closed down with prayer,
American linguists in a helicopter, dropping
ration packs of Chiclets and brand new grammar.
by Adam Aitken

from Romeo and Juliet in Subtitles
Brandl & Schlesinger, Sydney, 2000
ISBN: 1 876040 20 3

Will next year feature a Summer of Love or a Summer of Hate?

by Yohan J. John

Epic-sly-everyday-peopleEver since Donald Trump's shocking victory in the recent US Presidential Elections, I have gotten a kick out of reminding people of the following: next year we will mark 50 years since the Summer of Love. One response, which I imagine reflects a common sentiment among left-liberals, was a sardonic laugh followed by the line “So next year will be the Summer of Hate, eh?”

We may experience more than a summer of hate next year if our worst fears about Trump and the Republicans come to pass. The absolute control they will soon wield over all three branches of government give them the power to roll back half a century and more of progressive policy, if they so choose. So can we convince the Right, or at least some sections of their supporters, that a better solution to their grievances is possible? Is there anything we can do to breathe new life into the dreams of the 1960s hippies and radicals? Peace, Love, Equality and Good Music For All? Perhaps, but this will require a major reorganization on the part of the Left.

And this reorganization needs to start right away. Liberal and left-leaning people all over the world are still reeling from the election shock, but we need to snap out of it and get to work. Our delusional confidence in the liberal media establishment lulled us into complacency. Now we are having to confront our biases and filter bubbles: one of the few silver linings in this ominous time.

The soul-searching on the Left is necessary right now. But there is a danger that social liberals will double down, continuing their losing strategy of framing all political debates in terms of identity politics: they will cry racism, bigotry and misogyny until they are blue in the face. This election should have proved that this is politically naïve in the extreme. The media was virtually unified in its revulsion of Trump. If months of decrying racism and misogyny during the election campaign did nothing to sway the electorate, what will protests (to say nothing of KKK-bashing internet memes) now achieve?

Read more »

Monday Poem

Darwin's Surf
…. —ode to cells

Before metaphorical allusions
we are warm and wet.
Seas surge within us.
In little cytoplasmic bays, Cell 02-border
tiny ships of golgi moor
near lysosome cays enclosed by
permeable breakwater membranes
that all rise and fall with nucleo tides
in ebbs and flows through generations
rendering noses pug or aquiline
and eyes skybright or in colors of loam;
tides that sculpt with Darwin’s surf
graceful geographies of bodies
that draw the tissue curtain
between what is and what’s not
over muscle and bone
inflaming passion, heat, desire
to close the current’s ring,
to come together again
immersed in what is warm and wet,
to touch, embrace, to recombine,
to love, to sing, to lose,
to remember to forget

Jim Culleny



Denton A. Cooley, pioneering heart surgeon, dies at 96

by Syed Tasnim Raza

Denton-cooley-2Denton Arthur Cooley, founder and president and at the time of his death president-emeritus of the Texas Heart Institute (THI), died on Friday November 18, 2016. He had celebrated his 96th birthday only three months earlier. Texas Heart Institute, founded in 1962, became a premier heart surgery center in the world, where Cooley is credited with performing 100,000 heart operations over 45 years. There were many highly skilled surgeons working at THI, who opened and closed the patients' chests and Cooley would just come in to do the main part of the operation. At his peak, he could complete 30 to 40 operations in a day!

Perhaps Cooley was the Henry Ford of heart surgery. While heart surgery was developed by many surgeons until it matured into the modern specialty as we know it in 1950's and 1960's, under the pioneering work of C. Walton Lillehei and John Kirklin both of Minnesota, it was Cooley who turned it into an assembly line operation at the Texas Heart Institute in the 1970s.

Heart surgery developed in fits and spurts, beginning with a simple suture of a stab wound of the heart by Ludwig Rehn of Frankfurt, Germany in 1896. One of the big steps, particularly in surgery for congenital heart disease, came in 1944 at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where Helen Taussig, pioneer pediatric cardiologist, proposed and Alfred Blalock, the famed chairman of surgery there, performed the first Blalock-Taussig shunt (also known as the Blue-baby operation) as treatment for cyanotic infants born with Tetralogy of Fallot, until they could grow up and a more definitive corrective operation could be performed. Denton Cooley was present for the first history-making Blue-baby operation on November 29, 1944.

Read more »

Taking Offense

by Katrin Trüstedt

IMG_5916Much has been written by now in attempt to explain the outcome of the recent US presidential election. Some recent interventions pitted the Democrats' “identity politics” against economic issues and have charged the Left with neglecting hard economic realities by focusing on supposedly marginal or imaginary problems. Such an opposition misses the point, however, that the relevant economic questions are inherently connected to problems of identity. Didier Eribon, collaborator of the late Michel Foucault (one of the presumed champions of identity politics), gives a compelling account of this connection between identity politics and economics in his 2009 book Retour à Reims. Revisiting the social and political situation of his upbringing in Reims, Eribon describes how processes of economic downgrade are intertwined with complex processes of re-identification. When he returns to the working class upbringing that he had escaped to become the Parisian gay intellectual he is now, he finds that his relatives and their peers – who had always been voting for the Communist Party and who had built their social and political identities around it – have shifted towards voting for the Front National.

The decision to vote a certain way and the entire social and political subjectivation underlying this decision cannot be traced back to a given political stance or factual economic interests, but is instead indebted to a complex dynamic of identification and demarcation. In order to explain the striking shift in the milieu of his upbringing, Eribon foregrounds not “just” the considerable economic hardship the working class has endured in France, but more importantly, the fact that this economic hardship has been ignored in the past decades by the left party under François Mitterrand (with many parallels to the Democrats in the US, the Labour Party under Tony Blair in the UK and the Social Democrats under Gerhard Schröder in Germany). The way that his relatives, like so many others, have turned away from a strong allegiance with the Left is connected to a feeling of being “hurt” in a particular way. Not only has their economic status deteriorated, but the degradation also has remained unacknowledged.

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A crack in everything

by Katalin Balog

There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
(Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”)

*This essay, on the personal in politics, is written in lieu of the final instalment of The Brain’s I, a series I have been publishing here on the subjective/objective divide in our lives and thought. The Brain’s I, Part 4, will appear here after the holidays.

UnionSquareCaptionNewI am so glad this mess was not Leonard Cohen’s last impression of the planet. But the rest of us are left to grapple with the same thing that occupied much of his work: how to affirm living in a broken world. The world was not quite whole on November 7th but we could still pretend, could still hope; November 8th has made it official. A giant crack has appeared – though not at all the one we have expected, and the country and the world has jumped with two feet into the abyss.

It is impossible to write or think anything about the causes of Trump’s victory and the nature of his support that is not hopelessly one-sided and has “particular point of view” written all over it. Right now, what we see divides us. But beyond all the sound and fury, the one inescapable fact is that the election is the expression of the will and soul of a significant portion of America. No amount of rational analysis or soul searching can blunt the message this sends. It hurts.

I. Rebellion

Early in the day of the election I thought of the pain and confusion Trump supporters would feel upon his loss. I could anticipate their reaction because I knew I would feel the same if my candidate lost. I was nervous and a bit uncertain but still expected Hillary to win. Later, when anticipation turned into dread, disbelief, and a growing sense of defeat, I did not think of the joy of the victors with sympathy. A chasm has opened; they were now the enemy. I was consumed now with a flood of sadness, fear and anger and revulsion I could not imagine just hours before. I was gripped by the same emotions many of Trump supporters, apparently, have felt for years, maybe decades… Was this the bitter medicine we needed to wake up? Was it poetic justice for festering inequality as some on the left suggest? Should we simply tone down the blame, and outrage, recognizing in our newly kindled primal hostility the mirror of the negative emotions we condemn in our adversary, as Martha Nussbaum suggests? There is something to all of this. But it’s all so much more complicated.

There is no sugarcoating this. This is not an ordinary disappointment about the wrong policy, the wrong candidate, things not going my way. It cannot be overcome by more tolerance and commitment to social justice. Whatever the motives and struggles of many of Trump’s voters, his election is an epic cultural, moral and intellectual collapse on the collective level. Crudeness, racism and ignorance has won.

Read more »

Poetry in Translation

A Dewdrop and The Stars

after Iqbal

“Tell a story,”
said the stars to the dewdrop,
“of a garden far from the heavens,
a vanished world
to which the moon sings of love.”

”O stars,” said the dewdrop,
“not a garden but a world of sighs:
the breeze visits only to return
and the rose, the garden’s flourish,
blooms merely to wither,

bears the pain, can’t pluck pearls
even from its own hem, is silent
as the nightingale wails:
the humming bird is imprisoned:
it’s an outrage!

The eye of the ailing iris is forever moist.
The box tree, free only in name,
is scorched by the heat of its own bawl.
Stars are sparks of man’s burning.
The moon naively believes revolving

cures her scarred heart;
the garden is air
a sad image on the horizon’s canvas.
I am the sky’s teardrop
secret of the sea is within me.”

by Rafiq Kathwari, @brownpundit, rafiqkathwari.com

At the Crossroads

by Carol A. Westbrook

Fig. 1 Rikoski cross copyJurgis Daugvilla (1923-2008) was an artist, and a master carver of wood sculptures in the tradition of Lithuanian folk artists. He was a neighbor, and a friend of my husband, Rick, a third-generation Lithuanian. “Richard,” he would say, “Your house is at the crossroads of our town. You should have a Kryžius in your yard.”

“Kryžius” (pronounced “kree'-jus) means “cross,” and refers to the tall, totem-pole-like wooden carvings which appear as roadside shrines throughout Lithuania. The tradition goes back to pagan times, when they were used to mark sites of cult offerings, especially at crossroads and burial grounds. The monuments featured folk carvings, with peaked roofs for protection from the elements. When Christianity arrived at the end of the 14th century, the pagan monuments were topped with crosses, allowing for their preservation by converting them into emblems of faith. Every region in Lithuanian had its particular cross-making traditions, incorporating folk symbols,
pagan cults, geometrical shapes and religious icons.They were found throughout the countryside, but especially at crossroads and cemeteries, continuing in the pagan tradition.

Christianity did not halt this tradition, but politics did. Because of their significance as a national and religious symbol, many of these crosses were destroyed during the Soviet occupation, 1944-1990. The famous “Hill of Crosses” in northern Lithuania became a symbol of peaceful resistance, as crosses were added while the Soviets attempted to remove them, bulldozing the site at least three times. In 1990 there were 55,000 crosses on the hill, and today there are over 100,000. The Kryžius remains an important symbol of Lithuanian nationalism, and new ones have begun to re-appear across the landscape.

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What To Do With Our Expectations

by Max Sirak

IMG_0599We live in an uncertain world. We hate to admit it, but it's true. So true, in fact, physicist Max Born wrote, as quoted by Leonard Mlodinow, “Chance is a more fundamental conception than causality.” (The Drunkard's Walk) This idea probably sits poorly with most of us, quantum physicists aside, for two reasons.

The first is because causality, on a local level, the me-and-you level, is something easy to observe. I can take a full glass of water, knock it over, and cause it to spill. You can go turn on the stove, touch it, and cause your hand to burn. These and thousands of other experiences like them prove our agency in the world.

The second is because it's scary. It's a big, indifferent world out there. It sits in a bigger and more indifferent solar system, which in turn rests in an even bigger and more indifferent galaxy, which itself is part of a bigger and more indifferent universe, one of many in the grandest and most indifferent structure of all, the multiverse.

And, because of the salience of our experiences and the immensity of our universal setting, we don't feel great about uncertainty. Instead of making friends with this fundamental truth and learning the best ways to work with it, we actively strive to do everything in our power to rail against it.

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November 2016

by Maniza Naqvi

USShared a wooden bench at Union Station. Sat side by side. I hunched. Waiting for Red Caps to come get us. Take us to our tracks. To our trains. Mama GiGi and I. Police in black riot gear with dogs, eyed us, loitering nearby. And around us, more of us. With strollers, carry-ons and backpacks, attached. Thanksgiving travelers. People moving like lines of refugees stumbling along, on and on.

Her train departing at 3.30 to Norfolk, Virginia beach. Mine before hers to NYC. She turned to me and talked and talked. And I with my eyes on this and that watched a clock and listened and listened keeping a look out for a Red Cap. She: All my love. All honey. Mama GiGi.

Long hair flowing flaming volcanic lava red, under a floppy red suede hat. A silver cross hung at her chest. Pale white wrists, red scabs. Pant suit. Fire engine red. Also. Crimson nail polish. To match. Bare feet in sandals. A scarf of old glory draped around her neck. Rhinestone encrusted sunglasses. By her side a tote bag full of pill bottles in Ziploc bags.

Mama GiGi talked and talked. Each sentence preceded by the words, my love. I listened on. And on. Mama GiGi, a pastor of her own church: Treasures of the Heart. She gave me her card. Her daddy was mafia. Her mother a drunk. And. So. She'd been dropped. She said. She'd been a lap dancer, a crackhead, a Heroin addict. She'd aborted two babies at age 15. Born Catholic. She'd left all that. To be born again. An addict again. For Jesus.

She'd found Jesus. Hymns in her, abounded. Jesus had saved her. Founded, the lost. The dropped. Picked her up. Lifted up an addict and a whore. You're looking at a miracle, she said. I said, that's way too easy. I'm looking at America.

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Tough Tenor: Chekov’s First Act

by Christopher Bacas

ImageA friend asked what he'd been up to. Mike cleared his throat.

“Snortin' coke, fuckin' whores and goin' to the track.”

Duke Ellington said 'Jack Daniels' was Paul Gonsalves' punch line. The former might have been Mike's. He knew Beethoven symphonies and Coltrane solos, Victorian poets and Tupac lyrics. While welding bolts into steel beams, interval sets danced in his head.

He bought a gorgeous Silver Selmer Mark VI tenor with money from selling his mother's house. Soon, it was in pawn. When a saxophone-playing buddy found out, he paid the ticket and took the Selmer home. He lent Mike a student-model horn and showed up to the gig to deliver it, staying to listen and babysit the cheaper ax. The usurious loan on the Selmer; twenty-odd bucks a week. As long as Mike stayed current with his friend, he could look forward to playing the beauty in a few months. Despite union wages and assorted disability scams, Mike failed to make timely payments. His pal reluctantly kept the Selmer and let Mike have the student horn.

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A Fantastic Optical Illusion: Just Another Brick in the Wall?


Phil Plait in Slate:

I love optical illusions, especially ones that really twist your brain around. I saw one recently that really had me going for a minute. And it’s not so much the illusion itself that really gets me, but my own brain’s reaction to it.

The photo is above. I saw it on a Facebook post from this week, though it’s been around since at least 2014.* It shows a brick wall, seen at a shallow angle, with somewhat large gaps between the bricks. The bricks are red, and it appears that there’s a small gray rock stuck in between them just above center.

So what’s the illusion? I couldn’t see it at all, even after a good 30 seconds of staring at it. I was starting to suspect there was no illusion, and it’s a gag to fool people, when I read the comments and realized what I was missing.

If you still haven’t seen it, then what follows below will spoil it for you. If you don’t want to know then don’t read any further until you’ve figured out the illusion!

OK, fairly warned be thee says I.

More here.