Friday, January 29, 2010

Why Me? Why Not Me? Part Two

Here is Alison's second installment in her cancer log. Note: Alison is still being treated. This is a work in progress.

WHY ME? WHY NOT ME?
Cystoscopy Art
by Alison

So I got the news that my urine had cancer cells in it, which meant my bladder has cancer cells in it too. Next up: getting a cystoscopy with the Urologist and then further workups, lab work, surgery, treatment plan, next-few-years-mapped-out to contain cancer (that last word is meant to be whispered. Are you old enough to remember when it was always whispered?).

In other words, I have entered Cancerland. Appointments, scans, biopsies, heebie-jeebies, worries, and all the rest that so many others have written about so cogently and beautifully. (For those interested, I can pull together a bibliography of a few of the best stories of illness. It is sometimes considered a new genre of autobiography —“the illness narrative.”)

I realized that I was going to have to tell a lot of people. In my family, the original rule was to not tell anybody anything bad about anyone else’s health, so no one would worry. Unduly. Yet the rule was so pervasive that even when people should have been told things, they were not. This is probably still going on to a degree. Old habits die hard. “I won’t tell anybody until there is something important to say.”

To break this generational rule, I started emailing people and calling them and saying “I have some news.” Some folks knew I was pursuing this symptom thing, and I only had to let them know that the lab had hit pay dirt. So to speak.

Others, it was all new and I had to approach loved ones and say, “I have a diagnosis of cancer and they are working out a treatment plan for me.” You know what, it was hard. I knew it would be more difficult for people to hear than for me to say. I had to get the first words out of my mouth and then—quickly!—get out the next words, about good treatments available and high cure rates and chemotherapy that is not so invasive and so on. (Much of which I obtained from the Internet.) People’s first reaction, when I delivered the news in person, was the face falling. That word, cancer , (whisper, please!) has such power. It can wipe out so many things, including an attentive curiosity and generalized hope. The person has a crumpled face, and she (usually a she) leans toward me and enfolds me in a hug and tells me s/he is sorry.

I like hugs, I like sympathy as much as the next person. But the lavished-on sorriness seemed a little … premature. People wanted to get out that they were SORRY, they wanted me to know they felt BAD about this. And, well, I didn’t feel so bad myself. And then, to make things worse, they marvelled at my good attitude, how positive I was being, and of course that was bound to be a big part of healing my illness!

But I was being no more positive than my doctor and my own knowledge about this disease inside me. If I’m going to get props for being brave and positive, I want to be brave and positive above and beyond, see? Not just not-freaked and not-in-despair, which truly is only appropriate for me at this stage.
I saw the tumor. I lay on a table, legs in stirrups, draped and sterile, and saw the inside of my own bladder on a screen above me. It turns out bladders are more white inside than pink. The healthy part is whitish and smooth, a little rubbery looking, with some veins and arteries showing. Then the scope moved over to the other side, and suddenly I saw a rather beautiful seascape. Water was being fed into the bladder to keep it open, so first I saw things like seaweed kind of swaying one way and the other in the water. They seemed to be anchored on some pink, mossy rocks. There were some grayish bubbles floating among some honeycomb-like flowers. And there were some bright pink spots, almost red, kind of blooming in the background. I stared in kind of a daze.

All that was cancer. All that was not supposed to be there.

When I asked the doctors about how I had no other cancers related to smoking, one of them said, “The bladder is not a forgiving organ.” The others agreed. I had gone fifteen years without smoking, but this small rubbery vessel remembered. It provided a seafloor to grow this kind of reef on. My doctor said it had probably been doing so for a year or two.

The sight of the tumor(s) jolted me, in a way. I know we are supposed to visualize cancer surgery and therapy as ways to rout the enemy, the bad cells. But it was…so beautiful. Imagining guns shooting and sharks devouring and poisons withering and bulldozers digging out seemed so violent, somehow. I didn’t like the idea. I am not good at visualizing anyway. I hear things in my mind, I don’t see them. So what I did? I talked to the things I saw in the scope. (No, not during the procedure. Afterwards.)

I explained to them that they are beautiful, but in the wrong place. They can’t go on living there. One, because surgery was planned to remove them, but even if not, they would eventually kill their host (me). They had to go. Where? They had to go out into the Great Unknown as we all do when we cease to exist. Their beauty and wildness and ruthlessness had to turn into a shower of glitter and spread out into the atoms and molecules of the universe from whence they came.

Please: I am not trying to say this is a good way to visualize, a better way, or the right way. I am only saying it was the way I have done it. I hate cancer. It has taken the lives of my best friend and my father and many old friends over the last 30 years; it has threatened the lives of two of my sisters and quite a number of other friends when I add them all up. I am just not sure that I hate MY cancer at this time; the one growing in my body that I need to address.


Next up: “See that? That is all CIS.”

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Getting a Refund on a Product that Doesn't Work

I'm doing research on bridges for a story I'm writing. I found a great website on bridges. Since owners of great websites sometimes take them down, I thought it would be a good idea if I downloaded the website to my external hard drive. I found several programs that can do such a feat. One of these programs was being sold by a company I've dealt with before. I decided to get that one.

Long story short. The software didn't work. I wrote the company tech support. They told me I wasn't connected to the internet and that's why it didn't work. How did they think I got their software in the first place? Immaculate surrogate conception?

There is plenty I'm not connected to, but the internet is not on that list.

I wrote them back -- of course I'm connected to the internet -- via cable no less.

They wrote back telling me to install my antivirus program. Like I'm really going to do that? I wrote them telling them that is not an option.

They told me to put the software on another computer. I don't own another computer.

They asked for screen-cuts of each of the set-up screens and the error message I got when the site failed to download. I sent them that.

They wrote back -- you must not be connected to the internet.

I was not going through this a second time. The first iteration took over a week, andI still want to download that bridges site. I asked for a refund.

They wrote back that they don't give refunds on this product.

I used whois to find the owners of the domain site, and wrote to them.

The owners also said they don't refund for this product and asked if I'd like another product instead. They did admit that nowhere on their website does it say that they don't refund for this product.

I wrote them again, asking for a refund.

I wrote the tech support person, explaining that I've bought from this company before, and if he wants our business relationship to continue, he will get me a refund.

A day later, the tech support man wrote back, saying my refund is on its way.

I don't have the refund yet, but I think they will send it.

This is the last time I'll use my debit card online. Credit cards will do battle for me if I wind up with a bad product.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

New Ouchercises

I’ve got new ouchercises to do – and that’s a good thing.

Young PT knows what he’s doing. He doesn’t lecture me about how he’s got patients in much worse shape, and tell me to be happy with what I’ve got. He’s not afraid to give me exercises that are hard and exercises that hurt.

I’ve told him – I didn’t get this strong and this flexible without a lot of pain. I understand pain. There’s a difference between scary pain and healing pain.

The Rotten Rehab Doc, who initially sent me to Young PT, inflicted scary pain, claiming he was examining me. He has never explained why he hit my shins repeatedly with the big yellow mallet, or why he did not stop when I asked. I sent him a letter telling him how frightened I was that he was going to break my legs, how terrifying the pain was. He didn’t write back.

I would have let it go – just a bad apple doctor to avoid. But when I was in the hospital after the accident, I learned that RRD was mentoring new doctors. If I have any say in the matter, he should be the last of his kind. Not mentoring new MDs.

I wrote RRD one more time, asking not only for an explanation but also asking him to sign my informed consent document. I figure informed consent goes both ways, and I have rules about proper conduct in providing medical care, like stopping an exam when I say so. He did not respond. I then wrote his department chair, telling him what happened, and asking that RRD be supervised. The chair’s office called me to let me know the chair would talk with RRD.

After that, I tried to make an appointment with Young PT. He did not return my calls.

I tried two other rehab centers. I did the exercises. The other PTs helped strengthen my leg and shoulder, but I am still in pain and still have limited range of motion. I wanted to see Young PT. If anybody can help me, he can.

So, I wrote the President of the Hospital, telling him that the rehab department was not returning my calls. He wrote back that he has a new policy – calls will be returned. Then I called the head of the Rehab PT department. She returned my call. She got me an appointment with Young PT.

I have new ouchercises! Yay! And Ouch! They hurt. They make my hip ache and my left leg shakes while I do them. And they have the possibility for healing. Who knew I'd need political skills to get physical therapy?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Obama Campaign Debit Card Swipes

I just looked at my checking account history online. I do this so my bank won't kill trees to send my statements through the mail. There are scans of my checks, front and back. And there were also some unexpected charges. Two times on December 16, 2009, the Obama campaign took $5 using the debit card that I gave them donations with during the campaign.

Here's what the entry looked like:

VISA DDA PUR
DNC BARACKOBAMA COM 202 8638000 *DC

On December 21, they gave the money back. The Obama campaign had my email address. They did not notify me of this unauthorized money-grab. And they did not notify me when they returned their ill-gotten gains.

I called the phone number in the listing. I was transferred to Molly's answering machine. I asked her machine to please remove my debit card from the system. I gave her my phone number to call me when she has done so.

I also called the main Obama campaign number. There a woman assured me that the Obama campaign doesn't keep records of people's credit and debit cards. I told her they must have them in the computer somewhere -- how else could they have made two unauthorized charges? She finally said that if they keep these records she has no access to them. She had heard there was a problem, but it's all fixed now.

No, it's not. So long as my debit card is recorded in that database, there is a possibility that it can happen again. This time it was $10. Who knows what it might be next time.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

When is a Stamp not a Stamp?

A while ago, I put a stamp on an envelope, wrote the address, and then didn't need to mail it. I ripped open the envelope to get my document out. I saved the corner with the stamp, thinking I could use the stamp on some other package.

Sure enough, I decided to mail some CDs in a box. I tried to peel the stamp from the torn envelope. No luck. So, I neatly snipped around the stamp. Then I made a loop of sticky tape and smashed the stamp, with envelope paper backing, onto the box. All the other stamps I used on the box were new.

I weighed the box. 13.9 ounces. That meant I couldn't drop it into a mail box, but would have to hand deliver it to a post office. I biked to a post office. I waited in line. The cashier told me that I couldn't mail the package with my pre-stuck stamp. She cut through my sticky tape, handed it back to me and made me buy a new stamp to put on the box.

I asked her how I was supposed to use the stamp, which I'd paid for. She had no idea.

I suspect the pre-stuck state was obvious because the box was brown. Next time, I'm going to stick it to a white envelope that weighs less than 13 ounces and drop it in a mail box. Maybe it will get scanned by a machine and nobody will care.

But I'm posting this as a warning -- the a stamp is not a stamp, not worth the money you paid for it, if you change your mind about where you want to stick it.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The First Time I Knew I Had Cancer

Alison and I were buddies in the 1950's. My family moved to California. Hers stayed in Iowa. It never occurred to either of us to write to each other, so for over 50 years we never heard from each other. A few months ago, Alison found me on the web, and we've been writing ever since. Here is her latest:

Why Me? Why Not Me?
The First Time I Knew I Had Cancer
By Alison

The first time I knew I had cancer was when a short nurse in teal scrubs whose name I did not know explained I would not be seeing the doctor for my scheduled appointment, because they had found atypical cells in my urine. It took a while for me to compute that. “Atypical cells.” …..Ohhh, aTYPical cells.

I had arrived for my second appointment with this doctor, whose specialty was “Uro-Gyn,” pretty nifty I thought: ladies’ urinary problems. At our first visit I had explained my symptoms. For the past few months sometimes I would suddenly need to go to the bathroom—so suddenly that “suddenly” doesn’t really cover the sensation—and when I would head for the loo, odds were about even that I wouldn’t make it. This was bad enough at home, but at work it was unacceptable. When I realized it wasn’t going away I started wearing pads. I also had to go more frequently, especially at night. Often there would not be much to show for it.

All this sounded like a bladder infection to my officemates, nurses all, and so the first thing I did was go to my regular doctor. He took a urine specimen and called a few days later to say I did not have an infection. He sent the full results to me via email and I noted that the specimen was positive for blood. The doctor said the sample was contaminated. I asked, well, if I don’t have an infection why do I have all this urgency and frequency? He offered to write me a script for an antibiotic. I don’t remember what I said, but I hung up knowing I would not fill that prescription. I wanted to know why I was having this trouble—never had it before in my life—if it wasn’t an infection.

What I didn’t tell my doctor was that I had smoked for 30 years. That is, the information is in my chart, but I am sure he never thought of it. I thought of it though. Thirty years of tars and nicotine and other byproducts wafting into my body through my lungs—sliding into my blood stream—intestines—kidneys—and out my bladder. Poor bladder, the final place for all that poison to come to rest, all that time. Bladders don’t like tars and nicotine. They get cancer when they are too stressed with toxicities.

So when I saw the Uro-Gyn, the specialist, I made a point of telling him about all the smoking. I stopped fifteen years ago, but I am over sixty. It was time for some chickens to come home to roost, I suspected. Or at least, I wondered.

He was a sweet, jovial man who said he would humor me by scheduling a cystoscopy – that is, take a look around inside my bladder with a light and a camera. That was exactly what I wanted. He did a brief exam and also asked me to produce a urine specimen, which I did. The cystoscopy was scheduled for one week thence. He also prescribed something for “overactive bladder” which, he was sure, was my only trouble.

After seeing him I actually didn’t have the symptoms for a few days—I have quite a placebo response—but then they came back. I filled the prescription he gave me, added it to my medication regimen, and sure enough it worked quite well. I had time to get to the bathroom in the daytime and I could sleep at night for hours at a time without having to go.

Something was still odd, though. There were unusual sensations. After, say, 58 years of having a certain peeing experience, it was now different. Hard to describe, in fact so hard I would not even try to describe these funny feelings. I just knew that even with the nice new medicine, something was not right.

So I was more than ready for the cystoscopy, but when I got there I was told by more than one person—receptionist, nurse—that it had been cancelled. “We tried to call you.” “We scheduled you for an appointment with someone else.”

Then the short nurse in teal took me into an examination room and told me it was because they had found atypical cells in my urine. The Uro-Gyn doc, it turned out, despite his certainty about the “overactive bladder,” had sent it to cytology for an entire additional layer of analysis.

When I processed what she had said enough to understand that I have cancer, my main feeling was one of excitement. “What do you know! I really have cancer!” Like—I was right! One doctor tries to blow me off by offering me antibiotics for a bladder infection even he knows is nonexistent; another “humors me” with the promise of a cystoscopy, and here I was right all along!

The vindication was more than that, though. I have long been a bit of a hypochondriac. Quite often, I would think I had something awful and serious and then see a doctor and it would turn out to be either nothing or nearly nothing. I would feel somewhat relieved, but in a perverse way, disappointed. Nothing Serious THIS time.

Except now, THIS time, there is definitely some drama. They found cancer cells right in my urine. Something Serious is Going On. NOTE: I would definitely not have felt this way if they had said: “You have stage 4 (fill in the organ) cancer with metastases.” When I say Serious I am thinking just of the import of the word, “cancer.” Still, I knew starting out that bladder cancer, as cancers go, is not such a ruthless killer. I knew people who had bladder cancer and lived long enough to die of something else. Caught early, it is very treatable.

So they told me that the next doctor to see is a Urologist, the appointment set for January 18, 2010. This was mid-November of 2009. “I am sorry,” I said, “but I cannot wait that long, through the holidays and all. I really need to deal with this much sooner.” “Oh,” said the nurse—such an emotional snag had perhaps not occurred to her. She indicated she knew this doctor and his staff, and that she could probably manage something. She certainly did, bless her heart, because I got an appointment for the very next week.

Next time: Cystoscopy Art

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Don't Use the Yellow Mallet to Test my Reflexes

Yesterday at physical therapy, my PT asked, “How are your reflexes?”

“How would I know?” I replied.

He held up the little red triangular hammer.

I said, “So long as you don’t use the big yellow mallet, we’re okay.”

He tapped. My legs kicked.

This PT knows I trust him. He doesn’t understand why I don’t trust the rehab doc who originally sent me to him. That rehab doc used the big yellow mallet and pounded my shins so hard I thought my bones would break. I told the doc it hurt. He said, “I’m examining you,” and kept on pounding. So far as I know, there are no reflexes along the length of the fibula. There are a lot of pain receptors.

The PT said, “I wish you trusted more people around here.”

I’ve been battling the medical profession since I was 9-years-old when a doc wanted to put a rod in my back and fuse my spine.

I have no use for doctors who tell me what to do, instead of giving me information and trusting me to decide.

Briefly, when I was in college, I thought I could co-opt the medical profession from the inside. I’d seen radical college groups co-opted by being given responsible positions on campus. I imagined that the opposite could work. If I could become a doctor, I could change the profession from the inside.

I took the pre-med curriculum. I got high scores on the MCAT. I got interviewed at medical schools. And that’s where I blew it. I told the interviewers that I want to change the medical profession.

To make matters worse, I volunteered at my local Planned Parenthood. I hope the one branch where I volunteered is not typical. At this office, I was told to dump out the plastic trash can liners in the examining rooms into the dumpster, and put the liners back into the trash cans in the rooms. These are the trash cans where the used examining gloves and paper products go. I refused.. I was fired as a volunteer.

When, at the interviews, I was asked if I got a recommendation letter from my volunteering, I didn’t have one. Instead, I had a diatribe.

Why don’t I trust the medical profession? Let me count the ways.

I distrust their needles, knives, and tests.
My soul distrusts their very interest
Imagining surgery and drugs at every turn
Their licensed power to prescribe comfort
leads down roads of side-effects and loss
I distrust them in my old griefs and new pains
I distrust them with fear that has mortality at its base
I distrust them with strength born through their mistakes
Yet I am mortal and I do seek help with age’s ills
These gatekeepers are not prison guards
And I no dangerous escapee.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Scientific Dinner Guests

During an email reminiscing about childhood with my writing partner, we decided to try to write a short screenplay based on our family dynamics. My writing partner was a well-loved and wanted child. I was supposed to be a boy. My writing partner’s family understood that she wanted privacy. Mine felt free to come into the bedroom I shared with my sister any time they pleased, and order me to clean it up, or punish me for some other imagined faults.. My writing partner’s parents were thrilled that she was smart. For my father, the only smart people were men who had Nobel Prizes.

To my father, Nobel Prizes were not just a fantasy. We had Nobel Prize winners at the dinner table. Watson and Crick, who got the Nobel Prize for figuring out the structure of DNA, ate at our table. Watson even flirted with my blue-eyed sister. (Neither of my parents are blue-eyed, so my sister must have been a double-recessive, and since one parent had green eyes and the other brown, I must be heterozygous. Polysyllabic words like these were common place at our dinner table. But when I used them at school, the other kids (some of whose parents had Nobel Prizes) thought I was showing off.

When my father considered taking a job at Caltech, we stayed in the home of James Holmes Sturdivant. This home had a real skeleton in one of the closets and a turret that we weren’t allowed to go in (said my mother.) When the Sturdivants came home from their trip they were amazed that none of us kids had gone into the turret. Mrs. Sturdivant had no such rule and took us up there right away.

This house was near the Caltech swimming pool. My mother had believed that you could get polio if you went swimming, but the vaccine had been invented, and we kids got the first shots available in the 1950's. I’d had a few swimming lessons in Iowa, but they were mainly safety lessons on how to float. Here I learned real swimming, and started a lifetime habit of hamstring stretching. To this day, I admire a well-formed swimming stroke far more than a Nobel Prize. To me Nobel Prizes are awarded randomly, and people spend far too much time wanting them. If you want an effective swimming stroke, all you need to do is take lessons and practice. Once you master a stroke, you can enjoy it for the rest of your life. A Nobel Prize is a headline and then a line in your resume. In my opinion, that’s not enough fun to be worth thinking about, let alone wishing for.

My mother hosted parties with kid-type games for the adults: scrambled words and scavenger hunts. And we kids listened in on the gossip about which professor was having an affair with which lab assistant, and which professors had open marriages. California has always been California. I wanted to go back to Iowa where people seemed happier with their lives.

My father wanted that Nobel Prize, and he thought he might be more likely to get it in California, but he never got one. He also tried having an affair with his lab technician. At that he was successful.

My favorite scientific dinner guest was Paul Doty, because his last name was pronounced dodie (which was the family euphemism for gluteus maximus) and he didn’t mind that I laughed at his name.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Gotta Get Back to My Former Diet

When I came home from the hospital after being hit by a car, I felt weak and lazy. I also had a full freezer.

Before the accident I served meat a few times a week. I froze the leftovers. Fresh veggie dishes almost always got consumed, and did not become frozen leftovers. For months, my husband, the alien, and I ate meat (chicken, fish, turkey, lamb) every day. When I did start cooking again, I began buying meats and cooking them daily. Now, after 6 months of this, I've started noticing a difference. I feel sluggish. My heart rate goes up faster when I start exercise. I just don't feel like me.

People kept asking me if I'd eaten anything unusual. I kept saying, "No. I'm not eating anything new." But then I started thinking about it. It's not just the daily meat. I was also snacking on bread (whole wheat bread) instead of nuts and fruit. I hadn't bought seaweed from the Asian market in months -- it used to be a regular treat.

I knew I hadn't felt right since the accident. Perhaps I've been doing it to myself.
As of today, I'm going back on my old diet. I took 6 months to get myself into this mess. I don't expect an instant recovery. It's just odd that I didn't notice what I'd done to my diet until I really thought about it.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Stalking the Devouring Beast

Peter Pan and Moby Dick are the same story. Let me show you what I mean.

Those who stalk the devouring beast have met him before. The beast has taken something from them, crippled them in some way. The initial encounter was an accident, a youthful mistake. But Ahab lost a leg to his whale, Moby Dick. Captain Hook lost a hand to his crocodile and replaced it with a hook. And Peter Schlemihl, broke and unemployed, freshly embarked from a journey at sea, sold his shadow to the devil for a magical purse with an endless supply of gold. Each of these men stalked his beast, seeking wholeness again.

Stalking the devouring beast is not so much an active pursuit, as a positioning of oneself in a likely spot and waiting for the beast to appear. The beast travels its own route in its own due time. And, as the plotter of any good horror tale knows, it shows up when the protagonist is busy doing something else.

Ahab and his crew were hunting whales to extract their oil for profit. Peter Pan was playing house with Wendy and the Lost Boys. And Peter Schlemihl was courting a bride, whose father did not approve of him because without his shadow, he was not a whole man.

There is an element of fate inherent in the pursuit:

From Moby Dick, during the second day of the final chase, Ahab declared to Starbuck, ``This whole act's immutably decreed...I am the Fates' lieutenant; I act under orders.''

From Peter Pan, as the crocodile is about to board Captain Hook's ship, author Barrie says, ``They had no thought of fighting it. It was Fate.''

And, in the temptation scene from Peter Schlemihl, the devil says, ``we are inseparable...man cannot escape his fate.''

Moby Dick is the tale of an innocent (named Ishmael), who meets up with an unconventional companion (named Queequeg), who never had a mother, and who comes from a land which isn't on any map (``true places never are.'') These two have an adventure and meet up with an insane ship captain whose leg has been eaten by a devouring beast. The ship captain loses his shadow in the course of pursuing the devouring beast, and is then fully consumed by the devouring beast. The innocent returns to society and grows up.

Peter Pan is the tale of an innocent (named Wendy), who meets up with an unconventional companion (named Peter Pan), who never had a mother, who has lost his shadow, and who comes from a land which isn't on any map. These two have an adventure and meet up with an insane ship captain whose hand has been eaten by a devouring beast. The ship captain is then fully consumed by the devouring beast. The innocent returns to society and grows up.

Peter Schlemihl is the tale of an innocent (named Peter Schlemihl), who freshly disembarked from a journey at sea, meets up with an unconventional companion (the devil), who never had a mother, who comes from a land which isn't on any map, and who buys Peter Schlemihl's shadow. Peter Schlemihl spends a year hoping to meet with the devil and buy back his shadow. When Peter Schlemihl finally encounters the devil again, he learns that the price of his shadow is full consumption (his soul). Because Peter Schlemihl is a good man, he refuses to part with his soul. Instead, he gives up his pursuit, grows up and returns to a normal life.

Since these three stories are drawn from the same archetype, the devouring beast itself can be seen as a symbol. A modern analogy to the bare-bones adventure is not difficult to find. For example, a soldier in Korea or Vietnam might step on a land mine and lose a foot. After peace is declared, and the soldier is sent home, he or she may nurture an unreasoning hatred for the North Koreans or North Vietnamese, and seek an excuse to return and wreak revenge. This is a refusal to face life with its limitations, and an externalization of the evil that is within.

Fiction is larger than life, and helps put life into perspective. In an effort to understand the larger implications of the devouring beast, as used in these fictions, it will be useful to examine the other symbols common to these tales.

The unconventional companion's teeth are important in Moby Dick and Peter Pan. Queequeg's teeth have been filed to points, symbolizing his cannibal upbringing. Peter Pan still has his baby teeth, or ``little pearls,'' as Mrs. Darling calls them. According to Cirlot's A Dictionary of Symbols, teeth ``constitute the battlements, the wall and the fortifications of the inner man, from the material or energetic point of view.'' Both Queequeg and Peter Pan have strong teeth, and can therefore be presumed to have strong inner defenses. The whale in Moby Dick, too, has excellent rows of teeth.

Cuddling up to the unconventional companion is important in all three tales. In Moby Dick, when Ishmael awakened from his first night of sharing a bed with Queequeg (which sharing was necessitated because there were no other beds at the inn), he found Queequeg's arm thrown over him in a ``most loving and affectionate manner...almost as if [he had been] his wife.'' In Peter Pan Barrie tells us that Wendy knew what to do for Peter when he couldn't get to sleep at night. And in Peter Schlemihl, Peter Schlemihl fainted and when he awoke, he found his ``hated companion supporting [him],'' like a ``silly old woman.''

The hollow tree is important in both Peter Pan and Moby Dick. Cirlot's A Dictionary of Symbols says that a tree, with its roots in the Earth, and its branches in the heavens, symbolizes growth and immortality. The hollow trees that provide entrance to Peter's hideaway are thus a symbol that growth has stopped. These boys will never grow up. In Moby Dick, Ishmael sees a hollow tree as a peaceful place where a hermit and crucifix might dwell. A crucifix is a symbol of death and resurrection.

The Tiger Lily is also common to both Peter Pan and Moby Dick. In Peter Pan, Tiger Lily is a brave Indian woman, who lives in Never-Never Land, where children go when they dream. And, in Moby Dick, a field of Tiger Lilies growing without a drop of water, are part of ``the dreamiest, shadiest, quietest, most enchanting bit of romantic landscape.''

What the British call ``good form'' figures in all three books. Ishmael assures the reader that, ``to do anything coolly is to do it genteelly.'' When Peter Pan sneaked aboard Captain Hook's ship, he shouted, ``I'm youth, I'm joy...I'm a little bird that has broken out of the egg.'' Barrie tells us, ``This of course was nonsense; but it was proof to the unhappy Hook that Peter did not know in the least who or what he was, which is the very pinnacle of good form.'' Yet Hook had one last triumph as Peter's dagger edged him to the bulwarks. ``As he stood on the bulwark looking over his shoulder at Peter gliding through the air, he invited him with a gesture to use his foot. It made Peter kick instead of stab. At last Hook had got the boon for which he craved. `Bad form,' he cried jeeringly, and went content to the crocodile.'' In Peter Schlemihl, when the devil asked if he might throw his cloak upon Peter's horse's back, Peter ``allowed him to do so without demur,'' thereby showing good form.

All three books feature a sea voyage. In Peter Schlemihl, the voyage ends before the tale begins. In Moby Dick, the voyage occupies the vast majority of the tale. And, in Peter Pan the voyage, which places Never-Never Land clearly on this planet (only a few months distant by boat from South America), occurs near the end of the tale. According to Cirlot, the ocean represents ``an immense illogic ... containing within itself the seeds of its antithesis...the source of all life...the begetter of monsters...the chaotic source which still brings forth base entities ill-fitted to life in its aerial and superior forms. Consequently, aquatic monsters represent a cosmic or psychological situation at a lower level than land-monsters...The ocean is to be found as the symbol of woman or the mother (in both her benevolent and her terrible aspects)...The ocean is equated to the collective unconscious.'' Thus a part of the archetype of stalking the devouring beast is a journey to the collective unconscious, in which dwell primal fears. The sea voyage can be taken to occur on two planes -- the physical and the psychological. Both planes expose the traveller to danger. The fears are the devouring beast of the inner voyage. The devouring beast of the physical plane can be seen as an externalization of those fears. Thus the protagonists can strive to kill the whale or avoid the devil and the crocodile, instead of facing their fears.

There is also sexual imagery in all three tales. The first time the reader is introduced to Peter Pan, he is merely called ``Peter'' and Barrie tells us twice on the same page that ``Peter is a cocky fellow.'' The first time Peter Pan is called ``Pan,'' he is sitting on Wendy's bed, playing his pipes. The first thing Wendy offers Peter Pan is a kiss. When he does not understand, she gives him a thimble, and he gives her an acorn to wear on a necklace, suspended over her heart. Upon arrival in Never-Never Land, only Wendy is tired. She falls into Never-Never Land because of an arrow shot to her heart by the Lost Boys. Only the acorn ``kiss'' saves her life. As soon as Wendy recovers, she and Peter pretend that they are the parents of the Lost Boys, and Wendy's younger brother is forced to play the role of ``baby.'' In 1911, when Barrie wrote this tale, they had the same vernacular sexual meaning for the word ``Peter'' that we have now. The original title of Peter Pan is ``Peter and Wendy.''

Moby Dick again has vernacular sexual meaning in the title. And, considering Melville's lavish description of a whale's penis and praise of a whale's erection, that sexual meaning is probably intended. Even Ishmael's rescue from a whirlpool in the ocean deep by the ship Rachel, who was ``looking for her children'' is a scene of rebirth.

In Peter Schlemihl, the sexual import is even more blatant. Peter Schlemihl goes courting and proposes marriage to the beautiful Mina. Her father refuses the match because Peter Schlemihl (the man without a shadow) is not a whole man. A schlemihl, like a child-man, cannot have a wife.

In both Moby Dick and Peter Pan, the insane captain does not appear immediately on the deck. The author uses suspense and rumor before letting the reader glimpse this embodiment of evil, who will be devoured by the beast he seeks. In contrast, in Peter Schlemihl, we are shown Peter Schlemihl in all his innocence and error. He is warned that the devil will seek him out in one year's time. He is a good man. Just as he does not hide, nor sell his soul to the devil, he is not consumed.

In both Moby Dick and Peter Schlemihl, the intended victim is warned of his fate. Ahab sees the mangled, torn body of his shadow, the Parsee, twice upon the whale's body, before he embarks upon his fatal encounter. In Peter Schlemihl, the devil shows Peter Schlemihl the soul of a former acquaintance whom he has acquired. The sight is enough to permanently dissuade Peter Schlemihl from further bargaining with the devil. In contrast, in Peter Pan, Barrie stops the clock that has been ticking in the crocodile, as it makes its final fatal approach. Hook goes to his death without warning, but with dignity.

Probably the most telling symbol shared by all three books is the shadow. Ishmael says, ``Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance.'' Peter Pan casually left his shadow lying in Wendy's bedroom after sitting on her bed and playing his pipes for her. When he returned, he tried unsuccessfully to stick it on with soap. He finally regained possession of it after Wendy sewed it on with needle and thread. Peter Schlemihl sold his shadow and found that he could not live a normal life without it.

Cirlot says that the shadow symbolizes the soul or a vital part of a person. Also the shadow can represent the primitive and instinctive side of the individual. In Moby Dick, Ahab's ``evil shadow'' was the Parsee, who was lost two days before Ahab's own death. Ahab saw his shadow twice more before he too succumbed to the whale. So, in two of the three books, the devouring beast took the shadow before it sought to take the soul.

As in any good horror story, the devouring beast gives warning before it takes the lives of the main characters. And in every case, the main characters have the option of abandoning their stalking to return to normal lives. In Moby Dick, on the third and fatal day of the hunt, Starbuck tells Ahab, ``not too late is it, even now, the third day, to desist. See! Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!'' In Peter Schlemihl, the devil repeatedly offers, ``I shall go if you bid me.'' And in Peter Pan Hook toys with the idea of having Wendy as a mother for himself and his crew, and becoming a family. Only Peter Schlemihl heeds the warning, and his is the least interesting of the tales.

Finally, there is the devouring beast, himself. The whale, as drawn by Melville, is a fearsome creature of the deep. Moby Dick can kill with a flick of his tale or a bite from his jaw. Besting him in battle is worth far more than the dollars his oil will bring. It would be a victory of humankind over the wilds of nature. Such a victory would temporarily affirm the unconquerable nature of mankind. The failure is a warning, and an affirmation that there are forces (destructive, possibly evil forces) which are stronger than mankind.

Barrie's crocodile, like Moby Dick, is both vicious and cunning. The crocodile is a terror not only in the deep, but also on land. But nobody in Never-Never Land ever attempts to kill him. They hear his clock ticking, and get out of his way. The crocodile's only target is Captain Hook, and everybody on the island knows it. As the ticking indicated, it was only a matter of time, until the crocodile ate his prey. Hook was a flawed man and a doomed man. He was also the only grown-up on the island. Still, the victory of the crocodile was almost a deus ex machina to permanently rid the island of Hook.

Chamisso, author of Peter Schlemihl used the strongest archetype -- the devil. The devil is the ultimate devourer. He not only ruins the current lifetime with his mischief -- he takes the soul destroys the afterlife as well. The devil (as shown in the tale of Job) is an agent of God, who can only do God's will. And, the devil is undeniably the ultimate evil, totally out of control of humans who do business with him.

The devil archetype includes both the roles of whale and crocodile, and is yet more. Thus to stalk the devouring beast is to tempt the devil. The devil in turn tempts mankind. The devouring beast can turn and stalk the pursuer. This, stalking and being stalked by the devil, ultimately, is the archetypal drama that unites these three tales. The devil is the ultimate devouring beast.

In Peter Schlemihl the devil serves yet another purpose. He, like Peter Pan and Queequeg is the unconventional companion. All three have unusual names, unusual lifestyles, and unusual backgrounds. The devil lives in Hell and spends his life trying to deceive people. Peter Pan ran away the day he was born. On Never-Never Island, he spends his life among mermaids, Indians, and pirates. Queequeg was raised as a cannibal, and smokes a lighted tomahawk pipe in bed.

Overstad, in Bibliotherapy: Books to Help Young Children describes four types of imaginary playmates. Her fourth type closely resembles all three of these characters. Overstad says this type of imaginary playmate has an ``unusual name, exotic background, [and] strange tastes, preferences or lifestyle.'' Overstad says this type of imaginary playmate serves ``as a creative addition to the child's life.'' To a child, these imaginary playmates are very real. The child sees them, talks with them, and has adventures with them. Overstad says these imaginary playmates fill an unconscious need of the child.

The adventure of stalking the devouring beast can also be seen as a creative approach to unconscious needs. The same has been said of the act of writing fiction.

All three books are imaginary tales, peopled with imaginary beings. These beings have fears, conscious and unconscious. In this context, the devouring beast itself can be viewed as an externalization of those fears. Stalking the devouring beast, then, can be said to be a creative approach to dealing with those fears.





Stalking the Devouring Beast Bibliography



Barrie, J.M., Peter Pan. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1985.

Cirlot, J.E., A Dictionary of Symbols, second edition translated from the Spanish by Diccionario De Simbolos Tradicionales. New York: Vail-Ballou Press, Inc., 1971.

Melville, Herman, Moby Dick. New York: Bantam Books, 1984.

Overstad, Beth, Bibliotherapy: Books to Help Young Children. St. Paul, MN: Toys 'n Things Press, 1981.

von Chamisso, Adalbert, Peter Schlemihl, translated by Leopold von Lowenstein-Wertheim from German, included in 3 Great Classics. New York: Arc Books, Inc., 1964.

Monday, January 4, 2010

I Insulted His Workplace

I was in the Emergency Room. The reason is not important. What matters is that in 14 hours nobody did anything to help me feel more comfortable. They took tubes of blood and ran other tests. They asked questions -- mostly about my drug usage and alcohol consumption. When I answered NO to all the questions, one fellow asked me what I do for fun. Fun doesn't come out of a bottle or pill or smoke or injection. I enjoy the life of the mind, and of exercise. Staffers who were listening clearly thought I was lying. I'm sure several of those tubes of blood were drug tests.

One doctor came by and told me he needed to pay attention to people who were sick. I said, "If I'm not sick, I should go home." He said he didn't mean that. I repeated that I'd like to go home. He asked why.

I said nobody likes to be a patient in an Emergency Room.

He became furious. "You insulted my workplace."

Huh? I thought maybe he misheard me. "It's not just your hospital. I don't know anybody who wants to be in an Emergency Room."

He stood up and towered menacingly over my bed. "Adult to adult. I don't like it when people insult my workplace."

"Adults don't become upset when they hear opinions that disagree with their own."

The man is a doctor. He works in an Emergency Room. If he can provide help, the person is grateful. But that doesn't mean the person woke up that morning and thought it would be nice to be in an emergency room.

I don't think emergency rooms are supposed to be nice places. You are only supposed to go to one if you really need to be there. And when you are there, nobody is expected to bother with the niceties. If you are brought in from an accident, they cut your clothing off. If you are unconscious, they take your blood without asking. Most conversations are about painful tests. It's not supposed to be a nice place for the patients. I don't know what they do to make it a nice place for the staff, or even if they try to make it a nice place for the staff.

I was nonplussed that this man thought I had insulted his workplace.

I thought I was speaking an easily recognized truth: Nobody wants to be a patient in an Emergency Room.

But this man was insulted. If I had felt I had a choice of doing anything else with my life at that time, I would never have crossed the threshold. After 14 hours, I felt I would be better off elsewhere. Still, this insulted man did not want me to go home.