Sunday, August 23, 2009

Barack's Toro Moreno/Hamlet Moment

Watching Obama struggle with implacable resistance to his health-care initiative has been as exasperating as watching a full-length performance of Hamlet: although it has been obvious since Act I that Hamlet needs to avenge his father, he is hopelessly conflicted will not act! Is Obama willing to fight for the public plan (which should be medicare for all who want it) or not? Will he abandon his hopeless need for a bi-partisan bill or not?

Obama has been extraordinary all of his life, a once-in-a-century combination of brilliance, charisma, beauty, and reasonableness. He has the politician's essential gift: he remembers everyone's name. There is no dark, Nixonian underside to him. He has an astonishingly charming, wonderful family. Everyone, even his opponents, likes him.Obama understands the world he sees and has always lived in: a world full of interesting people who like him and wish him well. He has never experienced anything else.

Which is why I'm also reminded of Toro Moreno, the dull-witted prizefighter in Humphrey Bogart's last movie, The Harder They Fall. Moreno has been led by Bogart to believe he's a natural fighter, but, unbeknownst to Moreno, all of his fights have been fixed. When the unfixable title fight is finally arranged, Bogart unexpectedly takes pity on Moreno and tells him to take a dive rather than be hurt. Moreno, outraged, refuses: he doesn't believe Bogart when told he can't fight. To prove it, Bogart sets Moreno up in the ring with a burned-out sparring partner twice his age. I don't want to hurt you, Moreno says to the old man who then unsparingly, massively, and efficiently reduces Moreno to pulp.

I don't think Obama has ever had to confront the idea that there are people whom he can't charm simply by being more likable, reasonable, or respectful. He may have been an organizer in Chicago, but Chicago had never seen his like before and probably never will again. Don't imagine that he was treated like your ordinary Joe! He made some early mistakes but I doubt that Obama ever so much as broke a fingernail in Chicago, his or anyone else's, for all his organizing.

He is opposed by those who find him over-the-top charming, persuasive, and brilliant—and they are beating the hell out of him. I fear that nothing in his experience has prepared him for the revelation that the raw, bare-knuckled political world is not the same as the accommodating one in which he used to live. Last week, for the first time he acknowledged, in a painful-to-watch, near-Shakespearean soliloquy, that there are those who would defeat health care just to hurt him politically—Obama's Toro Moreno moment. Obama's innate wonderfulness has, like Bogart, fixed all his fights for him. Until now. Obama simply can't accept the idea that the "loyal opposition" is out to do him in personally.

Which brings me back to Hamlet, who simply could not believe that Claudius murdered his father in order to marry his mother despite convincing evidence of that crime and others. Substitute Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa for Claudius and, to tie the movie and the play together, you have the old sparring partner teaching Obama a lesson that seems to be shaking Obama to his foundations: I like you but I'm going to thrash you. Don't take it personal, kid.Claudius, having had enough of Hamlet's suspicions, dispatched him by sea with the intention of having Rosenkranz and Guildenstern, well, dispatch Hamlet permanently. Instead, discovering the plot, Hamlet is transformed from the hopelessly conflicted boy to a resolute man of action. I'd like to think that had Obama taken the ferry to Martha's Vineyard this week, he might have experienced a similar transformation. Unfortunately, Obama arrived by helicopter.

Don't Take It Personal

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

My late, lamented, drive-thru wedding

Fifty dollars. That's all a wedding license costs in California. Not only that, for another fifty the County will perform the service on the grounds of its handsome old administration building on San Diego bay. Throw in another ten bucks for a commemorative digital picture and you have every sensitive man's dream: The $110 wedding. California, being California, you can almost do it as a drive-through.

Even the paperwork is ridiculously simple. For example, you're asked if you've been married within the last ninety days. You say no, that's enough proof. And if you want Uncle Mort to perform the service, even though he has no qualifications other than having money you hope to inherit, that's OK too for another $50. If you need a witness, the county will throw in a witness.

But, then, what if one of you is Mexican and has an uncountable number of cousins, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, grandmothers and grandfathers, who are all expecting a party/fiesta? Can you leave them out and just have bride, groom, and a witness? Would they be offended or wonder how many months she is "along"? What if one of the two of you, who shall go nameless, never really had a proper wedding and would like to be surrounded by her family?

So that's when I had my first really bad idea. Why not invite them all, the entire extended family, to the wedding? To do so would have absolutely no cost. Big wedding, $110. My Scotch/Jewish soul twitched with delight. So out went the word via Latina Express (aka, cellphone)—come to my wedding!

After that, my perfect, cheap-ass plan started to go terribly, terribly wrong. First, there was the requirement for a "new, gray suit." $425. The discussion went something like this:

You need to buy a new gray suit.
Why? I already have a gray suit in the closet somewhere. I don't need a new suit.
You need to buy a new gray suit.
Then, a professional photographer must be hired (I still haven't found one: the silly buggers want $1500 minimum to cover a wedding). Printed invitations for distant or important members of the family. Transportation.

But the hammer really dropped when it became clear to me that, after the word went out, there had to be a reception where I was expected to feed everyone. I could not invite all those people to the wedding without feeding them. Isn't done! Nor was there any way to feed just part of them: if they were invited to the wedding, they would be fed. Period. So I said, why not my favorite San Diego restaurant, Ristaurante Baci? The waiters wear tuxedos and speak Spanish/English/Italian. Let's do it right. I'm damned if I'm going to have a reception at a hotel or the Hometown Buffet (although, in my temptation, they are as cheap as manure on a warm summer's day)!

Damned. That's the operative word to describe me — damned. Every forty guests at Baci will end up costing around $1,800. How many are actually going to come? This is unclear, especially when you use the Latina Invitation Service to spread the word. That cat violently refuses to go back into its bag. I have the shredded forearms to prove it. Then, there's the mariachis that I would actually like to have, but I have no idea what they might cost. No one is asking me for them, they're my idea. Plus there will have to be flowers, and what about a stupid wedding cake? So my $110 wedding that seemed such a good, thrifty idea at the time is a distant memory while I tear my hair out selling mutual funds as the market dives. You'll hear me muttering to myself, "Yo preferiría vivir en pecado" or "¿Es demasiado tarde para fugarse?" (My poor Spanish translates, roughly, to "I would prefer to live in sin" and "Is it too late to elope?")

A Much Better Wedding Estimate

Monday, August 10, 2009

Intimations of Mortality

Philosophers, because they tell the truth, are often hated. A philosopher will, after hearing me whine about having an incurable, universally-fatal cancer, tell me that there is nothing substantially different about us: we all live under a sentence of death attached to a date uncertain and should all live accordingly.

The assertion infuriates me. While being theoretically and logically correct, it incorrectly suggests a practical equivalence that simply isn't there. None of us, except for the future suicide or the death-penalty prisoner, knows the hour and minute of his death to a fine degree of certainty. People do die unexpectedly by trauma or natural causes. There are no guarantees. As the ancient logic says:
All men are mortal
Socrates is a man
Therefore Socrates is mortal
Yet there is a plain fact to be considered: the likelihood of my dying sooner rather than later is statistically verifiable and greater by far than that of my annoying philosopher (unless he is likely to be murdered by his friends as was Socrates or is otherwise in The End Game himself). My higher probability of dying sooner is not simply pertinent: it begs the question of whether it is healthy for a healthy person to live as if his death could be at any time.

No one, no matter what they claim, lives as if his time were running out unless he knows it actually is running out. For one thing, that's when the Bucket List asserts itself. (See this post.) Although some may be able guess a few of the items, the items and their priorities on the bucket list don't become clear in advance. So short of a personal experience of A Christmas Carol, with visits from three spirits in a single night, no one is truly able to live their lives as if they could die at any moment. Turn, turn, turn.

History tells us that when some people truly think the world is ending, they give away their belongings to huddle together on a mountaintop to wait for the end. Neither I nor my philosopher is doing that!

Nor is there anything virtuous in living ones life as if today could be the last day. Look at the restrictions!
Begin and end the day in peace.
Buy only for today, own little.
Work for today if necessary, and finish your work.
Make no long-term plans, start no ventures.
No problems are upsettingly important.
Cherish nothing worldly.
And so on....
Or we can imagine being perfectly healthy except for feeling that we are going to die today, so we race around taking care of the last unfinished business, or get angry, cry a lot and throw things, or perhaps compose famous last words. Usually, however, the reality is that one is too sick to do much of anything on the last day but die.

Although in general I believe in fighting denial at every turn, being in denial of the possibility of imminent death is appropriate when the probability is low. In fact, for a normal person to to live so abnormally—as if today were his last when objectively it highly unlikely—is the very picture of a major psychiatric illness. Being at peace is always good, but so is advancing ones career or deciding to get married or raising a little righteous hell!

There is another point-of-view that I am reluctant to mention because it is really quite different. The Christian Divine might sound like the philosopher when he says, in one variation, we're are all the same because we are sinners and are doomed to eternal damnation unless we live in such a way as to satisfy the rules for gaining eternal life. Therefore, live life as if you could die at any time.

The difference lies in the requirement to follow the rules, whatever they may be, for avoiding the finality of death. The hitch is this: believers will also find themselves in the End Game, when they know death is truly coming but isn't coming right away. The end-game challenges I have been describing for months on this blog happen to believers in addition to whatever process is called for by their religious beliefs. End-game challenges are unique to every individual, and, when there's time, unavoidable.

The Penelope

PS: Has anyone told you we're in the same boat, death-wise, like my philosopher? If so, please tell me how you felt in comments.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

End of Life Issues, Ulysses (Tennyson), Part I

This poem, one of the most misunderstood in the English language, addresses end-of-life issues common to everyone, not just restless ancient heroes nor those of us fighting multiple myeloma. Ulysses is clearly in the End Game. I am presenting it "as is" except for marking some lines to linger over, but later may discuss the poem in detail for what it tells us about reactions to common end-game challenges.

Please let me know in comments what you think of the it.


by Lord Alfred Tennyson

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour'd of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!
As tho' to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,--
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro' soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me--
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads--you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Ulysses resists the Sirens

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Am I Coming or Going?

The Wedding Site

A huge part of me is completely absorbed with the wedding and its usual and customary ordeals. We have the license. There are rings. There is a date (Friday, September 4th) and a place (the wedding gazebo/chuppah on the grounds of the 1938 Spanish Revival/Beaux-Arts County Administration Center). Travel plans for old friends. A best man and an usherette. Tequila and mariachis!

Yet another huge part of me drags myself to Scripps Clinic every Monday for the all-important blood tests that will reveal whether or not I am responding to my last-ditch chemotherapy, bendamustine (Treanda). First, I descend into the clinic's deep basement to see the previous week's labs. Are the numbers up or down? Am I responding or have I run out of time? Thus far, every result has been inconclusive. Reply hazy — try again later.

Yesterday, I had the quarterly CT-Pet scan that insures against nasty surprises. During the procedure, half asleep, I was alternately planning my new life with Ivonne and as well as my funeral. Here's a sampling of what went through my mind:
  • Do I need to buy one cemetery plot or two? (Ivonne is so very young!)
  • Can I get mariachis to play for the wedding even though it is going to be held at noon on a Friday?
  • Am I eligible to join the clinical trial of Carfilzomib?
  • Should I wear a plain, gray suit or formal morning dress for the wedding?
  • I should probably have more than one executor of my estate.
  • Will it be difficult to reserve a cozy, romantic hotel for the Friday before Labor Day?
  • How much longer will this watchful waiting go on until my response to bendamustine is definitive?
After the CT-Pet scan, I picked up Ivonne's ring at the jewelers. There are nine stones inset in a band. I think it's handsome. She likes it.

On the good side, I think my schizophrenia is relatively mild. On the bad side, simultaneously laughing and crying is wearing me down.

The German Children
Hah hah hah!
The German children march along
Heads full of fairy tales and song.
They sing of angels in their lieder
They read of demons in their reader:
I think their little heads must swim.
The songs are jolly! The tales—are Grimm.