the cancer journal of Czesław Jan Grycz…


• On the 3rd of October 2016, I underwent my twice-yearly CT Scan. Heretofor, upon reviewing the results of the scan, my oncologist could say, “The tumors are there. They are growing. But they are growing very slowly. I’d recommend ‘watching and waiting’.”

I should back up a bit and explain that colon cancer is known to metastasize, first to the liver and, next, to the lungs. When my colon cancer was discovered, I underwent a surgical removal of the affected parts of my colon and lymph nodes. Later, I underwent another surgery in which three chunks of affected liver tissue was excised. Since then, we’ve been monitoring the growth of tumors in my lungs. The twice-yearly CT scans were scheduled for this purpose.  This time, however, after 42 generous and welcome months of no symptoms and no discomfort, our oncologist reported, “The tumors have continued to grow. Because of their proximity to your windpipe, this may be the time to begin a second round of chemo. We will aim to shrink and slow down the growth of your tumors. Should your windpipe becomes compromised you’ll run the risk of greater susceptibility to pneumonia and other complications. We want to avoid that.” So, on Monday, 10th of October 2016, I returned to the Cancer Infusion Center for the 1st chemo infusion of my 2nd round of chemotherapeutic treatment. Simultaneously, I determined to  resurrect my cancerblog.

Previous Posting

• On June 20,2011, all unsuspecting, I registered at my hospital for a routine colonoscopy. During the procedure the physician discovered a “suspicious mass.”  A snippet of tissue was extracted and sent to the Pathology Lab. It came back marked as “invasive carcinoma”.

• On July 18, 2011, having undergone a flurry of blood tests, CT scans, and echocardiograms, I underwent a surgical colectomy. The part of my colon consisting of the “suspicious mass” was removed, along with some surrounding tissue and lymph nodes. These were also forwarded to the Pathology Lab.  The results were returned to my surgeon and sent on to the Oncology Department of the hospital. From them my wife, Monica, and I learned their diagnosis that I suffered from Stage 3 Colon Cancer.

• Shortly thereafter I began to inform friends and family about my condition by sending periodic e-mail “status reports” to them. Certainly, my main intent was to keep others appraised of a significant event in my life. In no time at all I came to realize that writing the e-mails was primarily helpful for me.  It allowed me to integrate my reactions and emotions to having been diagnosed with cancer. Writing helped me objectify cancer’s various implications. Articulating how I felt helped me deal with the fearsome unknown about the chemotherapeutic process I was to undergo.

I’ve converted my earliest e-mails to this blog format which is slightly easier for me to maintain from here on.


For those of my friends unfamiliar with “blogs”, please note that the current month’s postings are on this “front page” of the blog (and they are arranged in descending chronological order, with the most recent at the top, and earlier postings lower down on the page).  Earlier postings can be accessed by clicking on any highlighted date in the “Calendar of Posts” or from the “Archives” by clicking on a particular month.  The “Tags” cloud is a distribution of topics that are mentioned throughout these posts, with more frequently used terms becoming progressively larger in size as frequency of mention increases. By clicking on a tag term, you should see displayed all those posts in which a tag term is mentioned.

Reflections on Time

I suppose it should come as no surprise that it is easier to complain than it is to observe things going well.  This, then, may be an exception.  Monica and I recently rented a house in Pacific Grove for a week and invited our family to come join us for celebration.  I wrote the following reflections to share at a dinner hosted by my Sister, Wandzia, her husband, Marvin, and their daughter Kasia.


I want to share with you some thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head recently.  Monica and I have been anticipating our birthdays this year.  They seem special this year, somehow; Monica has turned 70 this month, and I will turn 75 the month following. 

  • Reaching 70 years in this life is a respectable amount of time.
  • Reaching 75 is, similarly, respectable.
    • One begins to seriously confront end-of-life issues like filling in Advanced Medical Directives and making sure to be up-to-snuff with one’s God.  
  • Living, side-by-side with Monica for 41 years is a long time.
    •  I’m becoming more aware of her reliably dependable good advice and knowledge, just as she is becoming more comfortable in pointing out my faults… most especially as concerns my health, nutrition and those questionable habits of mine… acting as if I were 30 years younger when, in fact, my body parts (especially joints… but also sight, balance, motor skills, and… and… and…) are showing disturbing signs of creakiness.
  • 41 years for each of us is well past the halfway mark of our lives.
    • We’ve each lived with the other longer than we’ve lived apart.  That constitutes a special quality of “a long time”.
  • I was diagnosed with Stage Four Terminal Cancer on June 7, 2011, eight years ago!  
    • Living eight years past my diagnosis is—by any calculation—an extraordinary length of time.

Thinking about time made me brush up and update information I originally acquired from my high school physics and college philosophy classes.

One startling fact remains unchanged: time—as ubiquitous and ever-present as it is in our every-day lives—plays no role in our scientific understanding of the cosmos.  Apart from being a simple measure of change (a kind of tape measure), science doesn’t need “time” to explain how the universe was created nor what forces make it function. That seems incredible to me, yet it is true.  

The official definition of time by the American Physics Association is
“Time is what the clock says.”

Still, we experience time and can study it in various ways.  

500 A.D. — Boethius famously postulated that human time is different from God’s time.  Boethius asserted that the two times could co-exist, perhaps prefiguring contemporary string theory by several centuries.

1927 — Science has defined what we all know to be true: that time has a direction.  Scientists call that quality “the Arrow of Time.”

1950 — Einstein—writing about human time in this universe (as separate from “God’s time”)—stipulated that no matter where in our universe we might be, sitting here in Carmel Valley or, hypothetically, sitting on the edge of a black hole in an unimaginably distant far-off galaxy, we must experience the passage of time the same way, one second after another.

We also speak of the “end of time” and consider that a marker of considerable importance. The end of time is a point at which the universe, as we know it, ceases to exist. But we also imagine that something continues to exist after the “end of time”; just that our experience in this world ceases.
We each experience time subjectively.  To better illumine our personal experience of time might require the expertise of psychologist or a brain specialists dealing with memory, among other disciplines; also of philosophers and theologians.  Time, though it may not be needed in mathematical formulae is complex in its own right and can only be understood through the insights of many experts from differing approaches. 
Practically speaking, what our subjective experience reveals to us as laypersons is that time seems to be composed of fleeting “slivers of being”.  We can retain past events in our minds and recall those memories, but we can’t go back in any practical sense to re-live previously “completed” events.  The slivers stack up in our memories like cards fill an old-fashioned library card catalog.  The Arrow of Time doesn’t permit going back to experience them over; only to recognize that events happened in some time past.
One CalTech astrophysicist, Sean Carroll* described it this way, “I can make an omelette out of an egg, but I can’t go back and make an egg out of an omelette.”  In using these words he added an important complication to our rumination on time.  The inability to “go back” is not merely an issue of memory, it has physical implications, as well!

If we can’t go backwards, we might try to “go with the flow” in the direction of the Arrow of Time: forward.  Here, though, we are stymied again.  We believe we can anticipate what lies ahead, but our anticipation is seriously constrained by our inability to comprehend the complexity of what influences events in the future. 

I may think, “I’ll make a breakfast omelette for Monica tomorrow.”  
– But as the time approaches, I might find I’ve overslept.  
– I may find the last of the eggs were used the evening before.
– Overnight, an earthquake might have hit and we’ll have forgotten all about breakfast.   
– The doorbell might ring and when we open it the Publisher’s Clearing House representatives might have arrived with the first installment of our randomly-awarded “one-million-dollars-a-week-for-our lifetime”… and we’ll go out for breakfast.
– Monica might awaken and say, “Let’s pack a picnic and have breakfast at the beach.”

Any number of circumstances can and do force us to adjust our plans.  It happens so constantly and reliably that we don’t even notice that we can’t foretell future events save in grossly generalized ways.
What we can conclude is that, as far as time is concerned, our human existence is embedded in the sliver of time (one 3×5 card thick) that is “now”, not “before”, and not “to come.”

Spiritually-wise person’s have described this understanding as “living in the present” or “living mindfully”.  To live mindfully means to be increasingly conscious, every second, of the extraordinary dynamism and complexity that occurs in the sliver of time in which we presently exist… of you being here to celebrate with Monica and me; of my being present at this second with my children and grandchildren; of each of us experiencing at this moment the joy of family and friends, and—on this day, most of all—of my awareness that I share my sliver with Monica, and can experience how much satisfaction, companionship and pleasure she brings to my life.

There is a plaque in this home, just in the other room.  It contains a quotation from Carl Jung and reads, “Bidden or not bidden, God is present.”  Aware of existing in our ever-fleeting sliver of time, I’d like to call to mind that bidden or unbidden presence of God in our midst. 
We bid ourselves to be conscious of that constant presence in order to give thanks… serious and deliberate gratitude for the countless and undeserved blessings that flow—especially to each of us—as we gather tonight, in Wandzia and Marvin’s warm and welcoming home and anticipate the meal and conversation they set before us. 

Indeed, the table was set with consummate attention to beauty and celebration. Our conversations were lively. The laughter was hearty and heartfelt.  Our food and wine nourishing as well as tasty.  Our gratitude was palpable.  

The question that remains for each of us is:
“How best do I express my gratitude in the sliver of time in which I exist.”

*Sean Carroll is a theoretical physicist at Caltech where he focuses on theories of cosmology, field theory and gravitation by studying the evolution of the universe. As quoted in Wired Magazine.

Unexpected Similarities


Occasionally, I feel guilty I am doing as well as I am, thanks to the effectiveness of my chemo treatment.  Some of my fellow patients are not doing as well.  A close friend, diagnosed some months after I was, is already presently being transferred to hospice care.  Another, having gone through a recent multi-hour multi-specialist surgery, is entering an aggressive treatment protocol combining radiation with radical chemotherapy.  A third has declined surgery altogether and is choosing treatment of his cancer through a variety of nutritional and mindful exercises intended to focus his entire physical and psychological strength against the incursion of his disease.

Cancer, I’ve been reading, is a highly personal disease.  Many researchers agree that our cancers become active in response to immune deficiencies, or environmental triggers that are not, even now, well understood.  Some researchers suggest that cancer cells are present, latently, in our bodies from birth.[1]  This makes generalized therapies impossible.

The current spate of distressing news about the widespread clerical abuse in the Catholic Church is similar in this respect.  The abuse of the powerless is a source of guilt far more justified than my quasi-guilt from the positive experience of keeping my cancer at bay.


As dreadful as it is to think of the hundreds of individual priests, torrentially documented in the press, who perpetrated abuse against others, it is even more shameful to consider the bishops who hid the crimes and avoided accountability for the perpetrators or for themselves.

The facts of the immoral crimes are difficult to consider, much less explain.

Contrary to depictions of the abuse we are finding out about, labeling it as “sexual abuse”, what seems certain is that the violations are acts of aggression; psychologically misguided expressions of power.[2]

Were the perpetrators committing their heinous acts because they possessed power over their victims or because they were (or believed they were), in fact, held in thrall, themselves?  Is there a relationship of their acts of abuse to the rule of celibacy?  If so, what is the nature of that relationship?  How is it normally and abnormally expressed?  When abuses are perpetrated by the very powerful, how can we respond?

How did this aberrant behavior spread?  Did perpetrators communicate with and influence one another?  If so, what were the mechanisms and influences exchanged?  If not, what does it say about the remarkable numbers of individual perpetrators?  What is the underlying source of the horrible anger that is evidenced by the events that have been discovered and recorded?  What are the structural components that are complicit in permitting (or turning a blind eye to) the behaviors we are learning about?   How does gender play a role?  (The recent news in the US media is full of details involving men, whereas the abuses known as the Magdalen Laundry Asylums were conducted, in Ireland, by women.[3])   Does sexual orientation play a role?  If so, what role?

Do psychological signals exist that can be unearthed by early testing, that can predict the possibility of aberrations of such kind?  Were they employed?  With what effect?  What kind of professional advice was given bishops by contemporary doctors, psychologists or lawyers?  How did such advice contribute to permissibility; or was professional advice ignored?  Where and how does peer pressure enter in?  Are there patterns of behavior among priests or bishops that reveal or suggest the likelihood of abuse?

What can/should be done to help victims?  How to explain what happened and why?  Given what we know about historical cultural evidence, are there psychological/cultural influences at play?  How to remediate; if remediation is even possible?

There is a widespread ripple effect of learning about such abuse, from the individuals immediately involved to the wider society that suffers because of the overall degradation of trust and exemplary behavior.  How can we address the scandal to the community of families and persons immediately involved in abuses; to the Catholics only proximate to such crimes; to Christians in general; to the wider secular society who already evidences a distrust of religious instinct?

How do we appropriately respond, on a personal basis, to the revelations that are swirling around us with the result of wide moral and personal distress?

How do we most effectively press for accountability and effective change to eliminate the possibility of ongoing aggressions of a similar nature?  How can we proceed with immediacy at the same time as we defend the need for careful deliberateness?

The revelations of clerical abuse evoke strong personal emotions: feelings of shock, betrayal, disgust, disbelief, shame, anger, empathy, and dismay.  How do we help our local communities (and ourselves) address legitimate emotional and visceral reactions, particularly given that they/we may not have participated or experienced, first-hand, the abuses being written about?

These, and many more penetrating and nuanced interrogations must be articulated, investigated, and analyzed in an open scientific and moral inquiry.  Simultaneously, punishments and calls to account must be meted out to the various complicit individuals.  Meanwhile, as we proceed, we must be careful to protect the privacy and innocence (until proven otherwise) of individuals who might be wrongly accused.

We need to address and answer all these questions for all those personally involved, as well as for all members of society.


Some people have been surprised at the statement that the “Devil is behind” these extraordinary events.  Foremost we must recognize a distinction between diverting responsibility to a scapegoat figure.  Responsibilities are due to individual persons not to vaporous fiendish figures.  Whether or not one recognizes or believes in an a personified, individual entity identified as “Satan” or “Beelzebub” is irrelevant.  Though “evil incarnate” might well frighten or disturb, it cannot, itself, incite or unleash some objective evil upon humanity.  The truth is that the Devil can only leverage the vulnerabilities and susceptibilities that preexist in each of us.  The source of Evil in the world is—like it or not—ourselves.  (Recall Pogo’s realization, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”)[4]  The evil that we all possess—much as we would prefer to deny it—are like the cancer cells oncological  researchers suggest might exist in our chemical and biological cells from birth.  Evil is a part of humanity in general, and individual humans in particular.

The existence of personal evil has been recognized at least since the authors of the earliest books of the Bible composed the Cain and Abel narratives.  Latent evil, exploited in damaging ways, is evidenced in the events that are recorded to have taken place in the Garden of Eden.

Spiritual leaders and writers, over time, have recommended practicing self-abnegation, penance, even the employment of physical disciplines (wearing hair-shirts, denying oneself, flagellation, and other “mortifications of the body”.)  These time-honored disciplinary measures are not, to be sure, “solutions”.   No less a figure than the Carmelite Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (recognized as a “Doctor of the Church”) cautioned against corporal disciplines, which, themselves, can easily be abused.[5]  But the goal of such penitential practices were designed to help us recognize our own entanglement with evil.  Part of our shame, in this case, is our potential blindness or passivity to the abuses of power.  It is woefully easy to be intimidated by power.  It is similarly easy to be intoxicated by power.  (Recall Lord Acton’s memorable quote “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”[6])

We have legitimate reasons to express our shame through acts of penance.  The abuses that are so shocking are perpetrated by individuals.  But as we point blame on individuals other than ourselves, we can identify and admit, too, our own corporate and personal guilt.  Admitting our own shame may help us respond appropriately to the work in which we each must now seriously engage in order to understand and eliminate the anguishing situation before us.







      It has been an embarrassing long time since my last post.  It is not entirely unexpected.  It is far easier to compose blog posts complaining in one way or another about my cancer.  When my experiences are ones for which I can only be enormously grateful, writing about the good news seems less urgent.The truth is that my chemo protocol, my prescribed anti-cancer regimen, coupled with the treatment accorded me by amazing and dedicated oncological nurses has resulted in a kind of temporary (hopefully long-lasting) stasis or balance.  My cancer seems to be at bay.  At the same time my body has somehow accommodated itself to the toxic drugs I’m receiving.  I am no longer so badly thrown off by the somewhat unpredictable side effects when they come.

      So this posting—rather than focusing on my cancer—is about “Truth”.[1]  It is prompted by a dinner conversation.  “What, exactly is Truth,” Monica asked, “given all the accusations of ‘fake news’, constant prevarications, and deliberate misdirections from our political leader(s)?”  

      It sounded like a reasonable question with a reasonable answer.  It turned out to be a long-historied issue debated by philosophers and theologians.This is my unlettered contribution to the dialog.



In my parent’s generation, to accept a person’s word was to hear truth declared.

Protecting one’s word was of utmost ethical importance.  I can recall (perhaps from some high school ethics class) discussions about when and if it was ethical to lie—even to one’s enemies.  For example, was it breaking one’s word to answer an enemy’s question with, “They went that-a-way!” while pointing in the wrong direction?

Taking Oaths

      For very important juridical situations in the West, we’ve adopted the custom of swearing on a Bible to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”[2]  This invokes God to be a witness to the veracity of one’s testimony.  An oath is only truly effective, of course, if the individual swearing the oath believes in a deity.   Even if not, it raises consciousness in the oath-giver about how important is the veracity of one’s statements.
      Swearing an oath gives comfort to the adjudicators of Justice and the Public.

Ordeal by Water

      Another method of confirming whether or not a testimony is reliable is to verify it through trial.  One such method is to make a witness successfully endure a physical hardship, such as walking through a bed of hot coals to prove their truthfulness.[3]
      Accused witches (recall Salem) were sometimes stripped of their underclothes, bound with a rope and thrown in a pond of water.[4]   The rationalization for this bizarre test was convoluted.  It began with the presumption that witches were likely not to have been Baptised.  This supposition was strangely connected with a theory that—since water plays such a crucial role in the Sacrament of Baptism—water would repel witches and make them bob up to the surface of a pond or river.   Thus arose a cruel way of determining whether a woman was a witch or not.  Trussed and thrown into a body of water, those who were witches should be observed at the surface, rejected by the water.  Conversely, if a woman was not a witch, she should sink to the bottom of the pond and could be safely hauled up to be declared innocent… if, that is, her recovery was quick enough for drowning not to have occurred in the meanwhile.  But this did not worry the perpetrators of such despicable crimes.  To further shield them from committing murder there was a final rationalization.  If an innocent woman accidentally drowned, it was deemed to have been an intercession of a deity to correct the original miss-indictment and reassert the guilt of the deceased woman.  Either way, there was an external judge that exculpated the individuals active in the judgement and murder of women.  It was not their fault what happened!
      The emphasis with these techniques was to prove the veracity of the witness.  But what about the truth of their testimony?  Proving the veracity of anyone’s testimony has become increasingly problematic as science discovers the uncertainty of human perception.

Different Perceptions or Memories

      Psychologists set up an experiment to expose subjects to a staged traumatic event, like a robbery or accident.[5]  Afterwards, they interviewed their witnesses. To their surprise, the psychologists found that each of the subjects may possibly have “seen” quite different details.  Each might testify to their version of “truth”, but one person’s truth could be different from another witnesses’ “truth”.
      Indeed, few witnesses could correctly recall what actually occurred in the experiment.

The Problem of Single Witness

      Similarly, and equally disturbing, is the practical case in which no independent verification is possible of what actually happened.  Then, the testimony of a single individual may be enough to identify “Who done it?”  But would that individual’s testimony be true?
      Maybe.  Maybe not.

The Problem of Incomplete Information

      All of us can remember the Indian morality-fable of the blind men stumbling across an elephant and describing the beast from the perspective of what they touched: as in legs (The elephant is like a huge multi-trunked tree!”), the elephant’s side (The elephant is like a wall!”), the ears (the elephant is equipped with huge fans to keep him cool.), his tail (the elephant is like a rope!) or his curious tusks (The elephant is like a smooth spear!).
      Humans tend to extrapolate from inadequate information to a whole concept.  This is not a very reliable form of discovery according to Budhist scholars of the mid first-millennium BCE who first wrote down this morality tale.[6]

Testimony on the basis of Belief

      There is one category of truth that is incontestable.  It is in the testimony of one’s beliefs.  “Jesus is the Messiah” is an indisputable Christian Truth (with a capital “T”).  But a Christian’s Truth is not held to be true by others who hold the Judaic tenants of belief… or Muslim… or those who adhere to other faith beliefs, or none at all.  A declaration of a Christian believer can be considered an indisputable “Truth”.  But it is a truth circumscribed by qualifications.

Can Testimony ever be relied upon?

      The conclusion one reaches from this brief review is that a witness seemingly cannot be trusted to know the Truth (with a capital “T”).  Witnesses are not even reliable reporters of the truth (with a lower-case “t”.)  The awareness of such unreliability came early in human history.  This is verified by the development of numerous methods over time that were designed to attempt to ascertain and verify the truthfullness of a witness.  Notably, these many efforts were entirely independent of the actual testimony that was to be given.
      Regarding testimony itself, there seems to exist no independently verifiable method to identify truth versus error.


      What, then, is the answer to the question “What is truth?”  Clearly, it begins with the veracity and truthfulness of the witness.  I’ve described, above, how difficult this is to attain.  Our parent’s generation gives us the correct way to think about truthfulness.  They taught that each individual’s habitual honesty, reinforced by ethical behavior, and expressed in accord with one’s core beliefs make a person’s testimony reliable.  Life lived according to these attributes confers what was called “character”.  It deserved careful and constant protection and preservation.
      The lives of persons of extraordinary character is often identified as wisdom, as, indeed, it is.  People who live a long life consistent with good character proclaim through their lives consistent and reliable truthfulness.  Christians call such people saintly.[7]
      We are blessed to have Saints among us.  Saints are models of the kind of witnesses we should each be to the world because the world has been shown to be replete with individuals less concerned about preserving character than by trading it in for worldly or short-term gain.  This is not a recent development but a persistent historical reality.  It might be claimed that debasing character is one of the “forces of evil” inflicting the world in which we live.[8]  It takes constant attention to recognize destructively self-centered behaviors.  It take a bit less effort to combat them with the character we choose to develop.  In the end, one can conclude that it is essential that we model the Saints we know if we are to exert a properly positive influence of truth on our world.
      One of the extraordinary qualities of Saints who have been historically revered as holy, is that their holiness is expressed through an enormous variability of talents that make them holy.[9]  This give us hope that in developing our own, sometimes seemingly idiosyncratic skills and talents, there is a road to our own particular sainthood.
      May we each become a witness to truth.
[1] Google “what is truth?”

God the Creator is a plumber… or maybe a gardener

Prolog 1

I have recently had the privilege and deep enjoyment of volunteering various services at a nearby Carmelite Monastery of cloistered nuns.(1) The types of services I provide might be subsumed under the title of “Jack-of-all-trades” (Johannes factotum). They are variable and various.
There is much to reflect upon in the relationship that has formed between me and the community, as well as in the variety of tasks that have been assigned me. Most recently, I was asked to make repairs to the somewhat complicated and undocumented 100-year-old water line serving the large community house and gardens. Plumbing is therefore, the subject of this cancerblog.


Prolog 2

But first, I must apologize to subscribers to this blog.
I have demonstrated what may be a widespread trait to prefer pondering and carping about complaints, challenges, puzzles and frightening experiences. Once such issues have been neutralized either by being resolved or because one has become reconciled and accustomed to the “new normal”, people (or at least, “I”) find less motivation to reflect and write about the comparatively settled situation after the chaos of uncertainty and insecurity.
I fear I may have left off posting new essays just at the nadir of what appeared to be largely unexplained and puzzling reactions to my combined treatments for various physical ailments. I feel an obligation to redress the impression I may have, unintentionally, left upon my readers.
Not all the ailments about which I pondered, were directly related to my cancer. But each of the treatment remedies complicated my chemotherapy. So it was a messy set of circumstances that beset me at the time.
The good news is that most of the several complications have been resolved (save, perhaps one: an unexpected “breathlessness” following even very mild exertion.) Apart from being prematurely out of breath from time to time, I feel well, excepting days I experience what I would call intermittent, predictable, and completely manageable side effects from my chemo treatments. My oncologist has modified my chemotherapy protocol. She has reduced my dose by 20% (no doubt minimizing negative side effects).
Better news, still, my periodic CT scans and x-rays conifirm that the treatment is demonstrably effective. My cancer tumors are shrinking, and there is no visible evidence of the cancer metastasizing to other parts of my body.

After a recent welcome and pleasant visit, a dear friend described me to a mutual colleague, writing to him, “Chet may be on his way out, but, honestly, you’d never know it from our visit.”
From the very day of conception we are all, in a way, already “on our way out”. John Lennon described it in a thoughtful way when he penned the lyrics, “He not busy being born, is busy dying.”(2)  I would like to believe that the way my colleague and friend judged that my appearance means I reflected my intention to aspire to the converse of Lennon’s cautioning expression; i.e. to keep busy at “being born”.
To the bad news. After reducing the dose of my chemo, my oncologist prescribed that I report to the Infusion Clinic for a three- to four-hour IV Infusion every other week, indefinitely.
“Every other week” seemed daunting enough, but the word “indefinitely” struck Monica and me as ominous and ambiguous. “Indefinitely” could mean my oncologist expected my treatments to be efficacious for only a limited period of time. Perhaps, statistically, she thought I might be expected to succumb to the cancer sooner than later, and would shortly traverse the mysterious path to “the way out”.
Alternatively, my oncologist might have used the word to suggest that my treatment could succeed in keeping my cancer at bay for years to come, having reached a kind of equilibrium between my cancer’s imperative to expand and grow, in contrast to the chemotherapeutic mandate to surround and contain my cancer and restrain its expansion. In this matter I choose to believe in the second explanation of her words.

What I have learned from plumbing at the Monastery

Few people are unaware of the ditty “Righty-tighty, Lefty-loosy”. My Dad did not know it so he never taught it to me. Instead, he used the metaphor of a clock to teach me that tightening a jar lid, or connecting a pipe required that I turn it “clockwise”. To open a jar, or disconnect a pipe required that I apply “counterclockwise” twisting pressure. After repeated instructions of whatever type, and through personal experience, the proper turning motion becomes ingrained and is second-nature to most children around the world. We all take it for granted.
I’m pretty good at solving those puzzles requiring a person to visualize in 3D, a 2D diagram of complicated objects. The goal of such puzzles is to identify two of five or more drawings that correctly illustrate the shape of one object viewed from different perspectives. Three or more of the drawings describe different objects. Only two among them describe a single object from different views.
Though proficient at the puzzles, I occasionally need tactile help when confronting a faulty pipe break in a complicated water valve manifold.(3) I find myself looking at the assemblage, unconsciously twisting my hand in a clockwise or counterclockwise motion to help me visualize what part I require in order to join a replacement pipe segment to an existing unbroken fixture.

Handedness. Pipes, jar lids, soda-pop screw caps, screw-on wine bottle tops, solvent container caps, automobile gasoline caps, moisturizer cream tops, baby bottle tops, the wind-up spring of a Grandfather clock… even all the fittings for the tubing from the infusion bags containing my chemo solutions to my surgically-implanted access port… all share and conform to the ditty from which our knowledge was inculculated about which direction “opens” and its opposite: which direction “closes”. All over the world it is the same turnings that do the trick.(4)
Besides “handedness” things that twist on or twist off have three other attributes worth mentioning: thread-count or “pitch”, gender, and diameter.
Pitch reminds us that a screw (or pipe, or any of its relations as shown above) is—at its source—an application of a wedge. Wedges are thought to have been first employed by Egyptian engineers in antiquity. And the wedge is considered to be one of six ancient “simple machines” developed by human ingenuity.(5)
A wedge is a solid rectangle that has a triangular elevation on one side. It has the useful property of changing the direction of force by 90º. This means that if you place a wedge under an object and apply a horizontal force to the wedge, it will cause a vertical force equivalent to the changing height of the wedge along the dimension of the wedge’s hypotenuse.
On a length of pipe, twisting threads contain the action of a wedge. The grooves (or threads) at either end of a prepared pipe are, in fact, spiral applications of wedges. Wedges, whether arranged in spirals or straight, perform exactly the same useful function. Admirably, when two wedges are combined opposite one another–as they are on a pipe and the fitting into which the pipe is to be screwed, the effect is doubled. The force required to twist or twist off is efficiently halved.
The threads on the end of a pipe can, themselves, be insized very closely together (lots of grooves within a given dimension), or coarsly (fewer grooves in the same given dimension). The number of threads describes the pitch. Pitch modifies the amount of force needed to achieve a specific vertical displacement.
Gender. Naturally enough, gender is commonly described as “male” or “female”. Male gender components fit ”into” a receptor. Female gender components “fit around” a receptor.
Diameter. Diameter defines the size of a screwable object. Specifying the diameter can be frustrating. Pipe diameters are defined in two ways. One way reports the inside diameter of the space within the pipe walls. A second way is to report the outside diameter of the pipe. The first measurement is important to guarantee sufficient flow volume while the second may be critical for planning how to route pipes through tight spaces.

In the situation I faced in the Monastary gardens, I needed to replace a broken length of water pipe along the courses through the gardens. I obtained a new length of pipe matching the handedness, pitch, diameter, flow, and length of the original. I removed a broken stub of the original pipe from its fitting and screwed one end of my replacement pipe into it. After attaching the replacement pipe it might seem intuitive that I could reverse my gaze 180º along the replacement pipe and repeat the motion; intending to twist the other end, clockwise, into another existing fitting from which the remaining stub of the broken pipe would have to be removed.
Intuition would—in this case—fail me. The original pipe—had it been left unbroken—would have had right-handed threads all along as originally installed. In repairing the break, I couldn’t simply reverse the handedness during a repair (without a fitting called a “union”.)(6)
Furthermore, had I “tried” the reverse-handedness twisting motion would have meant that as I screwed the pipe at one end, it would simultaneously be unscrewed at the other end which would have gotten me nowhere.)
Looking back along the circuitous and very long extent of the water line in the Monastery gardens I could discern that the run was composed of dozens, if not hundreds, of fittings, turnings, and pipe lengths. Moreover, as originally installed, all the connections were made with right-turning threads all the way back to the water meter, and indeed, all the way from the meter back to the municipal water reservoir or other ultimate source of water.
This regressive consistency reminded me of an ageless Hindu myth (echoed in variant forms in China and the East, and repeated even in Native American Cheyenne Indian cosmology and creation myths).(7) The surprisingly widespread mythical explanation of the movement of the Earth asserts that the Earth is carried on the back of a (seemingly quite robust) tortoise. Four elephants, facing the cardinal points on the compass, stand astride the tortoise’s back. The elephants assume the initial burden of holding the Earth. The tortoise supporting the elephants holding the Earth on their backs, stands on another tortoise’s back, and that one stands on another tortoise’s back, which in its turn stands on yet another compliant tortoise’s back, and so on, etc. ad infinitum. As far as the myth asserts, it’s “turtles all the way down”.(8)

Three turtles of varying sizes stacked on top of each other with the largest at the bottom                                                                           Photo from Wikipedia

In plumbing, it’s right-handed threads all the way back (and all the way forward, too).

Plumbers, as well as Johannes factotums, are thoroughly aware of what I’ve explained above (perhaps too exhaustively for most readers). Still, it is curious—especially for those of us capitalists accustomed to an inexhaustible supply of options—that, even in antiquity, engineers had defined a solution for plumbing applications by arbitrarily choosing a single option to the exclusion of alternatives. The chosen option (right-handed connections and fittings) quickly spread and eventually was adopted, universally, for screws, bolts, threads, and all manner of fixtures based on the simple machine, the wedge.
Scientist and author David Deutsch describes this situation in his book The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World(9) by explaining two limitations to genetic inheritance. (1) nature adopts the simplest workable option that survives the test of “survival of the fittest.” (2) once a genetic function is found to be of use to an organism for sustaining life and propagating itself, that genetic function thereafter resists modification. In fact, most of the genetic modifications that are later introduced to a functioning characteristic are promptly rejected and the original simple solution continues to be isolated from further amendment.

God, the Creator (“Mother Nature” if you prefer) introduced similar limitations against superfluous options into all life on Earth. Evolution capitalizes on adopting particular traits that will contribute critically for survival and propagation. There is seldom a genetic choice offered to the survival of the fittest. (No organism is provided with cells that will produce two equally useful options for, let us say, optical chemical mechanics for sight. Nor are options provided as to where to position eyes on a body). Only a single workable instruction is passed down per organism, even though Nature provides a proliferation of choices among the world’s organisms. It would simply take too much energy to follow a multiple-choice decision tree, and the result might be chaotic incompatibility across a species.
Remarkably, in our lifetime, scientists have discovered a fundamental example of such restraint in the DNA in all organisms living on Earth. The DNA that encodes life on Earth has been verified to be universally and exclusively evolved with a right-handed DNA double helix. All life on Earth shares this same characteristic!(10)
It is theoretically possible that life could have adopted a left-handedness for DNA. But it didn’t.
It is far less likely that some form of latitude could have arisen, letting individual organisms choose to have their DNA encoded for either right or left. But that would have resulted in widespread incompatibility and was not selected for, either. So neither of the alternatives evolved, not left-handedness nor “optional handedness”. Once the right-handed double helix had evolved, nothing altered its development further. And all life on Earth has adopted a right-handed double helix for its DNA, just like plumbing has agreed on the standard of right-handedness.

From seemingly mundane bits of work in the Monastery (this time, in their Gardens), I’ve been blessed by thoughts that make me better appreciate so many of the things I take for granted. Some things, like the handedness of our DNA, we benefit from but have no power over. Other things, like the Sister’s choice to pursue a life more solitary and prayerful than the world typically provides—are under our control.
It is easier to reflect on my blessings than it is to grouse about my complaints when wrapped in the ambiance of such a grace-filled enclosure.



(1) Strictly speaking, the Monastery is better referred to as a “Carmel” since it is home to a Roman Catholic Order of Carmelite Discalced (sandaled or bare-footed) cloistered nuns.  The Carmelite Order finds its historical beginnings in hermetical communities that arose around Mount Carmel in the Crusader States in the Holy Land around the 12th century.
(3) manifold = a collection of closely-spaced mechanical valves, each controlling a defined series of, for example, sprinkler-heads or remote garden faucets.
(4) Although there are specialized examples where the rule-of-thumb does not apply, I, myself, have only confronted two non-conforming examples in my lifetime of Johannes factotum work. The screw holding my saw blade to its spindle on my circular saw is one. In that instance the rotating left-hand spin of the spindle might dangerously loosen any conforming right-handed screw holding the blade to the spindle. The force of the rotation would likely counteract the resistance of the screw. So a left-handled screw is used for this particular purpose to eliminate the conflict.
Another example is that of a turnbuckle. Turnbuckles are purposely constructed of both right-handed and left-handed turnings to enable modifying tension along a rod or flexible rigging.
(6) In audio electrical wiring, analogous to a pipe’s purpose, an adapter equivalent to a “union” is more descriptively called a “gender changer”. Changing gender is what a union accomplishes in the plumbing application I’m describing.)
(9) Deutsch, Peter, The Beginnings of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World, Penguin, London, 2012. ISBN 978-08-140-27816-3





Extraordinary Medical Care


Last week, Monica and I reported for an appointment made for us with a euphemistically-called group of medical practitioners described to us as belonging to the “symptoms management consultation” team. We were surprised to read that our appointment was scheduled for a full 90 minutes, which left us with the impression we might be attending a group class or discussion group. But when our appointment time came we were ushered into a standard patient examination room. When the doctor arrived, the staff position embroidered on his lab coat indicated that our doctor was a member of Kaiser’s Palliative Care team. The time had come for us to talk.


Monica and I arrived for our appointment armed with all sorts of questions. We had experienced a kind of breakthrough dealing with my “sporadic wonkiness” and I wanted confirmation of our hypothesis that incipient dehydration might be at the root of my lightheadedness and dizziness upon standing. Earlier, our oncologist had noticed a slight abberation in my liver function lab results. As a consequence she had proactively ordered a bag of saline solution to be added to my chemo infusion protocol. The Infusion Nurse, meanwhile, had been monitoring my dizziness which continued after I arrived at the Clinic for my chemo infusion. When she saw the order, she exclaimed, “Good. This extra fluid will make you feel like a new man!” And so it did.

Dehydration is a tricky matter to diagnose. If I feel thirsty, it could be a sign that dehydration is near. If I don’t feel thirsty, that could be a signal. If I stop sweating when I should be sweating, it could signal I was lacking in fluids. Obviously, if I experienced a good deal of diahrrea (which is a common side-effect of chemo treatment) the rapid loss of fluids through the gastro-intestinal system could hasten the onset of dehydration. The most reliable indicator of dehydration turns out to be dizziness and lightheadedness upon standing. But those same symptoms can equally be caused by other ailments, so it was easy for both patient and doctor not to immediately realize that my dehydration was the underlying cause cause of my current lightheadedness.

Monica found some statistics that indicate how critical is fluid availability and why fluid balance for the body is so obviously important. She found that up to 60% of the human adult body is water. “According to H.H. Mitchell, Journal of Biological Chemistry 158,” she quoted, “the brain and heart are composed of 73% water, and the lungs are about 83% water. The skin contains 64% water, muscles and kidneys are 79%, and even the bones are a watery 31%.”

The “symptoms management” doctor proceeded to enlighten us about fluid intake and electrolyte balances. He reviewed my experiences to help us corroborate what we suspected to be true about the probable role of dehydration for my most objectionable side effect experience.(1)

Monica and I were both impressed by the patient thoroughness with which our doctor responded to the rest of our numerous questions fully and completely, all the while evaluating, I suspect, our state of mind and my state of health.

After we had exhausted asking questions from our individual lists, our doctor introduced the topic for which our appointment had truly been made, unbeknownst or all unaware to Monica or me.

“You realize, of course,” he began, “that what all of us, here, are doing for you is only treating your symptoms. Ultimately,” he continued, “barring any accidents or unexpected lightning strikes—you will die of this cancer. It might be a good time for you to think about (and discuss with your family) how you wish to die. What kind of care would you choose to have given to you at the end?”

Our doctor asked this question so candidly, directly and respectfully that I was momentarily taken aback.

I wanted to answer glibly, thinking to include in my answer the catch-all pseudo-sophisticated phrase, “After all, we all have to die.” I caught myself, just in time, recognizing that in this context it would have been a cop-out to say so. It would have been a denial that we were discussing a disease from which, I, personally, will most likely die; possibly earlier than later. The doctor was compassionately opening up a chance to confront end-of-life issues.

I have never given much thought about death. As a Roman Catholic, and inspired by my entire educational experience, I’ve considered death as an inexorable part of life; something natural to expect. The formula of the balance of energy suggests that when my body decomposes it will return to the earth certain minerals, chemicals and energy which the earth can utilize for the sustenance of new life. My faith doesn’t forbid my believing that my body is subject to the laws of Nature.

Science and religion, regrettably, are often cast as opposite antagonists. But such an antagonism is not entirely borne out by the historical record which shows how many experiments and scientific discoveries were advanced by church-men and -women. Perhaps it is because at the point of death, with its naturally heavy emotional overload, science and religion have their most electric disagreement about whether there is life after death; whether there exists some spiritual “soul” identified as “me” that persists after my life on this earth is finished.

It is simply non-productive to pursue this regrettable dispute because it distracts us from a better path of inquiry and because neither side will ever be able to prove its hotly debated polarized position on this subject… not in this life, at any rate.

It would seem to me far better to consider how rich and varied are our ways of learning and knowing, and to endeavor to build upon and expand them. Just by carefully observing nature, I can discover animal species that hear better, see beyond human capability, feel (with whiskers, tails or body hairs), and recognize the nature of their surroundings differently than I do. It is increasingly apparent that botanical life has completely different but impressive means of communication and even collaboration.

I share my creation with these other species. It is not unlikely that humans could learn and improve ways of knowing, that are presently only latent in us. The most important realization is that while humans learn through the application of conscious rationality to solve problems we face, we also learn by deepening spiritual sensibilities and relationships, as well… and each provides us with different growth.

Nor is the latter simply a matter of employing our emotions and feelings to achieve a (perhaps, illusory) sense of spirituality. It is, instead, that we should be open to relationship with the world around us, as well as with the world and with its Creator beyond us. That openness can reveal to us another dimension of perception, sharpen our sense of interconnectedness and let us explore our complicated relationship with our Creator. These activities help us peel away the onion layers of fear, self-protection, envy, and all the other consequences of sinfulness with which humans tend to wrap themselves. Openness to our spiritual dimension, relationship with God, and our created nature, throws open the possibility of dialog, self-introspection, humility, altruism, empathy and all the other graces and virtues with which the Creator has imbued each and every one of us.

I have been especially graced by continuing to be involved in a decade-long project that is just coming to a close. It involves the digitization of, and the making of a facsimile printed edition of a three-volume Bible once owned and annotated by the hand of Johann Sebastian Bach, himself.

Bach produced what most agree is among the most sublime music to enhance scripture and enrich the liturgical seasons of the Church calendar. Observing in the pages of Bach’s Bible the detailed attentiveness to the selection of readings Bach annotated by hand, one gains a deeper respect for how carefully Bach sought to combine his intellectual rational mind and his musically-sensitive creativity in presenting the words recorded in his Bible in an unforgettable and moving way.

Bach’s music adds a dimension of knowledge about the words. Scripture gives greater concreteness to his music.

On the recommendation of the principal leader of the Calov Bible facsimile project, I recently signed up, online, to receive notices from an impressive effort spearheaded by the Netherlands Bach Society. The Society aspires to produce new recordings of each of Bach’s thousands of compositions, long or short, published or fragmentary. They attempt to release one composition each week. Each composition is impeccably recorded and videographed. The releases are typically accompanied by a short commentary on the composition, a live interview with a performer or conductor, and a libretto in both Bach’s original language and in English translation. One can read the words while listening to the performance of each piece.

This week’s new release brought a Christmas dual-chorus motet(2) that seemed perfectly timed for my reflections. The first quotation is from one of the few places in the Bible where we hear God using direct address to speak directly to us. God could be facing me in the Infusion Clinic.(3) Bach’s music underscores the dynamic between trepidation and comfort.

First, God says, directly to me, “Fear not”.

Immediately thereafter He embraces me, the listener, with a bear hug: “for I am thy God.”

And again, in case we’ve missed the point, He says, “be not dismayed” (because God knows that we are truly distressed when confronting illness or being unable to comprehend the answer to our “Why?”).

Following immediately is the prompt explanation for why we should be at peace. It is a mild chiding and an instruction: “for I am thy God… I will strengthen thee and help thee; I will uphold thee…”

It is the interplay of fear and confidence that Bach underscores with his joyous music.(4) The short motet is joyous because of the inspirational message of the text, just as the announcement to the shepherds at Bethlehem opens similarly with the words “Be not afraid…” but announces the birth of the Christ-child. The joy in the motet is in the personal relationship with God that the prophet writes about, and in the confidence that, however low we may feel, God will support us through it. The motet, is known as the “Christmas motet”. But it may have been composed as a funeral melody. It works just as well in both circumstances.

Note the concluding words chosen by Bach for this motet. They are a sigh of relief and a (re)commitment of love for our Creator. The last verses are overlaid with mystery (for it is true that one thing Bach is not, is superficial or simple). This time Bach explores the mystery of the loving entanglement of Creator with creature, as in the last lines of the motet: “Let me… let me attain to where thou me and I thee may lovingly embrace.”

Following are the complete words of the motet. Following the words, is a link to the online performance(5):

Fear not, for I am with thee,
be not dismayed, for I am thy God.
I will strengthen thee and help thee,
I will uphold thee with the right hand
of my righteousness.

Fear not,
for I have redeemed thee,
I have called thee by thy name;
thou art mine.

Lord, my shepherd, fount of all joys!
Thou art mine, I am thine,
no one can part us.
I am thine, for thou hast given
thy life and thy blood
for my sake in death.

Thou art mine, for I embrace thee,
and will not, O my light,
let thee from my heart!
Let me, let me attain
to where thou me and I thee
may lovingly embrace.

Monica and have not answered the Palliative Care doctor’s specific question (for which question I am entirely grateful). But I know that the components to answering his question will have more to do with relationships than with medical interventions. I will hope, of course, to receive sufficient medical assistance not to struggle unnecessarily with death. But I have great confidence that as I die I will be surrounded by those whom I love and those who love me—whether they be physically present nearby or whether they will be physically distant and only spiritually by my side. We will experience death together. That will comfort me immeasurably.

I hope to meet my Creator infused with gratitude for every day of my life, for each person I have met—especially those closest to me. I wish to be humbly thankful for everything I have experienced and learned through generous teachers and friends. I want to be aware of the Creator’s bounteous generosity to me. I will long for His comforting embrace.

Let me, let me attain
to where thou me and I thee
may lovingly embrace.




(1) Since our meeting, I have been on a self-imposed fluid intake regimen. (In truth, the regimen is enforced by Monica rather than being mainly self-imposed.) Monica has researched and provides me with liters of enriched coconut water, and has stationed water bottles at all the spots in the house where I typically read, rest or play with Gracie. This makes  it unlikely that I will forget drinking my allotted volume of liquids. In the meantime, my sporadic wonkiness has abated, as has slightly, a persistent and annoying dry cough. Subduing the cough may require some more work. So, All is Well. I am tolerating the mild (thus far) common side effects, and am happy for the cessation of one of my more troubling items of concern.

(2) BWV 228 Fürchte Dich Nicht, Ich Bin Bei Dir

(3) I realize that, theologically, “God” has no gender. It is awkward to use some grammatical circumlocution to replace the masculine pronoun, so I have just kept it, with apologies.

(4) The website includes a conversation with the conductor as well as the principal soprano, in which they both discuss the need to vocalize the differences when singing the words of fear as contrasted with the words of comfort.

(5) According to the “All of Bach” website, the source of the text is as follows: “Verses 1 and 2 are taken from Isaiah 41:10 and 43:1; verses 3 and 4 are taken from Paul Gerhardt’s chorale ‘Warum solt ich mich denn  grämen’ (1653)”.

Thanksgiving reflection – learning to be thankful for cancer


In my last blog post I was surprised to recall my Dad’s constant reminder, “Nie daj się!” (Never surrender yourself!) I sought to discover what he really meant. Today, on the distinctly American holiday of Thanksgiving, I wondered if I could approach the Thanksgiving table ready to express thanksgiving, even for my cancer! It has, perforce, captured my, and my family’s, worried attention. But maybe there are ways in which it can be a catalyst for some understandings I might otherwise never have sufficient motivation to explore.


Step into any Catholic Church anywhere in the world. Look around and you will soon find (usually arranged around the perimeter of the nave) a series of 14 illustrated or carved images representing the last hours of Jesus’ passion and crucifixion. These images are used year-round for private meditation, the goal of which is to deepen one’s awareness of the unutterable suffering and agony of Jesus’ passion and death, and—simultaneously—to raise consciousness of one’s own personal sinfulness and subsequent participation in Jesus’ passion. (Sin, in this context, might be defined as an unthinking separation from God and my community. In place of these essential relationships, sin adopts the illusory centrality of my self, what most pleases me, and what most closely conforms to the idea of “on my terms.”)

During the last days of Lent—during what is called “Holy Week”—the “Stations of the Cross”, as they are called, become part of the Church’s public liturgy.

Clearly, this is serious spiritual fare. Yet meditations of this kind lead to, and are components of the central run-up to the great feast of Easter, the most important feastday of the Church calendar. Even for those who disdain spiritual or religious belief, the effort to come to terms with suffering is certainly beneficial. It can result in a deeper understanding of the role of suffering in our person, in nature, and in the world. Suffering, after all, is something with which each of us has intimate experience.

Contemporary Western society finds little value in suffering. In fact, avoiding suffering has become a cultural priority. I might be out-of-bounds to assert that everyone can and should welcome suffering. But it is not impertinent to suggest that for those who may be ready to confront their suffering head-on in spiritual meditation, doing so could prove valuable. The Stations of the Cross can act as a good catalyst… so can be something like a chronic life-threatening disease. Seen in this manner, I could be grateful for anything—even my illness—if it helped me understand who I am and how I want to live.

There’s a virtue to which we are taught to aspire. It is empathy. True empathy is hard to attain. It is too easy to slip into pity or disinterested observation, as if simply observing someone in distress and recognizing their pain is empathy. It is not.

Throughout my experience of cancer, I have been forced to come to terms with my vulnerability, dependence and embarrassment. For me, these have been serious obstacles to reconciling myself to the presence of cancer in my body. (This entirely self-centered reaction is precisely a manifestation of the sinfulness to which I earlier alluded.)

If—with an opposite outward-directed perspective—I observe the attentiveness of Monica and my children to me, in my “fallen condition”, I begin to see why empathy is a virtuous goal.

Let me use a couple of uncomfortable but decidedly real examples.

I don’t know if there is any connection at all with chemo and my olfactory sense. Both in Round One, several halcyon years ago, or this Round Two, that I’ve just begun, my sense of smell seems to have been aroused and heightened. Mainly, what I smell, I don’t like. The predominant offensive smell is, alas, me. I’m embarrassed by it. It is strange that I—who, after all, am intimately acquainted with my own familiar (and, to me, comfortingly pleasant) odors—no longer recognize myself in my normal odors. No doubt this is caused by my body as it naturally metabolizes my chemotherapeutic agents and rids itself of the toxic chemicals pumped into me over a length of hours and even days. Even my excretions contain their chemical smell. My breath and exhalations are different and unpleasant to me. Even my sweat smells odd. I hope no one else notices, but I can’t help believing that they, too, are offended.

I am also experiencing what Monica and I have come to call “Sporadic Wonkiness”. The worst of it is, Sporadic Wonkiness assails me from an unknown etiology. I cannot tell what it is, much less what is causing it. In practical terms, out of the blue, I feel myself being out of breath… but not really, because I am breathing in deeply and exhaling normally. Yet I feel an overall physical weakness, as if my breath is providing its essential oxygenation exclusively to my lungs and no further. The experience is often accompanied by a slight dizziness, even a distortion of my sight. I feel as if I might faint.

So far, the wonkiness has always passed, and I’ve returned to “normal”. But it doesn’t help, psychologically at least, that—just weeks ago—a dear friend/priest/art historian/professor in our parish had just begun his own protocol of chemotherapy. A couple months ago, he was driven home from his Clinic. While walking towards his room, he reportedly turned to his friend who had driven him from his hospital appointment, and said, “Gosh. I can’t seem to catch my breath.” Immediately thereafter, he quietly collapsed and died on the spot. I can’t help wondering if—just as unexpectedly—I, too, might leave this life in the same sudden manner.

“Sporadic Wonkiness” is undeniably frightening. It also frightens those, especially Monica, who observe me when I’m under the thrall of “wonkiness”.

I am dutifully reporting these symptoms both to my oncologist and my cardiologist in the hope they can discern a treatable condition of some kind that can be understood and amoeliorated. My reports are not enough for my wife and daughter.

Throughout this journey, Monica has steadfastly and generously tolerated and cheerfully accommodated herself to my odd culinary preferences, weird schedule, strangely unfamiliar—even to her—smells, and my occasional odd mood swings. But she has also actively participated in applying all her skills and ministrations—physical, psychological and spiritual—to assist me. Importantly, as she has added my special care to her activities, Monica has not allowed my care to displace her own social and professional commitments. This—particularly the latter, I think—is comforting to me.

Similarly, Krysia is not satisfied with what she sometimes considers my over-subtle reports to my doctors. Krysia confidently barges right in—as the capable advocate she is—writing or calling my doctors to say things like “You know those symptoms my Dad discussed with you? Don’t be fooled by his demeanor. They are not merely ‘occasional nuisances’. From my perspective, they are dangerously detrimental. Here’s what I know that he may not have communicated strongly enough. What should we be watching for? What else can we do to help you aggressively care for him?”

Such active involvement signals, to me, the expression of empathy. Empathy is not merely sympathetic observation, but a “living together with” someone in trouble or in pain, contributing when possible whatever may be truly helpful. A critical component of empathy is to avoid crossing the line by which the empathizer “loses themselves” in solving another’s difficulty. Such self-destructiveness is another by-product of sinfulness, one by which we proudly believe exclusively in personal power and claim we can alone accomplish more than is ever possible. Such self-aggrandizement is destined for failure. Scripture records that Jesus, himself, was tempted to believe in his complete and sufficient independence from his Father.

Having someone simply share a burden of illness is more than enough. It provides dignity to both the giver and receiver of empathetic ministrations.

Achieving true empathy is definitely a difficult balance. Being surrounded by empathetic caregivers is something for which I can be truly thankful on this Thanksgiving holiday… and every day.

Can I, in my turn and condition, develop empathy, myself? Here’s a difficult case.

At the very moment of this writing, innocent individuals and families in the cities of Mosul and Aleppo are suffering grievous murderous hostilities over which they have no control. They are victims of their condition in some real way not dissimilar to mine in relation to my cancer. Can my cancer help me empathize with those individuals?

I think the answer is “Yes”. But it takes some reflection to tease out “How?” And it will take humility if I cannot discern any empathetic physical action I can contribute.

The news media gives us sensational sound bytes. The reports of what alone is happening (much less attempting to explain why they are happening) are clearly disconcerting but altogether momentary, squeezed in, as news stories are, between advertising commercials for the newest car and the most attractive Black Friday sale items. Not a bit of empathy, understanding or helpful interpretation is to be found on TV or radio in such reports.

Instead, I can focus my attention on a nameless but personalized individual in his situation in an Aleppo neighborhood. I recognize that the man is exhausted with worry and fear just like I am… Really?…

My worry and fear is shared with my medical caregivers, family and friends. He has lost most of his family to bombardment in the past week and has not even been able to accord them the dignity of a burial. He is surrounded by people, all of whom are traumatized, as is he. There are abundant causes of his distress.

I have the luxury of distracting myself from my fears by contemplating and articulating my observations for myself and for those others who may be interested. He has no place for contemplation. Half his house has been ripped apart. His precious personal and family belongings are scattered in the rubble of what used to be the street where he lived.

If my “Sporadic Wonkiness” ultimately disables me, I am confident someone will call for an ambulance to take me to the closest ER where competent attention will be administered. He can be certain that no such attention will be available to him. Even were he to painfully strain his back or suffer a broken limb, there is no hospital or urgent care center in his neighborhood, much less pain-relieving medications; nothing more potent than the few aspirin tablets he discovers, unaccountably, in his pocket.

Worse still, my, by now, friend, hovers helplessly over his wife, who is wracked in pain from a deep gash in her ankle. He looks toward his granddaughter, trembling in the doorway; a horror-stricken look in her blankly-staring eyes. No mirth. No playfulness. No innocent childhood is being imprinted in her dear memory. He, who has been their reliable protector and provider, realizes he is helpless to offer any assistance whatsoever to either of his most beloved.

The realities of this one man’s life bring tears to my eyes. I am crying not only for the pain of his situation, but for my selfishness in ever thinking my own worries and fears were so vainly important to me.

I cannot do anything to physically help my fellow human in need. Like Job, I cannot even comprehend any rationale or fathom any explanation to account for why he is being tormented so. But there exists a real, though ephemeral, link between the man in Aleppo and myself.

Scientists are discovering similar linkages all around us, in nature. In the midwest there exists a massive mycological network in which individual fungi operate so collaboratively that scientists prefer to call the hugely extensive assembly a single organism. There is evidence of a kind of altruism that can take place among individual trees in a forest where the healthiest trees contribute some of their energy, through their root systems, to weaker trees. Whales participate in their community through audible signals that, reportedly, travel across the widths and breadths of oceans in order to keep the community in touch with one another.

The Dominican Sisters at my grammar school knew what to teach their young charges on this subject. They suggested it was possible—since we were all members of one spiritual body—to consciously “offer up” our (puny) discomforts. It was lasting advice. I can offer my discomforts as expiation for my shortcoming, and pray that—however valuable it may be to offer up my sufferings for this man—I do so gladly and intentionally to alleviate his burden. I hope and trust that he will be sustained in his grief and will experience a glimmer of hopefulness from the energy I send his way. Even such an insignificant glimmer of hope may mean his survival. A glimmer may be equivalent to the minutest measurable bit of energy. But it can travel across the globe to reach my friend in Aleppo. That can serve both me and him.

For this man, I can do no more. But neither can I do anything less. He and I are related in the mystery of our creation. I am thankful, today, that it is possible to transform my discomforts into something so precious.

I am receiving an infusion, among others, of a drug called Irinotecan. Irinotecan is unabashedly described in the Fact Sheet given me at the hospital as an “irritant”. It begins its caustic irritation to the inside of my veins the moment it comes in contact with them. Medical staff handle this drug with extreme care. Even though I realize that medical descriptions carefully list and describe each and every potential side effect of a compound being tested for medical implementation (and even if only one person among hundreds of clinical trial patients experience a particular single negative reaction), the list makes daunting reading. It reminds me of some of the darker of Edgar Allen Poe’s literary oeuvre.

What caught my attention was the fact that Irinotecan is a compound comprised exclusively of botanical molecules. Here’s a single paragraph from several pages of description I was given.

Irinotecan belongs to a class of chemotherapy drugs called plant alkaloids. Plant alkaloids are made from plants. The vinca alkaloids are made from the periwinkle plant (catharantus rosea). The taxanes are made from the bark of the Pacific Yew Tree (taxus). The vinca alkaloids and taxanes are also known as antimicrobule agents. The podophyllotoxins are derived from the May apple plant. Camptothecan analogs are derived from the Asian “Happy Tree” (Camptotheca acuminata). Podophyllotoxins and camptothecan analogs are also known as topoisomerase inhibitors. The plant alkaloids are cell-cycle specific. This means they attack the cells during various phases of division [in the process of which, they also raise havoc with (i.e., kill) a lot of my otherwise innocent and mainly-beneficial fast-growing cells].

I’m grateful that someone at Kaiser believed patients should not be “talked down to” and believed that some might be sufficiently interested in reading this decidedly Latinate and professional scientific description.

Reading this paragraph brought to my mind the Brother Cadfael-like horticulturalists and investigators like Gregor Mendel, Carl Linnaeus, countless relied-upon but persecuted “witches” over the ages [especially them], apothecaries, and botanical scientists of various stripes and specialization whose names are unknown to me, but who have advanced the earlier “primitive” work of their forebears. It recalled for me adventurers like Charles Darwin, Joseph Banks, Alexander von Humboldt and so many other intrepid explorers whose precise and carefully-documented and carefully pressed and dried botanical samples populate our great horticultural herbaria across the globe. The early investigations and hypotheses have blossomed [sorry] into current enthusiasm for agricultural diversity, efforts to preserve heirloom plant varieties and the worldwide effort to establish seed banks. It will come as no surprise that, second only to books of prayer, the meticulously and beautifully illustrated horticultural albums are the most treasured of “rare books”. They are still consulted today.

I sometimes wonder if the Angel Gabriel didn’t show considerable mercy when banishing Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Yes, the angel knew the errant couple and their offspring would be condemned to toil and labor, but Gabriel made certain that all the cures, devices and sensitivities Adam and Eve’s progeny would need for survival and prosperity were to be found scattered around them in plain sight. Thenceforward humankind needed only to look, study and discover the answers to their needs. Doing so, of course, depends upon humankind’s (and my own) attitude of respect, careful preservation, and responsible attention to the natural habitat in which we live. Gabriel was highly respectful of human capabilities. That optimistic opinion forms a challenge to which we continue to aspire.

On this Thanksgiving day I can be—and am—grateful for the mysterious operation of plants in my life, both in their contribution to my nourishment and in their particular contribution to combatting my cancer-cells-gone-amok. Added to my appreciation for plants, specifically, I can add thanks for the individual contribution of dedicated and persistent individuals across time who have pursued their insights and experience. They intuited that plants possessed secrets that could eventually defeat debilitating diseases like mine. Finally, I am grateful for the pharmacists, nurses, and medical practitioners who dare risk exposure to these toxic compounds to corral them for my individual needs.

Can I be thankful for my cancer as I approach the Thanksgiving table today?  At this point in my journey with cancer, I can profess a hopeful “Yes”.  I can’t be certain that I will be able so to claim as time (and my cancer) progresses. I admit to worrying about how I will manage to deal with the ultimate debilitating effects of the disease. But I hope that contemplating it, now; learning about it (to the extent I am able); and discovering and training my own reactions to conform to an ideal about which I’m learning, will serve me to maintain balance into the future. I pray for the grace to incorporate into my interior life what I’m learning about suffering.

I realize I am graced in countless ways. I realize I am not a victim. I know that suffering has much to teach me. I am not alone and am immensely grateful for family, caregivers, friends and to all those who pray for me because they know and care for me.


All these make me feel unreservedly thankful. Happy Thanksgiving!



“Nie daj się!” – a linguistic digression


I’m oddly “out of synch” with my body this session of my chemo infusion. I’m experiencing a variety of physical effects but can’t relate them to specific causes. I feel my body reacting but I don’t know what, precisely, it is reacting to (aside from the “generic cause”: chemo). Rather than let this incongruity take me hostage, I’m choosing instead to occupy my mind in a mental linguistic exploration. Though I’m no linguist it seems to me likely that such a digression will be more interesting than submitting to an inchoate anxiety creeping over me.

Here’s the subject of my digression. It’s about a frequently-repeated injunction of my Father’s. I don’t wish to paint him as an exclusively forward-thinking child-psychologist, but I remember my Dad’s correcting/guiding me throughout childhood and adolescence by what were mainly positive statements (something that would meet with the approval, I daresay, of today’s expert psychologists). Following are a couple examples:

(1) I would complain, “I can’t figure out this homework!”

My Dad would look over and say, cheerfully, “Of course, we can!” Let’s look at the problem. ‘Locomotive A’ leaves the station at 12:07 and reaches a speed of 85mph. ‘Locomotive B’ leaves an opposite station at 03:12…..  …What do we know about these locomotives?  What do we know about their speed?  How long is the trip….?” Eventually “we” worked out the problem of where, along the track, both trains passed each other.

Deducing the correct mathematical answer had never been been my Dad’s primary objective. The underlying lesson my Dad wanted to convey was a deeper life lesson: i.e., that it most certainly was possible for me to “figure it out”; any problem; any time; simply by applying the God-given mental tools I already possessed… myself.

(2) I was often invited to tag along with my Dad when—in the evenings after supper—he went off to his second job, a machine shop he had established with a friend. (Looking back, I realize that my Dad was providing my Mom with a substantial gift: getting me out her hair so she could have an evening of quiet with my younger Sister). But that’s another matter.

At my Dad’s Machine Shop, I might be set to work on a drill press. I’d complain, “I can’t drill a hole in this steel plate!”

My Dad would reply, “Of course you can. It’s easy if you let the drill do the work of cutting into the plate. If you pull on the handle, trying to force it, you’ll…”  SNAP!…  “Hmmm”, he’d observe, “It sounds as if you may have been pulling on the handle too hard. The drill bit has snapped.  Let me show you how to replace a broken drill bit on a drill press…”

Life lessons are beneficial and important. I have remembered the lesson, of “Yes, I can!” all my life, even though I’ve long ago forgotten, for example, how to solve quadratic equations. (Today I now know where I can quickly find out how to solve them, should I ever find myself needing to do so.)

The one statement of encouragement my Dad used, that might be considered negative, at least grammatically, was a phrase he regularly repeated to me, in all kinds of circumstances. It was the admonition, “Nie daj się!

I understood it colloquially at the time. “Nie daj się” translates to “Don’t give up!” or “Don’t give in!” Today I know from experience that translations are never exact. “Don’t give up!” is not precise. Neither is “Don’t give in!”

While noticing this imprecision, I couldn’t help realizing that the operative verb, daj is a surprising word. It is reliably translated to give… as if “giving” was somehow related to “surrender” or “capitulation”. In addition, the English left implicit, what the Polish makes explicit: the subject of the action. In English, the subject is understood, as in “Don’t [you] give up.” In Polish it is explicit: “Don’t give up yourself.”

All this made me curious. What did my Dad mean to convey? What did it really mean?


To give up (or to use its synonym “to capitulate”) carries a notion of self-defeat. In the specific context of my cancer, to “give up” would mean I had lost my will to participate in overcoming what is a lethal danger to my life. It means that I acknowledge the overwhelming superiority of my adversary, cancer, and that I have admitted the futility of continuing to defend myself against my illness.

I forget precisely where we first heard the distinction made, but Monica and I have spoken of the transition of nomenclature in the case of my cancer. Once, in our lifetimes, my cancer was described as a “terminal illness.” Today, it is more frequently described as a “chronic disease.” To “give up” confronting a terminal illness can be viewed as “coming to terms with reality”. Whereas to choose no longer to fight against merely a chronic disease is surely to surrender oneself to a tragic and sorrowful defeatism.

To give in (or to use another synonym, “to surrender”) puts the emphasis on the aggressor. In the present context, my cancer would be viewed as having completely dominated our confrontation, and that I have concluded there is no use pursuing the battle. “Giving in” acknowledges my cancer’s inherent power over me. The phrase reveals that I have actually empowered my illness and—at the same time—have diminished myself.

These two interpretations of Nie daj się (“to give up” and “to give in”) may alone be sufficient justification for my Dad to have constantly advised me to avoid either. But, translated in this way, either of these interpretations reduces his admonition to a mere rallying battle cry. Neither of these translations tackle the mystery of the word  daj, “to give”. Neither interpretation addresses what the Polish makes the explicit subject of the admonition się, (which translates as “yourself”). Left implicit, in English, the subject of the admonition is left ambiguous “don’t [you] give up”. Made explicit, in Polish, the admonition is personal and much more significant in two ways.

Nie daj się makes no doubt that what my Dad was emphasizing was my fundamental integrity. (Not [you] implied; but “yourself” specifically.) My Dad had served with distinction in the Second World War. He knew there were times when it was strategic and life-saving to admit to the superiority of the enemy in a given battle. It was tactical to be realistic about one’s dwindling resources and futile to fight from a particular position, when retreating and losing a single position in order to bolster another, might improve the overall chances of “winning the war”.

Parrying, withdrawing, bolstering, joining the battle from another vantage. Those were permitted. What was never permitted was to surrender myself, my inner integrity.

Nie daj się was the one admonition of my Dad’s that I recall him repeating often. He wanted to underscore that I myself was the subject of his admonition because I myself as the subject explains the deeper implication of the verb, daj,“to give.

Giving requires an active subject. “Don’t [you] give up” or “Don’t [you] give in” neutralizes and ambiguates the subject. In turn, it objectifies the action. The admonition is understood as addressing an activity like surrendering, capitulating or losing. When the subject is made explicit, it is me, making the decision. The question is reframed as: “When can I surrender?” My Dad’s answer is “Never to the point when it involves placing my integrity in the balance. Never.” Nie daj się! Never surrender your integrity, your own self.

At this point, I must ask my non-Christian readers some forbearance.

The central tenet of Christian faith is Jesus’ gift of salvation. There are several intertwined implications theologians have been careful to explicate. First, the only way Jesus Christ could have given His life in expiation for mankind’s transgressions is if He was a free and unencumbered actor. Jesus must be identical to us, with no spec of the divine in his DNA any different than ours. Third, Jesus must have complete free will to choose to participate in his passion and death. (Today some scientists seek to question free will at all. Such deconstructionist approaches invariably lead to dead ends.)

For Jesus’ sacrifice to be a sufficiently and satisfactorily complete gift, Jesus must do precisely what my Dad’s admonition forbids. He must freely give over His entire and complete Self… but—in Jesus’ case—not to a perceived adversary, but to His life’s only goal: “Father, not my will, but Thy will be done.”

This understanding gives a deeper meaning to my Dad’s injunction. Because it answers the natural human retort to a negative. “Nie daj się? Never? Are there no exceptions at all?” And the answer is revealed to be: “Only when you follow the example Jesus has given us to follow. Only when we can say, with Him, ‘Father, not my will, but Thy will be done.'” If I can do that, my ordeal with cancer can be transformed from an enduring, to a giving. And that makes all the difference.




In a future reflection, I would like to propose answers to some heretical questions that have been rummaging in my head, of late. “Is it possible for me ever to perceive that my cancer is, itself, a gift? Can I ever be sincerely grateful for this gift? What might that mean to me and those around me?



Since April 2013, Monica and I knew to expect a recurrence of my cancer. It was a matter of time. We were happy to ignore the eventuality and live our lives in a normal unencumbered way. But the reality was in the back of our minds.

Last week’s recommendation from our oncologist did not come as a complete surprise. Yet, it was, nonetheless, disappointing and disturbing. Monica and I both realized that it would mean a resumption of regular and frequent visits to the hospital, the unpleasant but unavoidable side-effects of the chemotherapeutic drugs, and the diminished energy, reduced mental acuity and physical discomfort that undergoing chemo meant for me. Added to these are the resumed basket of contradictory emotions that we both experience: anxiety, empathy, hopefulness, fear, determination, etc.

Our predominant reaction of the doctor’s evaluation was that of gratitude…  sincere gratitude that there existed a reliable and proven “second round” of chemo to which we could avail ourselves. How fortunate that we live when protocols have been developed over time, adjusted by the experience of previous patients, and made available to me as a known and well-understood treatment. Instead of feeling helpless in the face of our development we have hope that the treatment will be successful in “beating-back” and stemming the unhindered growth of my cancer tumors.

Undeniably, gratitude was what was foremost in my mind as the doctor shared with us her evaluation and reasoning. I was surprised, therefore, in experiencing my first chemo treatment of “Session 2” that I found myself annoyed with petty inconveniences. Why is it that pettiness so often trumps rationality? Why was it so easy to become preoccupied by incidentals and apparently put aside the far more important benefits I would receive?


This is my schedule:

On a Sunday before my Infusion, I must report to the hospital for lab tests. We already have established a baseline of various components of my body’s chemistry, blood components and counts, cholesterol levels, triglycerides, magnesium and potassium balances, urinalysis, etc.  I only have, to be frank, an embarrassingly vague understanding of how all these components work together, what they indicate, and what my medical caregivers learn from reading the lab reports. But study them, they do. Having established a baseline, they can learn, each time I report for a new infusion, how I am responding to the chemo.

The Monday following the lab tests, I report, early in the morning, to the Infusion Center. I receive a dose of steroids and medications in pill form to counteract the side-effects of the chemo I’m about to receive. Next, the nurse accesses my surgically-implanted port* and connects sterile tubing to it, flushing all the tubes and connections in the process, to make sure there are no obstructions or problems. My port makes it unnecessary for a nurse to implant an intravenous [IV] needle at the top of my hand (a process I distinctly do NOT like). After the tubing is in place, it is carefully secured with a large transparent sterile covering, for it will have to stay sterile and in position for the next 48 hours or more.

Meanwhile, the hospital pharmacy will have delivered my chemotherapeutic drugs. These come double-bagged in the unthinkable event of an accidental puncture. My nurse dresses herself in what I’ll call a “half-hazmat” suit. It differs from a “full hazmat suit” in that there is  no plastic visor covering her face, and lighter weight material is used for the gown. Also, she does not have to wear sterile booties. Apart from those three details, she and her clothing are covered protectively, her hands are protected by sterile gloves and she wears a mask across her nose and mouth.

In a former posting from my first experience with chemotherapy, I expressed shock at the signs that hang in all the bathrooms of the Infusion Clinic. They read: CHEMOTHERAPY PATIENTS – FLUSH TWICE!  This time, it was all these handling precautions that reminded me of the dangerous toxicity of the drugs I was about to receive directly into my heart and thence, pumped throughout my body.

Once everything is ready, the oncology nurse hangs the first of several bags of chemicals on the IV pole and connects them to the tubes going to my implanted port. The “drip” infusion begins. The infusion, itself, is painless. I am being infused with some associated “assistive” chemicals and three chemotherapeutic drugs, one of which (Fluorouracil) I received in my first round of chemo, and two of which (Irinotecan and Avastin) are new to me. The infusion process takes roughly 4 hours, during which I sit in a comfortable chair and read or listen to music.

During this first round, I had a strong reaction to the steroids I received in pill form at the beginning of the morning. Within an hour, I began perspiring furiously, dampening my shorts and my shirt and became decidedly alarmed, given that I’d witnessed the precautions taken in handling the drugs that were coursing into me. My nurse reassured me that I was simply reacting to the steroids. It was “nothing to worry about”. I, however, worried that the moisture would wick up through my khaki trousers making me look as if I was incontinent. I didn’t like the sweaty overheated feeling. I was annoyed that I “was required” to take the steroid pills.

Just before noon, I’d absorbed various bags of the dangerous chemicals. The next step was to replace the connection to the IV pole with a portable pump filled with a supply of the chemo drugs that I would take home with me. The pump is an ingenious device about the size of a fat baby-bottle. It contains an expanded latex or rubber “balloon” filled with chemicals. The pressure of the expanded balloon is enough to continually squeeze the chemicals, within, through the tubes. I would have the pump attached to me for the rest of the afternoon, overnight to Tuesday, all day Tuesday, and overnight to Wednesday. Sometime Wednesday morning, the pump would be empty. I could then go to the hospital to have it removed under sterile conditions.

After that, I’ll have two weeks to recuperate. Then the cycle will repeat: twice monthly for a period of 6 months (i.e. lasting to March/April 2017). Predictably, the chemo will accumulate in my body and predictably, the side-effects will testify to the disruption being caused my tumors. Unfortunately, while the process of beating-back my tumors will be taking place, numerous entirely guiltless but rapidly-growing cells of my body, eg. hair follicles, mouth surfaces, nerve connections, etc. will also succumb to the effects of the chemo. This unintended “collateral damage” is the cause of neuropathy, hair loss, mouth sores, nausea and gastro-intestinal turmoil.

But—cumulative side effects aside—this regimen is certainly “convenient”, especially given the alternatives. I am under the supervision of qualified medical personnel each time I begin an infusion. Proper drugs are available to me. I sit in comfort while each infusion begins, long enough to make sure there are no unforeseen reactions or complications. Having a portable pump gives me a great deal of freedom of movement and flexibility. As I noted, the chemo I’m receiving has been tested, monitored and adjusted for maximum efficacy. And the “assistive” drugs are designed to diminish the worst of the side-effects. There’s everything in this scenario to appreciate and for which to be thankful. I even travel to the Infusion Center, conveniently, by public transportation. It is, perhaps, unwise to drive when under the influence of chemotherapy, especially when the side-effects begin to assert themselves.

I came home Monday afternoon from the Infusion Center, somewhat emotionally tired by the experience and lay down for a nap. It turned out to be impossible because of the effect of the steroids. I was alert all night and dozed off for a maximum of 2 hours, still strangely and unnaturally alert in the morning. Steroids are powerful. Meanwhile, the long night was disconcertingly uncomfortable. I worried that I’d get entangled in the tubes that led from the pump to my port. I worried that I’d turn over and break open the sterile bandage containing the needle that provided direct access to my port. I worried I’d forget about the bottle when I rolled over.  I worried that the pump wouldn’t work properly. I worried myself unnecessarily, but it continued the next day.

In the morning, I was annoyed I couldn’t shower. Then I worried I’d crimped the tubing by tightening the belt holding up my pants. I didn’t like the weight of the pump against the strap around my neck that secured it to my body. I didn’t like the way the pump felt against my chest, so I moved it. I didn’t like how it felt under my arm, so I tried another position.

MAINLY, however, I disliked the fact that I had let myself become preoccupied by petty insignificant inconveniences when I should have been celebrating the opposite: great convenience,  joy in hopefulness, access to caregivers and effective chemicals; that I was under the care of concerned professionals and received their careful ministrations. I am so very blessed.

I don’t intend to exaggerate my preoccupation with pettiness. It’s only that there is such a great disparity between the benefits I am receiving and the petty insignificant nuisances I need to experience, that I am surprised I’d give the nuisances any “standing” to stimulate complaint. Yet, it seems often to be the case that the immediate annoyances of life, however petty, have a surprising power to assert themselves more strongly than rational comprehension and judgement can do.

I suppose this is because the annoyances are closely linked to emotions. The things that annoyed me provoked the side of the brain that works independently of rational and logical thought. They demanded urgent attention, not because there was a rational immediacy to them, but because all the things that bothered me were legitimate dangers. If I tangled the tubes at night, I could possibly dislodge the sterile bandages. If I accidentally crimped the tube, it could interrupt the flow of the drugs. If I didn’t pay attention to where, in physical space, my pump bottle was hanging, I could easily jar or crash into it by accident. So both sides of my brain were clearly working in the face of a dangerous situation.

A friend—on finding out I was undergoing a second round of chemo—asked me, solicitously and hypothetically, what on earth I could have done to deserve my situation. I’ve never thought of it that way. Rather, I’m always conscious that I’ve done nothing, in particular, to DESERVE the wonderful life I’ve been given. Life is a scrabble. And my scrabble has been slight compared to some. No wise person—whether spiritual or secular—has ever suggested that life should be a “walk in the park.” In point of fact, it seems that overcoming challenges and obstacles of life is a way of strengthening one’s character, reinforcing one’s values, and supporting one’s humility and gratitude.

I aspire to maintain a balance throughout the coming 23 more infusion sessions in this “second round” admitting and accepting annoyances and discomforts, but placing them in the context of hopefulness, mercy, gratitude and enormous good fortune. If you would, send a good thought my way that I succeed!



Thoughts on Theatre

Dear Friends,


I love the theatre. My love for the theatre may initially have been kindled at the Dom Polski(1) to which my parents frequently dragged me along as a child. My mother played the piano. My Dad built impressive scenery for the amateur stage performances. (Nothing he ever built was as awe-inspiring as the ornate wheeled sleigh that was used at Christmas time. The sleigh was beautiful. It was big enough and sturdy enough to carry Swięty Mikołaj(2) and up to three hefty assistants, were they called for. My Dad’s sleigh would have humbled any of today’s sub-compact automobiles.)

Performing seasonal skits and especially musicals seemed to be particularly important for the Polish immigrants. It gave them a chance to vicariously recall their more carefree past and hopefully give expression to their aspirations for the future. At Easter, women old and young, dressed in make-believe costumed finery strutted on the stage singing “In My Easter Bonnet”, which is something they’d never have sung (or worn) in their war-torn homeland. I recall wondering why such a bright song never failed to bring a tear to their eyes.


Go ahead. Invite me to a Stage Play, Reading, Puppet Show, Mumenshanz, Kamichibai, Opera, Home Play, Magicians, Balinese Shadow Puppets, Musical, Kabuki, Cabaret, Circus, Operetta, Monologue… and I’m “in.” Judging from the length of this spontaneously-generated list, I must not be alone in responding to the allure of the theatre.

Theatre is often described as that place where one “suspends belief.” I prefer the positive description. Theatre is a place where one chooses to adopt the action of a different time and place and experiences it with the intensity of emotion, empathy and amazement as if one were really present there… wherever “there” might be.

I’m blessed with a vivid and active imagination. One of the things I dislike about books-turned-into-movies is that what is portrayed on the screen is the product of someone else’s imagination. The screen rendition rarely matches up with my own imagination, and seldom lives up to mine.

In an earlier age, its possible I might have been diagnosed as mildly autistic. I found it difficult to focus on one task, alone, because there were so many alternative and interesting things with which to be involved. Perhaps I found the theatre appealing because everything about it facilitates focusing only on what is happening on the stage. That made it a bit easier not to be distracted.

As an actor(3) what I enjoyed most was the ability to “try out” different persona and see how I liked them. I could experience how a character I portrayed might have felt and reacted to a situation, and compare that to how I might have felt and reacted to the same situation. In the comparison I learned about my character but I also learned about myself.

The Church has long recognized the important beneficial aspects of theatre. It has seamlessly incorporated many theatrical qualities in its liturgy. It is right that it has done so. For when mere mortals come into proximity with the mysteries of the Sacraments or approach the Altar where the salvific sacrifice is recreated, it is helpful to clothe oneself with the ancient, dignified and comforting cloak of vesture, color, procession, chant, and precious vessels. These embrace the worshiper in a humble protective mantle. At the same time, we are thus invited to enter into a different dimension, relationship and reality. Liturgical drama is a profound application of the best of theatre to the deepest of spiritual experience.

I’m thinking about the theatre because some people ask me how I can remain so blasé in the face of my life-threatening cancer. I don’t know how to answer such a question because I certainly don’t feel blasé about it, even though I’m happy to say that I am in a very calm period after the Christmas surgery that removed two errant tumors, that is called “watchful waiting”. What such questioners observe must surely have something to do with what I’ve learned from the theatre.

An actor typically plays a role. Good actors so invest themselves in the persona of the character whose role they undertake, they study and pick up their character’s mannerisms, stutters, glances and gestures. They remain “in character” even during breaks in rehearsals, and sometimes long into “real life.” They are not the person they are portraying, but they so much desire to be authentic in their portrayal, they almost become a simulacrum of the original person. This is obviously beneficial and is a determining factor, I daresay, in the awarding of many an Oscar.

I find something akin to taking on a persona, similarly beneficial on a personal level. I don’t always possess the disposition I would like to own. Sometimes I feel irritable. Sometimes I feel depressed. Sometimes I feel scared. Who doesn’t experience a range of such emotions, particularly when confronted with something strange and threatening like cancer? I would never counsel anyone to hide or deny the presence of such feelings. Indeed, it is well worth experiencing such feelings; and often worth reflecting upon them. But I don’t feel inclined, at all times, to share such feelings with others (nor to subject others to my feelings without permission).

In those cases, it is useful for me to “robe myself” with a more positive persona. I do not deceive others by taking on this mantle. The persona I adopt is authentically me, all the while. The odd thing is that in robing myself in such a way I find it often coaxes my disposition to change. From irritability comes calm. From depression emerges hopefulness. From fright, prayerful resignation from fear. This modification… assuming an aspect I would like to possess, seems to me to be associated in some way with prayerfulness… or is even one answer to a prayer. One aspect of prayer can be to help me become the person I want to be—even if, at the moment of praying, being that person eludes me. Taking on the mantle of the person I want to be… or taking on the attitudes and behaviors I wish to possess, in this semi-theatrical way, might, in fact, be an effective way for me to move more gingerly towards my goal. I believe I’ve seen others use this technique; it may be a universal benefit that can be applied by anyone.

Perhaps this was the unsuspected lesson I was absorbing from my childhood experiences at the Dom Polski. Perhaps, too, it is significant that I should particularly recall the dark recesses of the back of the stage where I could observe, unseen, the people in the skits, and the dancers on the dance floor. What I saw, were two contrasting demeanors: the often frightened, often depressed, often penniless, often worried adults in the room, who, despite their travails, displayed only brightness, good cheer and confident friendliness, especially when they sang their songs and performed in the skits I found so captivating. The huge majority of those “play actors” became the distinguished, admirable and loving people who mentored me and whom I admired as I entered my young adulthood and continue to admire to this day.

The lesson they taught me was far more important than I easily recognized.


(1) “Dom Polski” literally means “Polish home”. It is the name of a social club in San Francisco for immigrant Polish families to gather. It still stands on 22nd Street near Mission. These days, the immigrants meeting at the Dom Polski are likely from Latin America. But the importance of gathering together in linguistic harmony and to bask in welcome hospitality, is no less valuable today for the groups gathering there, than it was for the groups that preceded them.

I feel I spent so much time at the Dom Polski as a youngster that my spirit must still be flitting about, from the coatcheck room (where I often earned small pocket change, hanging up coats and scarves) to the library and meeting rooms upstairs, to the stage and dance floor and, of course, to the dark recesses of the back of the stage from where I could observe, unseen, all the people on the stage or on the dance floor, below.

(2) Swięty Mikołaj = St. Nicholas

(3) At Riordan High School I was active on the Speech and Debate Team, and played the role of Buckingham in Shakespeare’s Richard III. I also had a stage part in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. My never-to-be-forgotten stage opportunity came when, in my Senior Year, I won the lead for the King and I. So dedicated was I, that I agreed to completely shave my head for the part! During the intermissions, I needed to apply a lighter shade of pancake cosmetic to my bald head because I’d have developed a “5 o’clock shadow” during the first act. In my adult career, I have been privileged to conduct various classes at the university level, both here and abroad. Teaching, too, benefits from an occasional bit of dramatic or theatrical flair.

The Goodness of Creation and Cancer

“Perhaps you have noticed

that even in the very lightest breeze

you can hear the voice of the cottonwood tree;

this we understand is it’s prayer to the Great Spirit;

for not only men, but all things

and all beings pray to Him continually

in differing ways.”

Dear Friends,


It is doubtful that the philosopher/anthropologist, Pere Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit whose books I read in college, would ever have encountered the quotation, above, which is attributed to the Lakota Native-American, Black Elk [ca 1863-1950]. Teilhard [1881-1955] could have, since he and Black Elk were almost exact contemporaries.


I can just imagine what kind of conversation Black Elk and Teilhard de Chardin might have enjoyed had they met. Teilhard would certainly have endorsed Black Elk’s prayerful insight. Black Elk would have appreciated the lyric phrase the priest used when he posited that all creation “groaned” for the fulfillment of its highest potential.

For Teilhard, the “highest potential,” simply put, was that all creation, animate and inanimate, yearned to render to its Creator whatever was its most appropriate acknowledgement for its very existence.  Black Elk would have understood.

Teilhard also conceptualized a more obscure notion about human consciousness. He predicted a time in the future when there would emerge a “noösphere.” This was a point in time at which human consciousness—across the globe—would somehow become fully integrated and would “converge” as the consciousness of all earthly creation. Such an insight lifted the idea of the interrelatedness of all creation from a commonplace, to a higher level; one when all creation—through the consciousness of humanity—could more completely acknowledge itself as the loving, completely coherent community that was generated and intended by the Creator.

These ideas were heady matter (and inspiring reading) for an idealistic college student of the 60’s. The boldly optimistic image of creation seeking its highest aspiration remains with me, even today.

I remain attracted to the concept that all creation is naturally driven towards achieving its highest potential. I’m attracted to the thought that the human species aims towards the convergence (not dilution) of individuals in a loving community and that humans potentially bring to creation, itself, conscious awareness.

The first is already evidenced, in the biological realm, by the evolutionary push of natural selection (even as it was perceived and originally hinted at by Charles Darwin). Science, and the Church, is slowly discerning a richer understanding of the processes that allow biological species to evolve and adapt to different environmental conditions, perfecting their abilities in the process. We are beginning to see the truth of Black Elk’s understanding, that all of creation, in its distinctive unique way, acknowledges the intentions of its Creator.

The second is in a far different realm. It requires more of us than simply being a part of creation. Scientists do not yet undertand the mysteries of the human mind. They might well be skeptical that minds can communicate in a way that might activate a noösphere. Nevertheless, there are already suggestions of what Teilhard imagined, in the way people all over the world are, for example, using technology to converge more closely… or how peoples of diverse cultures are building communities that are already linked to each other through prayerful awareness. Both types of activity are required, and both examples are already building-up a global consciousness.

Open Source software has made it possible for the world’s software engineers to interact with each other when writing programming code. This is an impressive application of technology in support of human collaboration. It has enabled rapid advances in solving sophisticated mathematical and scientific problems. One result of such work is that there now exist enormous databases of algorithmic code snippets that can be used, freely, by anyone to build even more sophisticated computer programs.

Another example of the way human aspirations are already linked—even over great geographic distances—is the way social networking tools are influencing the geopolitical and social evolutions that are taking place in diverse corners of the world.

Prayerful communities exist on every continent. To the extent that they are genuinely seeking an understanding of our relationship with the Creator, our relationship to one another or our role in creation, they represent an important stage of convergence.

Admittedly, these are very crude examples that only dimly hint at the noösphere. But they help me imagine, in tangible ways, what is otherwise obscure to me in Teilhard’s use of the term “convergence.”

Whether or not I understand its details, what seems clear to me is that we humans live—as I believe the Creator intended us to live—in an existential reality of perpetual potential.

Fulfilling my potential properly, and to the extent possible for me, is my life’s challenge. Our collective success in doing so (or lack of it) is continually reflected in the evolutionary history of our species.

This is a buoyant understanding and joyous response to the goodness of creation. “God saw, and God saw that it was good.”

Which brings me to a conundrum.  What about my cancer?  What role does it play in this good creation?

My cancer is undeniably adept. Scientists believe that the genetic mutations that characterize cancer cells have co-evolved with human beings for millennia. Put another way, cancer cells, genetically speaking, seem to have co-existed in human beings—maybe even required us for their evolution—right alongside the countless “ordinary” cells that give my body its corporeal reality. My cancer is, in this sense, already fully a part of me at my birth.

What we don’t know about cancer would fill the world’s libraries. What we observe, is nothing less than astonishing.

Cancer has developed an ability to avoid the body’s impressive immune system. Cancer can overcome the body’s natural defenses so it can engage in its chosen activity pretty much unrestrained. Cancer adapts itself, specifically, to the environment of different individuals. Each person’s cancer seems largely to be customized to that person (making generalized remedies difficult to achieve). Cancer cells have been successful in overriding the natural cellular ageing process that governs the duration of functionality in “ordinary” cells. Cancer cells have an unrestrained capacity for replication and life.

In many objective ways, cancer can be admired for its manifold adaptations to its environments… except for the fact that what cancer cells have evolved to do—combined with their unbridled life goal—is counterproductive to the life of my own body. Is it just that these particular cells are “out of order”? Is my cancer which has such a long pedigree essentially bad or evil? Is the cancer in my body there for any other reason than to harm me?

None of these questions are easy to answer. What appears to be the case, however, is that these cells have “learned” several techniques about living in my body. Scientists could well learn a lot from understanding what and how they employ those techniques. Indeed, it is also likely that in such learning, not only will researchers be able to design a method to contain and restrict the harmful effects of cancerous activity; they might well learn important processes and methodologies that could be used to enhance the life of persons with other kinds of illnessess and maladies.

These three trains of thought are very satisfying to me in a time of uncertainty and discouragement:

• Creation is an intended initiative of a Creator. Creation is, by definition good. “…and God saw that it was good.” Creation’s natural response to being created is to acknowledge the Creator by naturally striving to be the highest fulfillment of the Creator’s intention. So far as we can tell, only we humans have a choice in this matter.

• The apparently unique gift of humanity is our intellectual capacity, our self-referential awareness as created beings and our ability to choose to direct ourselves towards fulfilling our own special potential. When we do this we do so in concert with all creation, but perhaps also on behalf of creation through our collective manifestation of consciousness.

• In aspiring to act humanly, we can build a community of awareness that can activate our collective potential. This requires a humble attitude of love and recognition of each other’s created brotherhood and sisterhood. It also requires a studied and felt concentrated consciousness of our particular and potential role in creation.

In trying to express this carefully, my words sound pedantic, somewhat abstract and theoretical. In fact, to recognize the goodness of all creation, and to recognize that I can choose to fulfill my role within creation to the best of my ability, represents something joyful and exuberant.

Perhaps one way to understand it is the converse of the way I have previously described our dog, Gracie. I previously wrote that Gracie provides for me unstinting loyalty and constant affection and that she takes me out for health-restoring walks. I get an inkling of what I am to do with respect to creation when I provide food, water and shelter for Gracie. I see my different role vis-a-vis Gracie, particularly when I take her out for a walk, all the while anticipating traffic, watching for potentially aggressive animals on the path and somehow orchestrating her experience to bring Gracie delight. I do this through my conscious attentiveness. I should employ this same attentiveness to all creation around me. But its never a one-way activity; such attentiveness seems always to consist in a reciprocal appreciation of life. Perhaps this mystery is best prefigured by the exuberant prayer of one who pre-dated both Black Elk and Teilhard de Chardin. He wrote a long song whose structure  reads as follows:

Praised be You with all Your creatures…

…especially Sir Brother Sun…

…through Sister Moon and the Stars…

…through Brothers Wind and Air…

…through Sister Water…

…through Brother Fire…

…through our Sister Mother Earth…

…producing varied fruits and colored flowers…




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