Surviving In This Very Moment…

My Personal Battle with Prostate Cancer … And Life!

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Trust is not Blind Faith: Thinking In Jewish III

Trust is not Blind Faith: Thinking In Jewish III

Trust is not Blind Faith: Thinking In Jewish III

I trust science. I trust evidence. I trust questioning everything. I think that evidence always trumps ideology; when allowed to drop the ideological posturing even the ideologue will follow the evidence. Evidence cannot be self-serving. One cannot rely on one’s ideology and the documents of faith attached thereto as reasonable evidence because it leads one into a circularity of thought that refuses to admit any other evidence. The difference between science and ideology, between science and blind faith, is that scientists are always ready to be convinced of an alternative to their current position given the weight of new evidence.

What was true during the rule of the Roman Empire (Middle Ages, The Renascence, The Enlightenment — take your pick) is not necessarily true today (there are some things that remain constant in human life such as ethics, love, peace and understanding). Advances in science and in social science, in philosophy, in analytical approaches to both the collection of evidence and the interpretation of the evidence collected is the stuff of human progress. To ignore advances, to jump up and down about divine punishment if you believe in say, Darwin’s theory of Evolution, is to ignore the weight of the evidence supporting the theory itself. In fact, it also shows a profound misunderstanding of the very idea of what a theory is.

A theory is an invitation to seek evidence both for and against the position offered by that theory. Like anything else in science, the position of scientists is that if even one piece of the theoretical position is shown to be false, the entire theory collapses. When, for the past 130 years or so, biologists have always found the idea of natural selection (Darwin never said “survival of the fittest” a term adopted by Spencer in Social Darwinism) to be the best answer to the question of species development as well as species diversion into separate species. The fossil record as well as experimental evidence has never shown Darwin’s notion of natural selection to be anything but correct. This does not mean, however, that sometime in the future an even better answer can be found and if it is, the scientific community will adapt to and embrace such a new approach. That is the profound difference between relying on ideological claptrap and scientific evidence.

All this is prompted by my own desire to learn the conceptual framework for thinking in Jewish. As part of that journey I sat in a class with Rabbi Mendel last night. The discussion was both lively and productive. Rabbi Mendel works within a belief system that admits to the Torah being revealed to Moses at Sinai and passed down generation to generation until today; absolutely true and unchanging, the Torah is unable to be questioned, to be analyzed except for creating stories that help explain the contradictions contained therein. More words of interpretation have been written to explain what is held to be the absolute truth than are contained in the Torah and the remaining books of the Tanach including the histories, prophets and other writings that make up the Jewish holy scriptures.

I find this interesting on several levels. It seems that thinking in Jewish is, at once, an analytical exercise as well as an exercise in trying to explain the unexplained; the contradictions, the laws that appear on the surface to make no sense and other anomalies found in the basic sacred texts themselves. The part I find most interesting is the former and not the latter. The analytical approach to reading these sacred texts filled with humanistic metaphor is, at least as I understand it today, both universal in its approach to broader constructions of human life and is quite narrow and particular in terms of the law and the interpretation of that law. My interest is in the universal, the humanistic, the ethical and how these ancient scholars grappled with many of the same ideas that occupied the Greeks and their offspring, the philosophers of the West.

I am interested in the deconstruction of single verses, of words and their pluralistic meanings and the insights that come from said deconstruction. The difference, as I understand it, between the deconstruction of Torah sages and the post-modern deconstructionists like Jacques Derrida, is that the Torah sages had a self-serving ax to grind, they were true believers where the post-modern deconstructionists are not bound by ideology, rather they are driven by deep reading and a certain desire to reveal nuances in the text being interpreted that have never been addressed before.

At the same time, Rabbi Mendel, while an ideologue, is quite adept at zeroing in on a point to be made. While some of his points are straw-men, he nevertheless has a knife sharp point of view that wants to narrow the conversation to the point that is on the table. His approach embraces difference of opinion while, at the same time, putting his point of view sharply out there for consideration. He is a good listener and a good debater. Hooray. While I seldom agree with his faith based point of view, I admire his ability to analyze and to place his view out there for consideration. I am learning a great deal from this young man on a mission.

I am, of course, recovering from prostate cancer, retired and curious. One thing I learned through my relationship with Alcoholics Anonymous is that I am never cured, only recovering. That is an important consideration in my road to recovery. While I have overcome the worst of the disease, it is only because of early detection, fundamentally the probabilities were at work here and I drew the winning card on the river (a poker analogy for those not in the know). Had the original spike in PSA been found a month or two later the likelihood of a completely different diagnosis would be quite high. Nevertheless, it is what it is and what it is provides me with the time and the ever increasing energy to pursue the idea of thinking in Jewish. I will remain diligent in dealing with my health concerns, having PSA checked four more times in 2013 and once a year thereafter and, with any reasonable amount of luck I will remain cancer free. I will, however, always have prostate cancer lurking in the back of my mind.

Belonging: Life Before Retirement and Cancer

Belonging: Life Before Retirement and Cancer

Belonging: Life Before Retirement and Cancer

I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. As a result I bounced from job to job, always being lured back, like Homer’s call of the Sirens, to a family business that I absolutely hated. That all changed the day I walked into my father’s office and quit for the last time. “What are you going to do,” he asked?

“Teach,” I replied and I left.

What I learned was teaching is not a job, or if it is it is unlike any other job I ever held, it is a mission, a calling. Severely underpaid compared to private sector work and overworked when one considers all of the time spent grading student work, planning daily lessons and the time spent in professional development, whether school provided or personally funded earning advanced degrees; teachers work long hours and are generally not paid for their efforts very well.

While I had some inkling that this was the case, my wife was a primary grade teacher and I could observe just how hard she worked at her job, I was unprepared for the pressure and rigor required to be a teacher when I first entered the classroom. Finding my way to comfort was a matter of learning how to belong.

Yes, teaching is something like a club, one in which the classroom teacher faces many audiences. First, one faces an audience of students, each one different and each group different as well. I was a middle school teacher with a home room and three other classes of language arts (the politically correct term for English). I saw around 120 students each and every day and found that I had to plan for each group differently because each class was a different audience. I arrived at school early every morning, generally an hour before the day began, not because it was expected (as a requirement of belonging) but because it was absolutely necessary to ground me for the day. While I left school when the last bell rang, I generally went to a local library where I spent hours grading papers before I headed off to graduate school where I earned my MEd and EdD degrees. Finally arriving home at ten, I was exhausted. And that was the preparation needed to address the most important audience, my students.

Then there were those other audiences in order of importance: school administrators, parents, political leaders, and the community leadership embedded in the social and business strata in the community in which I taught. Parallel to those interests was the Union, a body to which I was also a delegate representing the teachers in my school. The Union provided an umbrella of protection from the whims of the governing school community.

Once I earned my doctorate, I left the classroom and moved to higher education. I began teaching at the university level in Lubbock, Texas at Texas Tech University. That first job was as an assistant professor in the department of reading, the area in which I earned my doctorate. Not unlike the pressures of the k-12 classroom, the university added additional requirements, specifically the requirement to do research and publish those findings as well as to do service for the university community by serving on committees for the benefit of the governance of the university community.

Given that background, brief though it may be, the issue of belonging, of becoming an insider rather than an outsider, was one of learning the rules of conduct. What was and was not acceptable. Which rituals must be followed and which could safely be ignored. What constituted being a faithful representative for the teachers I represented and what set of circumstances might allow me to follow my conscience even when I was found to be in conflict with the faculty I represented in the house of delegates (this didn’t happen too often as we tended to be a rather radical group working for a tyrant of a principal).

As a new teacher, it was enough to just learn the patterns of the school year, a process that took me a couple of years. That, by the way, was partly relearned when I went from middle school to higher education, not so much the teaching role, rather the administrative interaction had to be relearned. As a veteran teacher the goal was no longer to accommodate to the rules but to often act in spite of them by doing the ethical rather than the demanded.

As my career advanced I learned how to be more independent as a scholar, to become more empathetic as a teacher and to be a friend to my colleagues. This required me to balance many roles at once. I served as a spark for my students to think clearly, to consider alternatives and to become better preservers of knowledge than they were before they encountered me as a teacher or professor. I don’t say this in an arrogant, self-serving way, rather I see evidence of this among a small group of middle school students that have ‘friended’ me on Facebook. I see the way they think, the way they consider problems and ideas and how they interact with the world in which they live. I’d like to think that I had something to do with that.

As a retired teacher and professor, I continue to read, to write, to think about those things I thought about before I retired. The primary difference, especially since my prostate cancer diagnosis, is that I can do it all on my own terms. I am beholding to no one; I answer to only myself without having to be on any committees, please any parents, pretend that I am doing the will of the principal (in higher education there is, or at least in my experience, was far more independence given the importance of academic freedom) and I don’t have to bow down to the will of the political or business community. It seems that cancer is liberating in a way I could not have expected.



Meditation (Photo credit: Moyan Brenn BE BACK on 10th OCT)

These days I find myself facing unexpected challenges. The apprehension accompanying a diagnosis of cancer is, to say the very least, something I am unaccustomed to. The biggest challenge I face with regard to the waiting for surgery is one of waiting, of sitting quietly and simply listening to the silence. I find that my mind wanders away from the clarity of focus, from the silence of the universe that I am more or less accustomed to.

In addition, there are challenges that accompany my almost daily dealing with my medical team and the sense that one hand doesn’t actually know what the other is doing. Contradictory directions, pharmacy rules and the overall apprehension that accompanies the run-up to surgery interferes with my otherwise calm, rational demeanor.

I’ve written this before but I think it stands repetition; I am no stranger to surgery! I have two titanium hips, a titanium back and now a titanium left knee. In each of these cases, however, I was in desperate pain prior to surgery creating a condition in which surgery was actually anticipated. I expected a “cure” from the pain that was a constant reminder that I had no cartilage in my hips and knee and a spinal column that was shrinking due to calcium deposits causing a severe stenosis. After the first hip surgery, I could anticipate a recovery that would leave me pain free.

Not so with this surgical procedure. I have absolutely no pain, no symptoms at all. I will enter the hospital feeling just fine and will wake up with some degree of discomfort, how much pain I have no way of anticipating. There are also two potential side effects of this procedure that I must admit scare me. While robotic surgery is less invasive than other potential procedures, it still comes with risks of erectile dysfunction and incontinence. But with a Gleason score of 4+4, a PSA of 23 and no metastasis I have little choice but to get holes poked in my belly and get the cancer removed.  But I’ll go into the hospital feeling fine and wake up in pain.

My solution to these and other challenges is to do what I know how to do. I meditate for longer periods of time, just sitting quietly and listening to the silence of the universe. I have taken to measuring my blood pressure before and after meditation and I record a ten point dip in pressures post meditation. I am not surprised. Sitting quietly helps clear my mind of the hamsters running through my head that want me to expect the worst possible outcome. After 45 minutes to an hour my mind is clear and I am better able to face the real challenges of the day. Just doing the next right thing, that which is right before me at this very moment, that which must be done right now. I am also better prepared to understand and, thereby, separate that which is urgent and that which is not.

At this very moment I am headed to the gym in my basement to strengthen my knee, ride the stationary bike and see if I can’t drop around 12 to 20 pounds.

The Hoops We Jump Through

I don’t much like complaining but…

The surgical schedule is on but the communication is found wanting. My urologist told me when we chose a date that he would like me to get clearance from my internist so I made an appointment. Then he sent me a thick packet of instructions, including one that had me going to the pre-op clinic at Northwestern Memorial Hospital so I made an appointment there. Also included in the package was a prescription that read “take as directed” with a long sheet attached giving detailed instructions about how to take the medicine the night prior to surgery so I took the prescription to my pharmacy.

Yesterday my urologist’s nurse called me to inquire about the prescription and what the pharmacy may or may not require in order to fill the prescription. The pharmacist said she could not fill a prescription reading “take as directed” even if I had the directions.  While on the phone with the nurse I asked if I needed both the pre-op physical and clearance from my internist. “No,” she replied, “one or the other is just fine.” Now I have to cancel the appointment I made with my internist. And so it goes.

I believe that this is something a comedy writer could make into a half hour episode of a sit-com and have us all rolling on the floor laughing at the mis-communication. So there you have my rant.

Having worked in a city or state bureaucracy for the much of my career, I am never surprised by the failure of the bureaucratic mind to fail to comprehend what happens at each level of the task ladder. One clerk is unaware of what any other clerk is doing or supposed to do and they never talk to one another. They simply go about their jobs without regard to what goes on up or down the line from their personal position. So as a consumer, the ultimate user of the services, I am objectified to the point that it really doesn’t matter if I am there at all. I am distanced from the chain of command as if behind a firewall, completely out of sight and certainly out of mind when it comes to the individual giving orders.

This segmentation is but one more example of the power of modernity to attach itself to the ends, to the results desired, without regard to the means used to achieve those objectives. As I think about this phenomenon of modernity, I am drawn back to the insertion of a robotic surgical procedure that, while the benefits may be efficacious, places an additional layer between surgeon and patient, further objectifying the patient asleep on the table.

In the final analysis, the prescription will get filled, the pre-op clearance is completed and my internist will not earn a fee to repeat the process already completed. Of course, I’ll show up on November 28th at the time and place appointed and will wake up about four hours later sans prostate. Just another ho-hum day.

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