Note to Rick L. in Chicago

I had a “follow” the other day from a reader/writer named Rick, a person who suffers from a sitting disability.  I read the well-written description of the problem and wanted to write an email, or leave a comment, but, outside of Social Media (aside from this blahg I am decidedly anti-social as far as Twitter, FaceBook and their intrusive intimacy-destroying, democracy-corrupting ilk go), there was no way to get back in touch with Rick L.  Sekhnet, a genius, suggested I write this post.  Hi, Rick.

Your sitting disability, unbearable pain when sitting for any length of time, will be familiar to my friend Rick in Poland,  who has made a religion of regular breaks from his desk to walk and stretch many times a day.   I read about your many attempts to cure the lumbago and sciatica — or even get an accurate medical diagnosis — and kept having only one thought:  Dr. John Sarno. 

Sarno recently died at a ripe old age, but he had a long (and controversial) career helping countless people who came to him in crippling pain (often related to the spine) who could not otherwise get relief or even a helpful medical diagnosis.   I have a post about Sarno here, which you can read as an intro.  I’ve heard (from your namesake Rick) that Sarno’s final book is an excellent source of his theory and practice.   

In a nutshell, Sarno found that much crippling pain of the kind described in Sitting Disability is the result of what he termed TMS, Tension Myoneural Syndrome.  The pain of TMS is the result of oxygen deprivation to the affected muscles and nerves.  TMS is a psychic defense mechanism, the body creates terrible physical pain to mask equally unbearable psychic pain.  Sarno found little correlation between crippling back pain and physical damage to the spine;  patients with TMS sometimes had relatively undamaged spines while patients with herniated discs and otherwise damaged spines sometimes experienced little or no pain.

I find Sarno’s work, which deals with the underlying psychological causes of TMS (which is very real pain), very convincing.  It is certainly worth checking out, especially since you’ve explored virtually every other cure imaginable.  The connection between mind and body is more and more understood today, even as the surgical and pharmaceutical industries continue to dismiss it as hokum.   

Sekhnet also recommends hatha yoga, the gentle daily stretching of all the muscles in the body.  She had relief from terrible chronic back and shoulder pain when she did yoga every morning.  Reminds me, I ought to get up now and stretch my back!

I’ve also heard that regular swimming is excellent therapy for sciatica.   A friend’s mother credited swimming a few times a week, in conjunction with working with John Sarno, for ending her long bout of sciatica.

Good luck with it, Rick, and let me know how it goes if you decide to check out Sarno’s ideas. 

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Conspiracy of Interests

Most conspiracies do not happen in the manner set out in the sensational, influential, wholly fictional Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  There is no sinister midnight meeting of eternally scheming characters in an ancient cemetery, where they set out their devilish plans in painstaking detail, assign roles, map out larger strategies for global domination.   Most conspiracies happen on a much more subtle level, based on common interests and shared goals. 

A powerful group with a particular interest will automatically advocate for that interest, without any need for an actual meeting of principals or any assigning of particular roles — they just pursue identical self-interests simultaneously.  Very little systematic coordination is needed.  We see this, for example, in the recent return to Gilded Age style tax policy orchestrated by a loose coalition of Republican legislators, an insane chief executive and a small, determined band of billionaire “Libertarians”, corporate “persons” and upwardly mobile multi-millionaires.  Many super-wealthy people, and wealthy corporate “persons” made it happen, but it’s hard to call their efforts a conspiracy in the classic sense.   

The same thing can happen even within a small group, among people of limited individual power.  I’m reminded of this by a personal experience, brought to mind by the recent odd blind cc of an email string from an emotionally challenged person I long considered a close friend.  A person I now would not hesitate to punch in the face with the full force of cathartic American violence, that face triggering a hard-earned exception to my deeply held belief in the rightness of Ahimsa. 

It was a few years ago, Sekhnet and I were going to take Sekhnet’s then 90 year-old Aunt Lillian to dinner at a great vegetarian Chinese restaurant on Main Street called New Bodai.  Shortly before we were to pick up Lillian this friend called to say that he would like to take his daughter to the same restaurant, along with a mutual friend of ours, an angry and bossy woman he had suddenly become close friends with.  We told them what time we would be at the restaurant; they countered that they’d like to eat a bit earlier, they were all hungry.  We told them how long it would take to pick up Lillian and get to the restaurant.   They agreed to meet us at that time.

When we arrived there were several empty plates on the table.   They cheerily told us not to worry, they’d ordered the same for us, it was already on its way.  We endured a joyless meal, eating dishes we had not ordered, and Lillian was largely ignored during the meal.  We split the tab with these two inconsiderate creatures I eventually came to understand I was no longer friends with.   

It strikes me now that they had not “conspired” in the classic sense of planning to serve an old lady a plate of warmed over shit by way of throwing down any kind of gauntlet.   They had not consciously decided to shit on Sekhnet’s feelings, or her aunt’s, or mine.  They were just feeling giddy to have discovered each other, two long-time friends of somebody they were both in the process of actively alienating anyway.   

The guy, I learned from his bizarre email string, is in the process of divorcing his longtime wife, Hitler.  His sex life with his new girlfriend, he reports, is frustrating and joyless, sad to say.   I haven’t heard from the woman since her mother-in-law’s funeral, which I idiotically attended, though it is certain she still publicly whips her hapless husband in the face with the same sickening gusto as always.

If you deeply share interests with somebody, more likely than a plainly laid out plan of attack, all you will need is a nod and a wink to put things in motion.  As much as many of the super-wealthy hate Trump, a crude, lying, ill-bred boor, when he abolishes the “Death Tax” and they can give every penny of their fortunes without any tax payment required of their chosen heirs, they will nod quietly, savoring their fleeting taste of immortality.

How You Do It

“What difference did it make to Azrael?” I asked him, when he told me how upset Azrael had been when an insect drowned in hot water while he was running a bath.   

“I asked him that after he came out of the bathroom,” he said.  “He’d been running hot water to rinse the tub when a bug he realized was alive a moment too late to save it died a horrible, plunging, drowning death in the pipes.    What he said to explain it to me was so simple it still strikes me.   He said ‘picture your own moment of death — would you like it instant and painless or prolonged and painful?’  I always think of that when I kill a bug, to this day.  That bug desperately swimming for his life away from the sucking drain could have instantly been put out of his mortal terror and unavoidable death by a merciful finger.  

“Azrael had been too slow to react when he saw the bug, at first he didn’t realize it was even alive.  Then he saw it struggling to swim in the hot water away from the drain.  Then he’d watched the bug get swept over Niagra Falls to die an agonizing death by drowning in the churning, unbearably hot water.  It impressed me how awful he felt about not sparing that bug such a miserable death.”  

“Instant and painless or prolonged and painful,” I said.  “I like that.  A no-brainer for a marketing/branding scheme exploiting that no-brainer:   ‘Quick/no pain or slow/maximum pain, your choice.’  It’s appealingly philosophical, too.”    

“Of course, life is not so black and white,” he said.  

“Exactly, which is why such idiotically phrased choices are so irresistible, anyone who’d choose the wrong choice is so obviously wrong.   I like the phrase, and I think we can monetize it, I think it’s a good choice phrase,” I said.  “Plenty of imagery and punch, the rubes will love it.”

“The phrase is fine, monetize away, I’m just sayin’,” he said.  

“You know, it’s not like Azrael was exactly into Ahimsa or any ascetic religious practice that would have made him so sensitive to a bug’s soul.  He ate meat, he’d curse, he was always rough breaking up a fight,” I said.   “He certainly didn’t shrink from hurting anybody.”

“He didn’t, but when you say Azrael ate meat, that’s funny, yeah, he ate meat.  He lived on meat, ate almost nothing besides meat.   He was a shoichet’s assistant, at a place down the street from the butcher’s, from shortly after his bar mitzvah, if I recall correctly, until he started working at the delicatessen,” my brother reminded me.  

“He was one tough son of a bitch,” I said.  

“Yiss,” he said.  

“And he always kept a dog.”  We both remembered Azrael’s dogs.

“Yiss,” my brother said.

Insights from a Jesuit

My sister alerted me to a recent Terry Gross interview with a Jesuit priest named Greg Boyle, Fresh Air from November 13, and said it was worth my time.  It was.  Then, as his new book “Barking To the Choir” is currently hitting the stands, Krista Tippett broadcast her chat with him.   I wrote to thank my sister, with cuttings from the transcript of Krista’s talk with Boyle, which I will provide here.

He covers some different ground with Krista Tippett, I’m reading the transcript, this just jumped out at me (and what a potent phrase that is below, which I emphasize for ye):

Ms. Tippett: One of the realizations you’ve said you made out of that is that peacemaking requires conflict. And while there’s lots of violence between gangs, there’s not conflict that you can define, like you can with a war.

Fr. Boyle: Yeah, it’s difficult, because I’m sort of the dissenting voice, I think, in the country at the moment, when it comes to this thing. And sometimes people will say to you, “Well, how can you be against peacemaking?” Well, obviously, I’m not against peacemaking. But I’m old-fashioned: I think peacemaking requires conflict, and it’s important to say that there is no conflict in gang violence. There’s violence, but there’s no conflict, so it’s not about anything.

So you want to understand what language is gang violence speaking? That’s important to me:

It’s about a lethal absence of hope.  It’s about kids who can’t imagine a future for themselves. It’s about kids who weren’t seeking anything when they joined a gang. It’s about the fact that they’re always fleeing something — always, without exception. So it shifts the way you see things.

Somebody, Bertrand Russell or somebody, said, “If you want to change the world, change the metaphor.” And that’s kind of how we want to, I think we need to proceed, in something like this. So if you think it’s the Middle East, you’re quite mistaken. If you think it’s Northern Ireland, wrong again. It’s about kids who’ve ceased to care. So you want to infuse young people with hope, when it seems that hope is foreign.

(as I wrote to my sister about this next clip)  WOW.  from the same interview with Krista Tippett:

So recently, I gave a talk, a training, an all-day training to 600 social workers, a training on gangs. I had two homies with me, and one of them was a guy named José. And he got up — he’s in his late 20s, and he now works in a substance abuse part of our team, a man in recovery and been a heroin addict and gang member and tattooed. And he gets up, and he says, very offhandedly, “You know, I guess you could say that my mom and me, we didn’t get along so good. I guess I was six when she looked at me, and she said, ‘Why don’t you just kill yourself? You’re such a burden to me.’”

Well, the whole audience did what you just did. They gasped. And then he said, “It’s sounds way worser in Spanish,” he said.

[laughter]

And everybody did what you just did. And then he said, “You know, I guess I was nine when my mom drove me down to the deepest part of Baja California, and she walked me up to an orphanage, and she said, ‘I found this kid.’” And then he said, “I was there 90 days, until my grandmother could get out of her where she had dumped me, and she came and rescued me.”

And then he tells the audience, “My mom beat me every single day. In fact, I had to wear three T-shirts to school every day.” And then he kind of loses the battle with his own tears a little bit, and he says, “I wore three T-shirts well into my adult years, because I was ashamed of my wounds. I didn’t want anybody to see them. But now my wounds are my friends. I welcome my wounds. I run my fingers over my wounds.”

And then he looks at this crowd, and he says, “How can I help the wounded if I don’t welcome my own wounds?” And awe came upon everyone, because we’re so inclined to kind of judge this kid who went to prison and is tattooed and is a gang member and homeless and a heroin addict, and the list goes on. But he was never seeking anything when he ended up in those places. He was always fleeing the story I just told you.

D.U. never had this, too bad he didn’t learn the last part:

Our motto, still, on our T-shirts is: “Nothing Stops a Bullet Like a Job,” but that does about 80 percent of what needs to be done. There’s still the other 20 percent, which is relational, and it’s about healing. And it’s about what psychologists would call “attachment repair,” because gang members come to us with this disorganized attachment. Mom was frightening, or frightened. And you can’t really soothe yourself if you’ve never been calmed down by that significant person in your life. And it’s never too late to kind of gain this, so they repair this attachment, and they learn some resilience.

Nice ending, she asks him to read the 14th century Rumi poem from his latest book.  Krista does a great job with these interviews:

Fr. Boyle: Yeah, I don’t know why I put it in my book.

[laughter]

And so now I’m living my nightmare of my interview with Krista Tippett.

[laughter]

Now proven myself shallow and uninteresting.

Anyway, it’s called “With That Moon Language.”

“Admit something: Everyone you see, you say to them, ‘Love me.’

Of course you do not do this out loud,
otherwise someone would call the cops.
Still, though, think about this,
this great pull in us to connect.

Why not become the one who lives with a full moon in each eye
that is always saying,
with that sweet moon language,
what every other eye in this world
is dying to hear?”

How It’s Done

Our cat is dying of kidney disease, it’s chronic and incurable.  The vet told us we could keep him around for a while by sticking a needle into the skin of his back every day, attached to a line and a bag of liquid, and pumping some hydration into him.  In his experience, he said, cats in The Baron’s condition usually live six months to two years.   The Baron has only one kidney, it was discovered recently, but he’s been doing pretty well on the cat dialysis. [1]  Once he starts losing weight, the vet told us, the end is approaching.   

He lost his appetite back in June, a month or so into his kidney treatments.  The vet prescribed a drug called Mirtazapine, developed as an anti-depressant for humans, that is a known appetite stimulant for dogs and cats.  The Baron will not be forced to take a pill, but a vet tech, after wrestling with the determined cat to give him a pill, told us this drug also comes in a transdermal form, you rub it into the skin.   The only place a cat has skin is the pinna, the furless area inside each ear.   Presumably the pads of the feet are also skin, but the cat or dog would lick it off and the drug would not have the desired effect. 

We ordered the transdermal Mirtazapine from a formulary in Arizona, and after a stressful week or two of hassles,  the cat listless and eating very little, spoke directly to the pharmacist, Ashley, who was great.  She contacted the cat’s vet and immediately formulated the proper dose for his age and weight.  It arrived shortly after, in a pen that dispenses a perfect dose of the goop.  I massaged a small gob into his pinna, and soon his old appetite was back.   He gets the drug every three days, and his appetite and weight have been consistent.  The hydration, the cat dialysis [1], has been working pretty well so far and his quality of life is pretty good.  If you didn’t know he had a punched one-way ticket on the death express you’d think he was fine.   

He still cuddles affectionately with his female slave, Sekhnet, once all the lights are out, and he still puckishly claws and bites the hand of his male slave, when it lingers too long after giving him some treats or for the intolerable crime of attempted petting.  I sometimes point out to him that he is literally biting the hand that feeds him, but he glares at me so there will be no mistake: there’s more bloodshed in my immediate future if I continue trying to talk irony with him.  I have the scrimshaw on my hands and forearms to prove I’m not making this up.  Sekhnet always gets a good laugh out of my squeal of shock every time I repeat this timeless ritual with the imperious [2], well-armed Baron and get slashed by a fishing hook claw or cobra fang tooth – an always amusing example of the unlearned lessons of history, I suppose. 

The Mirtazapine pen was marked “Days supply 180”.  60 doses, three days apart.  I keep a chart on the wall to keep track of how many doses we give him and we were up to dose 45.  But the pen was empty.  I emailed Ashley, succinctly stating the facts and what we needed, trying not to sound peevish, and she got right on it.  The drug was formulated and in the mail overnight.   

Naturally, there was no explanation or any hint of an apology.  This is standard operating procedure in our culture, so it was no surprise.  The important thing was that we had the drug the next day, overnighted for the regular shipping cost.  Skaynes got his dose, a day and a half late, but, sure enough, his appetite returned. 

Here’s the thing that tickled and irritated me, both.   The information on the label on the new pen was identical to the printing on the first.  Only one detail was gone.  “Days supply 180”.  No promise, no basis for complaint for broken promise.  Like the uncertain duration of life itself, there was now no promise made, once it was pointed out that the earlier promise had been as solid and unimpeachable as a tweet from our current commander-in-chief.

[1] Sekhnet who is “in the business of accuracy”, as she says, points out that this is not dialysis in any sense of the word.  The cat’s blood is not purified by the process, he is merely getting hydration that relieves some of the stress on his kidney.

[2]  I get a great kick out of dictionary definitions sometimes.  My favorite is the great definition of “squeamish” from the dictionary I had in high school.   “Exhibiting a prudish readiness to be nauseated.”   Fucking genius.   I can’t accurately quote a line of Shakespeare, even those I love the most, but, like many TV commercials heard as a kid that I can recite verbatim, I’ll never forget that great definition.

I looked up “imperious” just now, since I am also in the business of accuracy, and before a great series of synonyms describing the Baron’s attitude toward his staff, was this thought-provoking definition: 

assuming power or authority without justification; arrogant and domineering.

“his imperious demands”

synonyms:  peremptory, commanding, imperial, high-handed, overbearing, overweening, domineering, authoritarian, dictatorial, autocratic, authoritative, lordly, assertive, bossy, arrogant, haughty, presumptuous 

What I love is the “without justification”.   Isn’t human history a continuous bloody scroll of those who assume power and authority without justification?   

Kings ruled by Divine Right, God gave them their indisputable powers, no matter how they came to the throne, God himself justified their bossiness.  Likewise hereditary ruling pricks like Barons and Lords derived their power from long custom, backed by force of arms.  The power to kill you, or have you whipped, is a pretty convincing justification for assuming power and authority, I guess.  “The consent of the governed” is the current fiction in democracy, but as far as “justification” look no further than these universally despised, or at least supremely disappointing, folks we have out there exercising power and authority, torturing some folks in our name and deciding how many poor people will need to die early so the super-rich can be even richer.

A fascinating conversation

Krista Tippett interviews neuroscientist Dr. Rachel Yehuda about the effects of trauma (and, sometimes, resiliency) passed down genetically from one generation to the next.  The interview, including a transcript, is here.  Rachel Yehuda is a pioneer in the field of epigenetics, which Krista describes:

epigenetics is the idea that not only do experiences lodge physiologically, but that physiological changes can actually be passed on to the next generation — transmitted generationally, trans-generationally. One helpful way, to me, that you’ve talked about epigenetics is, you said, “Think about genetics as the computer and epigenetics as the software, the app, the program”

The conversation is interesting throughout, but the second half gets very deep.  Krista begins:

This whole notion of generationally transmitted trauma, it gives a kind of a chemical basis for talking about what happens to populations of refugees, or African Americans in this country who have this history of generational trauma, or aboriginal peoples in Australia, or — I was reading about some work in generational trauma that Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart did on the Pine Ridge Reservation, using the term of the “soul wounds,” the wounding of the Native American soul. This is science that is putting something to that phenomenon that seems to me to be quite new. It’s a more holistic way of describing what happens to human beings.

Dr. Yehuda: Yes, but it doesn’t all have to be negative. I think the purpose of epigenetic changes, I think, is simply to increase the repertoire of possible responses. I don’t think it’s meant to damage or not damage people; it just — it expands the range of biologic responses. And that can be a very positive thing, when that’s needed. Who would you rather be in a war zone with — somebody that’s had previous adversity, knows how to defend themselves, or somebody that has never had to fight for anything, but might be very advantaged in many other social and cultural ways?

Ms. Tippett: Right. So you’re saying that our — that there’s an intelligence in our bodies, behind this adaptation?

Dr. Yehuda: Oh, yes. There is a wisdom in our body, for sure.

Me:  And we have to be told this kind of basic human thing, in our culture, and hear it explicitly, to understand what we need as human beings, as sentient creatures– to feel, be listened to and heard:

Ms. Tippett:  … I’m so struck by the fact that this knowledge itself, just acknowledging the force of what has happened to us — that the force of trauma itself is a piece of knowledge that — I don’t know if you want to say it’s healing, but that it helps, that it’s kind of a — that it’s a building block to healing.

Dr. Yehuda: I think it’s a necessary prerequisite for healing. You have to do more than just recognize it, but you have to recognize it. We have a culture that goes to two extremes — they either completely dismiss something as “Nothing happened, don’t worry,” or they get very hysterical about what might have happened. And really, what we have to do is give ourselves a little time after an adverse event, to kind of take stock and not be so hard on ourselves, or not set expectations, and just listen to our bodies and give ourselves the space to be quiet and to heal and to see, to ascertain what has been damaged and try to counteract that by putting ourselves in the most un-stressful, healing environment that we possibly can have, to counteract some of that and promote a biological and molecular healing process that might forestall some of the epigenetic and molecular changes.

Ms. Tippett: I keep having this memory of an experience I had a couple months ago. I was in the city of Louisville, where they’re working on — from the mayor to the chief of police to the school system, they’re trying to figure out what it would be to be a “compassionate city.” And they’re actually using some science in this, they’re bringing some contemplative methods into schools — it’s very interesting and very holistic. And there was an — actually, a pastor, an African-American leader, who leads one of the — an important church there. And he said that one of the most important, transformative things that this mayor had done — that young people in his community had said this to him — was to sit with their grief.

Dr. Yehuda: Beautiful.

Ms. Tippett: To be — to dwell with the — and they may have used the word “trauma,” but just to let that be in the room.

Dr. Yehuda: Feel it. Feel it, instead of running to someone to give you a sleeping pill. Feel it. If you want to have that kind of a culture, it boils down to two words. It boils down to being able to ask someone, “You OK?” Just the idea that you are acknowledging the possibility that something bad has just happened to someone, and inquiring about them, is really, really at the heart of how military cultures really check up on each other. And in other healing cultures, you really hear a lot of people saying, “Hey, you OK?”

Their conversation ends beautifully, with one of the most profound statements I’ve heard in a long time.  I tip my hat to these two brilliant, empathetic women:

Dr. Yehuda: “How are you?” has become a pleasantry that is devoid of all meaning. But just really taking a second to inquire, in a real way, about how someone is doing — and even if they don’t tell you, and even if they lie to you, it will probably have a beneficial effect.

What I hear from trauma survivors, what I’m always struck with is how upsetting it is when other people don’t help, or don’t acknowledge, or respond very poorly to needs or distress. I’m very struck by that. And I’m very struck by how many Holocaust survivors got through because there was one person that became the focus of their survival, or they were the focus of that person’s survival. So how we behave towards one another, individually and in society, I think, can really make a very big difference in, honestly, the effects of environmental events on our molecular biology. [laughs]