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Posts Tagged ‘death’

I last wrote about breast cancer in my informal “medical series” here on the blog so, to be fair, I’ll now address prostate cancer. Unlike the enthusiastic pink-banner-waving breast warriors-of-awareness, prostate cancer’s agents of information fly below the radar with little hoopla, few public endorsements, and no ribbon brigades. But statistically, prostate cancer is just as prevalent as breast cancer and results in about 30,000 deaths annually.

But how about a bit of good news to start? Most guys are familiar with the “probing finger” method of prostate examination, but how many have heard of the PSA blood test that can also be used? Ideally, the American Cancer Society suggests they be used in conjunction to help identify prostate issues, and generally only after age 50. But, fellas, there’s our loophole; you have the right to request the blood test and forego the finger.

Now, back the issue at hand (no pun intended). Prostate cancer, like many other cancers, increases in probability with age. Roughly two-thirds of cases are diagnosed in men 65 and older. And whereas a 40 year old man has only a 0.01% chance of being diagnosed with prostate cancer, a man aged 75 has a 12.5% chance. Which, incidentally, is twice the odds of a woman the same age being diagnosed with breast cancer. In fact, from age 55 on, men are at a higher probability of prostate cancer than women of the same age are of breast cancer. And over the course of a lifetime, men are over 30% more likely to develop prostate cancer than women are breast cancer. I don’t recall seeing any blue ribbons for that in the New Yorker.

And although men make up less than half of the country’s population, they are more likely to develop cancer of any major class but one. Digestive cancer? More prevalent in men. Respiratory cancer? Men. Bone, skin, brain? Men. Lymphoma, myeloma, leukemia? Still men. The only major class not led by men is cancers of the endocrine system, involving hormones. (And I dare say most men could offer an explanation for why women are number one in that.)

So I think we should begin a blue-ribbon brigade, to save the men. They are a minority in the populace, suffer a shorter average life span than women, and are at higher risk for debilitating disease. If that doesn’t deserve a ribbon, I don’t know what does. But I don’t think we can rely on super-aid-celebrities like Bono to go waving any flags for the cause (mostly because I think he needs to grow a pair first), so men, take a stand for yourselves. Wave your own banners and be your own warriors-of-awareness. And women, if you support the pink ribbon then you need to support the blue one, too. We have to fight for equal rights, equal awareness, and equal funding together, breasts and prostates alike.

Go blue!!

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This is still a fresh and highly contentious subject so please navigate away from this page after the following paragraph if it is too sensitive a subject for you. My thoughts are often … unconventional … and though I certainly mean no disrespect some things I say could be potentially hurtful to others. Please beware.

George Sodini was responsible for the deaths of three women and the injury of several others recently at a gym in Bridgeville, Pennsylvania. He left writings that outlined his plans and general attitude toward life. His last actions were terribly violent and should not be dismissed. These are my compiled notes on George Sodini and my thoughts on his life.

On paper, and even on video, George seemed like a very ordinary man. He worked an ordinary job, drove an unremarkable vehicle, and lived in a perfectly normal house. But he lived there alone and this seemingly led to (or was caused by) some of his personal issues. According to his purported “blog,” he had not been in a relationship since 1984 and had not slept with anyone since 1990. If said “blog” is genuine, it provides quite a peek into a disturbed mind.

The very first entry is studded with spite and dark sarcasm. Further entries blend melancholy, irritation, and disbelief with a perpetual foundation of frustration. “Result is I am learning [life] basics by trial and error in my 40s,” he wrote. “Seems odd, but thats true. […] Too embarassed to tell anyone this, at almost 50 one is expected to just know these things.” Later, describing his mother as a controlling, overbearing woman, he laments, “Why are people vicious with their closest ones?”

It feels almost like there are two different men writing. One is wholly negative, calling younger women “hoes” and stating that he will always be alone. But there is another man, a positive force who tries to hope that things will improve. The trouble is that the negativity always seems to win the argument. “Writing all this is helping me justify my plan and to see the futility of continuing. […] No matter how many changes I try to make, things stay the same.”

But those jumbled, sometimes resentful paragraphs help flesh George Sodini out as a real person, a living, breathing person who made a terrible, terrible choice. They portray a man who is tired of being alone but has no clue how to change. They show how out-of-control his life felt, and how he was convinced he was a total and utter failure as a human being. He seems to be saying, “Everywhere I look people have their shit together. They are getting married, are in relationships, are having kids… What is wrong with me that I am not? Why doesn’t anyone feel remotely interested in me?” None of the entries sound “crazy” or even demonstrably unstable until he mentions having “chickened out” of his plan with the guns in his gym bag. Until that point, he just sounds lonely, possibly depressed. Suddenly the post reveals him to be homicidal, suicidal, unexpectedly dangerous and seemingly without remorse for his intended victims. “God have mercy,” was his only remark.

“I already know what the problem is, but a solution eludes me,” he said months later. He attended church for many years and apparently didn’t want to go to Hell for seeing through this “exit plan” but had been assured such actions would not necessarily damn him. “[P]astor Rick Knapp … teaches (and convinced me) you can commit mass murder then still go to heaven. […] I think [he] did the most damage.” And though he did not consider the “exit plan” a real solution, it seems he could not identify a better option. Why he chose the gym one can only guess. Why his anger was funnelled into a murder spree instead of just a suicide is a mystery. But it seems odd that he would do such a thing when his words indicate that he did not hate women but their (real or imagined) rejection of him and the loneliness which followed.

His words show a man who felt lost and without hope that things would ever change. Expounding on a radio talk show caller, George wrote, “It is the quality of life that is important, he said. If you know the past 40 years were crappy, why live another 30 crappy years then die? His point was they engage in dangerous behavior which tends to shorten the lifespans, to die now and avoid the next 30 crappy years.” He had been recently promoted and liked his new boss, even found his new duties more rewarding. And yet he led a joyless life, ultimately punctuated by the shooting of innocent strangers.

I compiled all these notes and thoughts with one basic goal: to try and understand a man who felt so hopeless that he would take out his frustrations in the deaths of others and then kill himself. Many call him a blatant misogynist but I believe that falls well short. Others have labeled him “psychotic” and “psychopathic” and while I’m not sure that quite covers it, either, I think it is closer to the truth.

Psychopaths are mentally unimpaired but nonetheless engage in self-defeating acts. Often unable to delay or defer gratification, they are prone to impulsiveness, sometimes violence, and are often coupled with an inability to learn from past mistakes. Roughly one percent of the general population are psychopaths. A recent study at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London found that “psychopaths who kill and rape have faulty connections between the part of the brain dealing with emotions and that which handles impulses and decision-making,” according to a Reuters article. The findings were based on a small test group and is expected to be studied further. “As well as finding clear structural deficits in the tract in psychopathic brains,” the article continues, “they also found the degree of abnormality was significantly linked to the degree of psychopathy.”

Which makes sense. The less functional the brain, the more abnormal the behavior of the host. Which opens up a whole new bag of worms. If a brain isn’t functioning properly, how responsible is the host for its actions?

George Sodini decided to take three guns into a gym and shoot people. He decided to turn the last gun on himself and end his life. These were things he chose to do and which cannot be excused. But I wonder how much of the circuitry that led him to that choice was faulty, how much it interfered with his impulses and decisions. I wonder about the other one percent of psychopaths trying to live among us while their brains unknowingly mislead them. It is such a cruel and unpredictable world when the very thing that filters the world around us and keeps us going quietly betrays us.

I am reminded of a quote from Plato:

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

If you’d like to read George Sodini’s “blog” for yourself, you can find it here.

And one parting thought … why did George Sodini turn out the lights before he started shooting? Some called it cowardly, insinuating that maybe he could not face the people he killed as he killed them. We will never know for sure, but I like to think differently. He could have hit many, many more of those women if the lights had been on. I like to think it was perhaps a last act toward decency, that if he could not or would stop himself from carrying through with his plan, he could at least try to give them a better chance by firing into the dark.

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If you’ve read much of the Science Fiction/Fantasy genre, you’ve probably heard of Orson Scott Card. Probably best known for his “Ender” series (beginning with Ender’s Game), he has authored dozens of books and short stories as well as having worked on scripts, comic book novelizations, video game dialogs, and many other projects.

Buried somewhere in his bibliography, which most people probably scan right by, is a little book called Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus. Classified as an “alternate history,” the story centers around a small group of people specially chosen to go back in time and reduce the nagative impacts of European contact with the New World. It was published in 1996, and I happened to have just finished reading Ender’s Game when Pastwatch hit the paperback shelf in Wal-Mart so I picked it up to see if he was an author worth following.

While it didn’t convince me to follow him as an author, I did fairly enjoy the book. And the older I get – the more I see of the world around us – the more one facet of it returns to me. That small group of people from the future who travel back in time do so because their own time is a dead end. The world has been decimated, and it becomes clear that it can no longer sustain the human populace. Homo sapiens face imminent extinction. But only a few people realize this. Most of the world’s population toil on in complete ignorance.

Sometimes I wonder how near this we are. Eco groups shout doomsday prophecies of global warming; governments and economies fall apart; religious zealots spark worldwide fears; scientists offer a thousand obscure but entirely possible paths to “the end of the world” … but they’re all pretty easy to write off, aren’t they? Nobody believes global warming will wipe out mankind, not even the most hardcore eco-warrior. Governments and economies may fall apart but some form of rule always asserts itself and nuclear armageddon is extremely improbable. And while quasar bursts and ballooning red giants may one day spell the end of this planet, it’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

Despite all the fearmongering, we’re a rather logically placid species. Someone screams that the sky is falling and most of us just look up, squint a little, and wave it off with a “Nah, go have your head examined.” In many ways, I think we feel invulnerable: “it won’t happen, not to me, not here, not now.” We understand that it really can happen, even to ourselves, right here and now, but that’s a bit heavy to deal with in the day-to-day. A little denial goes a long way toward stable social constructs and the perception of safety.

It’s human nature. A lot of people don’t want to know when something bad is going to happen, whether or not that knowledge could change the outcome. Like ostriches burying their heads in the sand, many people prefer ignorance to disillusionment. I do myself, on some levels; if I could un-see certain things, I would. Which brings me, finally, to the point, the question: would you want to know that the world was imminently doomed?

Yes. I believe I would. I would like a chance to atone for certain things and to set my affairs straight. Of course, death may come at any time, so I suppose on a very personal level the threat of doom is always imminent. “Death comes unexpectedly,” the author of Beowulf astutely noted. But perhaps not so unexpectedly on a global scale.

My greatest lament, when the human race expires, is that we were such a blight on this planet. Without us, it was a fertile and amazing world. And yet within a few millenia, an ecological blink of the eye, we managed to destroy, pollute, and otherwise adversely affect every inch of it. I only hope that after we go some bacteria will survive to begin again. Surely not all creatures of “intelligence” are so hopelessly and destructively ignorant.

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As you probably heard, Michael Jackson died yesterday. The proclaimed “King of Pop” suffered a cardiac arrest and could not be revived. Flowers and memorials crowd the Hollywood Walk of Fame near his star and headlines around the world pay him tribute.

But why all the fuss? I liked Thriller, too, but let’s face it, Michael Jackson was a mess. The biggest surprise, for me, was that he didn’t die on an operating table getting yet another cosmetic surgery of some kind. For the last decade or so he’s looked like death warmed over and, I don’t care what his fans say, there was something inherently wrong with him.

I never wished him harm, and certainly never wished him dead, but I honestly don’t think it’s that great of a loss. He recorded some good songs and… Well that’s really all I can come up with on the “pro” side of things. As for the “con” side, well, that’s a little easier, isn’t it? He was so emotionally and psychologically unstable that he bleached his skin, had numerous cosmetic surgeries on his lips and face, and changed his nose more than a Mr. Potato Head toy. He was implicated in molestation cases, endangered his own son by dangling him over a balcony railing, and perhaps worst of all, married Lisa Marie Presley.

If not for his singing career, if he were just a “normal” man wandering the streets of say Topeka, Kansas, he would likely have been institutionalized. I’m sure a lot of people called him a freak, a pedophile, maybe even an abomination … but whatever your thoughts, it is clear that he had serious issues. And it was perhaps his very stardom that kept him from getting the medical treatment he needed. He was too accepted, too revered, his sometimes grotesque eccentricities too quickly disregarded. The news reported that Michael Jackson had recently passed a thorough physical in preparation for his planned tour, but when was the last time he passed a thorough rundown with an objective psychiatrist? When did he last speak with a psychologist or therapist who wasn’t star-struck or paid to not make waves? Never, I would venture. I don’t think he could have spoken truthfully to any decent medical professional in the last thirty years and not been hospitalized or committed.

And now he’s dead. His heart stopped. And, you know, it’s probably better for him that the CPR didn’t work, that the hospital couldn’t revive him. He’s been killing himself for years anyway. If anything, it’s probably overdue. But maybe wherever he ends up will finally satisfy him, comfort him, and he’ll find peace without screaming crowds and flashing cameras.

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The media splashes violent scenes of people being beaten and a young woman dying in the street and calls it news. It’s sensationalism, but I suppose that’s what it takes to get our attention any more. If you’ve watched a news program at all in the last week or so you’ve probably seen some of it: foreign crowds with strips of green cloth tied around their wrists, wearing green shirts and masks and headbands, green paint or dye on their hands, fingers held up in an almost painfully ironic symbol of peace and victory. Of course, we know that neither peace nor victory has found either side of the conflict. And instead of green, a growing number of people are wearing red.


Photos credits, left to right, top to bottom: Getty, urbanministry.org, AP; Getty, Donald Douglas.

I don’t know what to think of the situation in Iran. I do think the election was, at best, mishandled … but it’s a messy affair. And no one in authority seems willing to recount the votes, investigate the cases of blatant fraud, or otherwise try to resolve the issue through acceptable procedural means. Instead, Iran’s “supreme leader” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is backing up the election results, denouncing protesters, and threatening action against anyone speaking out against the government. Equally problematic, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is digging in his heels, insisting he was re-elected fair and square, and trying to break up protest after protest with public announcements and brute force. A lot of brute force. Thankfully, serious bloodshed has been limited so far. Though I doubt that comforts the families and loved ones of the dozens who have been killed. And if the protests continue, I think it’s clear there will be a great deal more bloodshed.

The scenes filling Twitter and Flickr and Tehran Live are both inspiring and heartbreaking. And I am torn between wanting to grab a green flag to join in and just turning my back to walk away. The Idealist vs. The Pragmatist. But in a country that already hates the US, in a region that all but despises the US, I can’t help but think that getting involved would be a mistake. I hate to say that but it’s what I honestly think. A lot of people in Iran are getting mistreated (and not just since the election) but the same could be said of dozens of countries which we have also not helped. In truth, the same could be said of our own country, if not to the same extremes.

I find the violence disgusting, aimed at unarmed people doing something US citizens have (theoretically) had the right to do for well over 200 years. But a country in upheaval will always experience violence and henceforth bear that scar. It is both unfortunate and unavoidable. And who is to say the opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi would be any better? (Who is to say he is still alive, having disappeared some days ago…) Politicians the world over are notoriously dishonest, corrupt, and easily swayed by money and power. In any case, I fear US intervention would only cause more problems. Iraq has been a rather pathetic endeavor (I fully support the troops; I do not support the politicians behind the war) and Afghanistan is hardly better. With North Korea starting to test the waters across the Pacific and a US economic/financial implosion underway, I can’t think of anything less reasonable than an intervention.

For once, Barack Obama and I agree.

But I hope beyond hope that the Iranians get what they want and need and deserve as a good but mistreated people. I hope we all do.

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Very few people haven’t heard of S. E. Hinton, a young adult genre author who makes the required reading list in most if not all English classrooms. She is famous for having penned the new-classic short novel The Outsiders as well as Tex, Rumble Fish, and That Was Then This Is Now. All were written from the perspective of young adults and were/are very popular among that crowd.

Now that the history lesson is covered, I’ll get down to business. Hinton didn’t publish anything for many years after Taming the Star Runner and rumors circulated that she had essentially retired after her short but glorious run. (Dropping off the page for 16 years can do that.) Then in 2005 came the dark and wholly unexpected Hawke’s Harbor, the newest spine on my bookshelf.

I’ll make no bones about it, I loved S. E. Hinton and, as a child and young adult, read everything of her hand I could find. I scanned the pages of The Outsiders more times than I can remember and even voluntarily wrote an essay on the book in middle school. But then came Hawke’s Harbor, and I was unsure. I passed it by on Amazon and in the local bookstore, wary of her new work, suspicious that it would be yet another dreadful “comeback novel” and could never live up to my old favorites. But like nearly every book published, a few copies of it eventually wound up in the bookstore’s bargain bin. And I, desperate for new reading material (as usual), could not resist the temptation of a bargain.

My worries firmly in place, I began to read … and found out that I could not have been more wrong. Hawke’s Harbor is a gorgeous, touching story. It quickly found its way into my cubby of favorites on the bookshelf and slid its hooks deftly into my heart. But it is totally unlike her earlier works. Had I not known, her name would never have entered my mind on a list of possible authors. Perhaps the greatest shock was the inclusion of a vampire in the plot, which could not be more removed from what she wrote about in the 1970’s and 1980’s. This bit of supernatural did not sit well with many of her former fans but, in all honesty, it was so well wrought I didn’t mind. That’s not to say I wasn’t surprised, and still a bit disappointed; and I seriously questioned whether or not I’d made a mistake picking this dark story from the bargain bin. Apparently this also threw a lot of other readers who were expecting another Tex or Rumble Fish. Because serious readers – we minority of dedicated, avid consumers of words, we Constant Readers – treasure our books like great friends, and treasure the authors of those books like loved ones. So when someone drops off the publishing map for a decade and a half and re-emerges with a totally different and unexpected voice, it can be very personal.

Think of it as if a loved one were in a bad accident and fell into a coma. And at first the doctors were very optimistic for a full recovery … but as the months and then years wore on, a darker prognosis appeared. And you resigned yourself to losing this loved one. You wanted the coma to break and for that person to open their eyes and be every bit the person they were before … but you understood the chances of that were infintesimal. Then one fine day that loved one stirred and opened their eyes. And the doctors cried, “Come quick!” And you rushed to their bedside with a great wild hope galloping through your veins … only to find that this loved one didn’t remember you. Or themselves. And watching them recover is like watching a stranger, and that it is somehow worse than losing them to a coma, or even to death. Because there they are, right there, you can reach out and touch them … but it isn’t the person you knew.

That probably sounds ridiculous. And of course not everyone is so effected, but many are. And it is so personal to them that it feels like a betrayal, willful or not. Authors who publish fairly regularly and whose voices change slowly over time have a much greater advantage. S. E. Hinton did most certainly not have that advantage and the reviews of this book prove it. So, just for the record, let me state that this is nothing like her earlier work … except that it is still a striking, moving story. Despite my misgivings, I loved it. It is hard to explain but the vampire thread did not discredit the story or the characters, who practically breathe and move on the page (and this from a reader who has avoided every other vampire story I have ever come across because I simply detest them). I loved it.

In closing, I offer a word of advice: If you pick this book up expecting it to be anything like her other books, you will be disappointed. Because Hinton has a new voice. It is still unerringly beautiful and wrenching but in a very different way. She has changed, as have we all.

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My fellow Americans, and other readers from around the world, I believe something very strange has happened to us. An author named Robert Heinlein once wrote a book called Stranger in a Strange Land, and while I’ve never read said book I feel the title is all too accurate in describing my little corner of the world. I do indeed feel like a total stranger in a very strange land.

I used to think I had a pretty good handle on this world, and pretty well knew my place in it. But things change, don’t they? Oh my, yes, how things change. The kicker, of course, is that it’s really only my perception of things that has changed, not the things themselves. There was always deception and dishonor, corruption and cowardice, only now I really see them. Everywhere.

Does anyone else find it ridiculous that this country spent sixteen years under the thumb of two lying, cheating, self-serving men who left nothing behind but a wake of death and destruction? Or how about the fact that the popular vote in the last two presidential elections was completely ignored by the electoral college, the supposedly “representative” group of men and women who ultimately choose which candidate will rule the nation? Is it just me or has inflation made the prices of goods and services skyrocket while wages have only slowly crept upward? And isn’t this the same inflation that Washington still refuses to acknowledge while it prints fiat money as fast as it can?

Do these things make sense to anyone? Am I taking crazy pills or something??

Because they seem as wrong as wrong can be to me. It seems unfathomable to me that politicians now speak of “trillions of dollars” as if it were only millions. That Barack Obama is hailed as a saviour when so far his works have only driven us deeper in the ground. (Hey, buddy, we were already six feet under … isn’t that enough?) I find it hard to believe that China wants to drop the dollar when ten years ago a college professor explained to me how ludicrously unlikely it was that America would ever fail. How nonsensical that a major city should ever drown on the inaction of its leaders and the entire conglomeration of local, state and national governments; that the uncontrolled spending of large banks should bring the economy to its knees worldwide; that the Democratic platform and the Communist platform should differ on only two points.

I know that these things are true, but I have a hard time understanding them. It’s as though I’ve slipped into a parallel dimension, or, like Rip Van Winkle, somehow awoken to a future where little of the world I knew remains. Where corruption has infiltrated every facet of our legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government at every level, from small-town council to the president himself. Where corporate and political greed has nullified the needs of the American people. Where anything is for sale if the price is right and to hell with the consequences.

Welcome to the Strange Lands. It looks like the Dark Ages are back.

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“All the legislation in the world can’t fix what’s wrong with America.” – Jimmy Carter

“A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.” – Gerald Ford

“When the government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.” – Thomas Jefferson

“Why shouldn’t the people fear the great? The liberties of mankind were never destroyed by any other class of men.” – Abraham Bishop

“America is great because America is good; and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” – Alexis de Toqueville

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