Monday, April 30, 2007

Is the right wing out of control in the United States?

Saturday, I wrote about the threat of christo-fascists in the Christian right wing in the United States. Well it didn't take long at all to see how potent is the pent-up anger and vitriol of the right. Fox News reported a so-called hate crime against a Muslim student in Lewiston, Maine which - shame on the Fox journalists - turned out to be a parody. The incident involved a middle school in which a good ole boy threw a ham sandwich at a Muslim student. The parody talked about hate crime and using ham as a tool of hate. That should have clued Fox journalists into the Colbert-Report nature of the faux news item ... but it didn't. "I'm not making this up," was the repeated battle cry of the television reporters.

Fox News reported it is as true. The point, though, is that the right immediately gobbled it up and responded with phone calls and emails full of hate and anger at the school. The fiasco is covered here. Make sure you watch the clip to see how foolish the Fox television coverage was.

But it gets better. The Sun Journal covered the story too, recognizing that it was a parody. But please read some of the comments attached to the news clip to see just how ridiculous the situation in the United States has become. Instead of condemning Fox, or even finding fault with the pranksters, the comments betrayed a deeply held suspicion of immigrants and the intense rancor of the right wing.

As Homer Simpson would put it, "Where has all the love gone?"

Saturday, April 28, 2007

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0521 - Cancer and christo-fascism

I discovered Dietrich Bonhoeffer during my three years studying theology at Eastern Pentecostal Bible College in Peterborough, Ontario (1971-74; EPBC is now called Master's College and Seminary). Bonhoeffer - along with Martin Niemoeller and Karl Barth - helped establish the Confessing Church in Germany during the 1930s, one of the very few Christian bulwarks resisting the Nazis.

Paul Tillich, who was also vocal in his opposition to the Nazis, was one of the first non-Jews to be banned from teaching in Germany's universities in 1933 (as an aside, Tillich's mother died of cancer when he was 17 years old). After being fired, Tillich was invited by Reinhold Niebuhr to teach at the Union Theology Seminary in the New York City, the same institution where Bonhoeffer had spent a year in post-graduate studies.

Both Tillich and Bonhoeffer mightily impressed me when I first discovered their writings during my studies at EPBC in the early 70s. In retrospect, I guess it isn't too surprising that I was destined to abandon Pentecostalism as I continued my education in history and philosophy, first at Trent University and later at the University of Waterloo.

But after eventually leaving the confines of a strict fundamentalism, the attraction and interest in the theology and example of Tillich and Bonhoeffer continued ... in fact, it continues today, even though I no longer consider myself a Christian; that is, unless one can say alongside Bonhoeffer that "God is teaching us that we must live as men who can get along very well without Him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us." ... or... "God as a working hypothesis in morals, politics, and science ... should be dropped, or as far as possible eliminated" (Letters and Papers from Prison).

Despite his pacifism and ideological opposition to murder, Bonhoeffer eventually became convinced that Hitler had to be assassinated both to save the Jews and to preserve Germany from the madness of the Nazis. Even though he was arrested in April 1943, he was eventually connected with the July 20 Plot of 1944 to assassinate Hitler, and was hanged on 9-April-1945 in Flossenburg, just three weeks before that city was liberated. Bonhoeffer is commemorated on 9th of April each year by some churches like the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Church of England, and the Church in Wales.

One of Paul Tillich's close friends was the theologian James Luther Adams, someone who worked in the German Confessing Church in 1935 and 1936 alongside Bonhoeffer, who was then arrested by the Gestapo, and then returned to the United States. In the early 1980s, as Pat Robertson and other televangelists began their campaign for a new political religion in the United States, he breathed a warning to his students about the threat of christo-fascism implicit in the ideology of Christian dominionists like Robertson (see Chris Hedges account in American Fascists, pp 194ff).

Adams believed that sometime before 2030, the United States would be faced with the dismantling of an open society and democratic institutions by right-wing Christian organizations. Effete liberals and mainline churches didn't stand a chance against the utopian, fantastic madness of those masterminding the new movement. He advised his students at Harvard Divinity School not to be blinded by intellectual snobbery, but to stand up like Bonhoeffer and fight against the creeping totalitarianism of christo-fascists.

Is the threat real? If so, what do we do? How do we conceptualize the threat? Here's a start:

The rise of christo-fascism in America is something like the cancer process. Cancer is characterized by three features:

  1. disorderly and uncontrolled growth
  2. invasion beyond borders into neighbouring tissues and organs
  3. spread to distant organs and tissues (metastasis)

This is similar to what we are witnessing in North America today with the organizations of the Christian right wing. Focus on the Family, Christian Zionists, Council for National Policy, Trinity Broadcasting Network, DeVos Foundation, Family Research Council, National Religious Broadcasters - these are only a few of the pillars of the movement.

They are like cancer and deserve early detection and surgical intervention from those who, like Bonhoeffer, are willing to see the true nature of the enemy and to stand against this perversion of both Christian tradition and true democracy. This is one way to conceive the fight. I'm sure there are many more.

But fight we must. We must expose the mythology, unmask the politics, invite debate, challenge the assumptions, protect separation of church and state ... in other words, don't pretend, don't be blind, don't be seduced.

A liberal democrat with sympathy for the Nazis

You scored as Martin Heidegger.

You are Martin Heidegger.
You are a very wordy person that
believes we classify objects by their
function, and that community is
essential. Once we are in a
community, then it is possible
for us to differentiate ourselves.
You also might have sympathetic
feelings towards Nazis.

Martin Heidegger


Soren Kierkegaard


Friedrich Nietzsche


Albert Camus


Jean-Paul Sartre


Not An Existentialist


Which Existentialist Philosopher Are You?
created with

Again, a nod to Bint Alshamsa for pointing to another quiz. We end up in the same weird camp on this one.

I guess it's time to brush the dust off my old philosophy texts, especially the Heidegger ones. Or did I give those up to the University Women's Book sale, along with my theology texts from my fundamentalist days? These days, I only wish I'd kept every book I purchased after high school. That library would be a perfect reflection of my wanted and unwanted journeys.

Even more evidence

Thanks to my friend, Bint Alshamsa for pointing me to this quiz.

Coming as it does on a recent discussion about my political leanings with a good friend, I guess this is a little more evidence of having been totally brainwashed.

I am:
"You're a tax-and-spend liberal democrat. People like you are the reason everyone else votes for guys like Reagan or George W."

Are You A Republican?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0518 - Another day, another cancer, another dilemma

It's one thing to have aha experiences about the cancer process. It's quite another dealing with the apparently personal attacks of this plague on people you know and love.

Over the last twenty years, I've lost all three of my (until that time) surviving grandparents to cancer - lung, ovarian, and pancreatic cancers. I've lost an uncle to lung cancer. During that time, my father fought against and won his battle with bladder cancer. I was struck with rectal cancer. And now my aunt is valiantly facing melanoma, having just Monday lost most of her foot in surgical amputation to inhibit the chances of the cancer spreading elsewhere in her body.

At work, among those who have told me about their experiences dealing with cancer, are colleagues whose partners have faced breast cancer and mouth cancer, as well as another colleague still fighting the possibility of recurrent thyroid cancer.

Among friends, the stories of loss to cancer are too numerous to detail - colon cancer, lymphoma, myeloma, leukemia, and lung cancer being just a few.

It's simply everywhere! So coming to a realization that cancer is a process and not a disease, while useful for understanding how things work, pales when faced with the implications of here-and-now, life-threatening diagnoses.

It's all so frustrating! Story after story, I hear about late diagnoses, about family physicians who made poor diagnostic decisions, about treatments gone awry, and the accumulation of personal loss.

Is it any wonder, then, that friends, relatives and acquaintances turn away from the tough struggle to comprehend the plague of cancer-related diseases, instead opting for condolences about God's purpose, the assurance of an after life, or the value of having a "positive attitude"? Frustration and fear are powerful allies in pushing people beyond the brink of coping. The upshot appears to be surrender, denial, intentional ignorance, and platitudes.

I understand this. But some days, I want to scream and shout that there is a better way. I want to yell out that what we need is more information, not less. What we need is better science and technology, not less.

Still, I admit that hope comes in various shapes and forms and that I need not always agree with the source of hope to appreciate its efficacy. I may cringe whenever I witness a retreat from reality, no matter how congenial or comforting the results of that retreat may be, but perhaps that's just me. Personally, I trust my hope will always be built on a solid foundation of knowledge and expertise, whether that expertise be from my own experience or that of others.

How, then, do we practically go about supporting friends and family with cancer?

Robert Buckman has a useful way of describing how support works in his book What You Really Need to Know About Cancer. He calls it the Four-Front: People and Information - personal and professional people, and background and detailed information. We need all four resources when dealing with cancer. We need professional and personal supports from those with experience and expertise and we need an accurate overview and detailed information about cancer and treatment in general and about our specific type of cancer.

But do we need faith and religious assurances too?

Buckman has a very good point about this: "The only safe assumption is that there are no safe assumptions."

The four-front of resources for those facing cancer may mean that sometimes God-talk may be exactly what someone needs, no matter how repugnant it may be to me personally. Personal support in times of crisis may mean supporting someone in exactly the same way they have supported themselves throughout a lifetime's search for meaning. If I cannot provide that kind of support, then, at the very least, I should probably respect the need of the individual and defer to someone else. That doesn't mean I can't help, just not in that particular way.

On the other hand, supporting someone is not a license to evangelize and promote conversion, whether your viewpoint is distinctly religious or secular. I have witnessed this far too many times. For the religious, the comfort of faith is not the same thing as the fear of hell. For the secular, counseling someone to face the facts when pain is their only companion is simply cruel.

So here we are. Cancer everywhere. Dilemmas aplenty. And the necessity of support.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0515 - Aha ... the Cancer Process!

Have you ever had an "aha" experience? You know what I mean - a situation where something finally clicks and your perception shifts. We've all had the experience of looking at a common image of an old woman and then ... aha ... we see the pretty young woman.

These perceptual shifts are usually found in books recommending some or other pop psychology phenomenon-of-the-month and can usually be dismissed as curious but insubstantial. But then, if we're lucky, we've also experienced far larger perception shifts in which our view of more significant realities has changed. It might be a religious conversion (or unconversion such as that of John Ruskin) experience, or it might be an intuitive grasp of a mathematical concept, or it might even be an awakening to the simple beauty of evolutionary processes. These are all marvelous, fleeting, gone-in-an-instant flashes of insight.

Well, yesterday evening, I had one such flash. I'm ashamed to say that it took almost 54 years to happen, 18 months of fighting the dreaded "cancer", and hundreds of blogs communicating my thoughts about my unwanted journey to get here. But that's just the way it is.

Yesterday afternoon, I listened to Dr. Robert Buckman talking about cancer, surviving, thriving, and matching one's ambitions with one's abilities...and even then it didn't click. But then as I began reading my autographed copy of his book Cancer is a word, not a sentence, the aha occurred.

What was the nature of that discovery?

Cancer is not a disease! It is a process. In the same way that infection, inflammation, and degeneration are not diseases but disease processes that cover a multitude of individual diseases of varying severity and danger to one's health, so too is cancer. There are over 200 known diseases that all originate with the cancer process, ranging from the largely benign basal or squamous cell carcinoma to the usually fatal pancreatic cancers.

Just as we wouldn't think to conflate a cold with the Ebola virus just because they both have an identical underlying viral infectious process, so too we shouldn't lump together all the cancers because they all have an identical underlying cancer process. The problem, of course, is words. We don't have separate words to identify the different cancers in the same way that common parlance discriminates between a cold and HIV/AIDS.

So this particular aha experience is difficult to communicate effectively. Common vocabulary won't do the work for us. But words are, nonetheless, terribly important. As Dr. Buckman says, without proper words to differentiate the various cancers and their wildly disparate prognoses, we're left with a diffuse fear. We just hear the word Cancer. And we all know that cancer invades the immune system, the bones, the lymphatic system, spreads throughout the entire body, and kills us in the most offensive and debilitating manner. We've all seen it with friends and loved ones.

When we are diagnosed with cancer, we don't react in the same way as when we are diagnosed with an inflammation. If our doctor tells us we have an inflammation, we immediately ask, "What kind of inflammation? How does it work? How will my body be affected? Is it serious?". We realize we need more information and that subsequent information is critical to predicting the course of the ailment. We put fear on hold until we get the facts.

But with the diagnosis of cancer, we immediately go into panic mode. I know I did.

"When predictability is lost, fear and panic rush in to fill the vacuum." - Dr. Robert Buckman

My aha experience yesterday has led to the realization that educating the public about the process of cancer is absolutely critical, especially if one of our goals is to alleviate fear and panic.

Here's a good place to start. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, after receiving a grant from NCRR of NIH, has prepared an animated web site explaining the process of cancer. It's fantastic! It's called Inside Cancer and it fills a huge gap in helping the educated layperson understand the process of cancer in the same way that we understand (to some extent at least) the processes of infection, inflammation, and degeneration. It is only when we start viewing cancer as a process, and not as a single disease, that we can alleviate some of the fear and panic associated with the vocabulary of cancer.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0514 - Community Fair for Cancer Care

I'm volunteering today for the Grand River Regional Cancer Centre's Community Fair for Cancer Care.

It's an event for the local community introducing people to the range of services available for diagnosing and treating cancer. If you ever wanted to see a radiation machine, now's the time to do so. In addition, Dr. Robert Buckman will be the keynote speaker. Dr. Buckman is someone you may have seen on television on various science-related programs, but he is also a medical oncologist at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto and the author of Cancer is a Word, Not a Sentence: A Step-by-Step Practical Guide to Cancer and Cancer Treatment as well as many other books and booklets.

There will be other presentations on topics as varied as breast cancer screening, cervical cancer prevention, colorectal cancer screening (by my surgical oncologist), and at least one survivor, Susan Metzger, talking about her own experiences. Displays from other local groups and tours are available. Come on down and say hello. I'll be handing out information from the Colorectal Cancer Association of Canada for the day (9:30 am to 3:00 pm).

If a tour of the GRRCC isn't in the cards for you today, please run the YouTube video of Diane Keaton talking about colorectal cancer screening.

I was fortunate to attend both Dr. Robert Buckman's presentation and Dr. Craig McFadyen's talk about colon and rectal cancer screening.

Buckman's presentation was humorous and informative, especially in helping those who have either been diagnosed with cancer or have a close friend or relative recently diagnosed in moving beyond being a mere survivor. As he outlined, "survivor" implies that we are alive while others are dead; further, it implies that we are just alive and merely getting by. What Buckman would like is for us to describe ourselves as thriving. To do the latter, he provided us with some advice on coping with our emotions and on matching our ambitions with our abilities.

McFadyen's presentation was the single best presentation I've ever seen or read on the importance of colon and rectal cancer screening. It was simple, direct, yet indicative of the most up-to-date research and protocols. He did not minimize issues about the expense and availability of colonscopies, nor the possibility of serious medical complications. But until DNA testing costs can be reduced and the procedures made universally available, the gold standard is clearly the colonoscopy.

Friday, April 20, 2007

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0513 - The Cruelty of Cancer

I talked to my aunt yesterday who is to have surgery to expunge her melanoma on Monday next week. It is very serious. Like me (although mine is invisible), she will have an amputation. Cancer is so cruel.

And yet we may be counted among the lucky ones (as is my father whose bladder cancer is in complete remission and who no longer needs to see his oncologist on even an annual basis). Imagine instead, that you are the parent of a child with terminal cancer. Imagine, too, that you live somewhere where there is no universal medical care. As the cancer steals the health of your child, it eats away at your life's savings, and leaves you penniless. And then the moment comes when you have to say a final goodbye to your child.

The Sacramento Bee photographer, Renee C. Byer won the Pulitzer Prize for her documentary black-and-white photographs of one such family's experience of the cruelty of cancer. Visit the site, go through the photographs from start to finish, reading the text...and then thank God you are one of the lucky ones (with gratititude to Robert Scoble for finding this photo essay):

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0511 - Regular "Middle-Aged" Problems

This year I'll be turning 54 years old. My sons keep trying to tell me that that means I'm not really middle-aged anymore. I'm old.

Maybe, but they'll have to drag me kicking and screaming into the senior's bracket.

Still, whatever age category they, or anyone else, wants to apply to me, it's good to go to my family physician these days and have him tell me that I need to lose some weight and get my cholesterol levels down. My blood pressure is almost perfect, my triglyceride levels excellent, and my hemoglobin levels have bounced back nicely. But my overall cholesterol/HDL ratio is too high and my blood sugar levels are too high.

What's the treatment? Walk at a leisurely pace for about 30 minutes each day and eat smaller portions of food. Aim to lose no more than 1 lb per month, and arrange for another set of blood tests in 6 months.

OK. Happy to do so. In fact, I'd already started an ELFS diet (Eat Less Food, Stupid) on Monday and started walking on the rebounder or treadmill. These things I can do.

But you don't know how wonderful it is to deal with standard medical issues like this after the past 18 months of wondering whether I'd be alive at this point. As I recover gradually, I look forward to being able to walk without worries about bowel control and discomfort...well, at least fewer worries.

The "new normal" is still something that I'm discovering these days. But it is now incontrovertible that the neuropathy is gradually dissipating, that my energy levels are improving slightly, that I sleep for more prolonged periods of time, and that I generally feel more confident with everyday activities.

But it's not all good. Household chores and physical activity at work can still surprise me with the realization that I have very little endurance. I can get imbalanced far more readily and fatigued by just a half hour of unanticipated extra work. How much is getting older and how much of that is a result of my battle with cancer is still hard to figure out.

But here I am - middle-aged and loving it.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Let the market decide?

People I respect and admire have taken completely contrary viewpoints to my own in regards to issues like the firing of Don Imus and Tim O'Reilly's proposal of a bloggers' code of conduct in light of the Kathy Sierra incident. As I have combed through their writings and analyzed their viewpoints, a phrase keeps popping up - "Let the market decide."

The assumption appears to be that we don't need rules and regulations or even standards of conduct. Somehow, the market will turn the tide against misogyny, bigotry and racism. Whether it's the marketplace of ideas, or products and services, the presumption is that we need to tolerate the intolerable because the logic of the market will do everything required to preserve sanity and respect.

Karl Popper was not so sanguine.

Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. - The Open Society and Its Enemies, 1:263

Popper made it very clear that he was not proposing that we prevent the expression of intolerant ideas per se. As long as rational dialogue can keep the intolerant in check, we need take no further measures. But we must reserve the right to suppress them, by force if necessary, once they refuse rational argument and begin using fists and pistols instead of debate. Popper even went so far as to argue that incitement to intolerance be considered a criminal offense in the same way that incitement to murder or kidnapping is criminal.

True, as O'Reilly and others have realized, we need nuance and precision in such discussions. All I'm saying is that in addition to clarity, we need exactly what Popper proposed; namely, a refusal to allow unbridled intolerance.

So, what about Imus? I don't know. Personally, I think his temporary suspension after his apology should be enough of a penalty. Imus recognized his mistake and admitted "that you can't make fun of everybody, because some people don't deserve it."

The hate-filled language of others against Kathy Sierra and hosted on Chris Locke's website is, in my opinion, worse yet. Locke's tolerance level was unjustified; but, like Imus, at least he did the decent thing and distanced himself from the worst excesses. Maybe that, too, is enough.

But what worries me most is the complacency of those advocating "let the market decide." I think their complacency is innocent enough, given the context of current public discourse in North America. After all, neither Imus nor those attacking Kathy Sierra got away with their behaviour. But that is no guarantee for the future. The marketplace is not, and never has been, surety that decency and justice will prevail. What keeps our current marketplace in check is the threat of force, the recognition that excesses will be curtailed by government and a public which is generally fair-minded. In other words, what makes the marketplace work is the culture of fairness and decency in which it operates.

If that culture deteriorates, if it is attacked successfully, if the checks and balances become unbalanced, then the marketplace will become a platform for power, coercion and force. Again, what we require is vigilance, courage, and a refusal to tolerate intolerance. The marketplace is not the answer.

Dominionism - A threat to us all

A variant of American fundamentalism of which we all should become aware is dominionism.

You won’t find many espousing this form of Christianity using the term dominionism, but perk up your ears when you hear anyone using Genesis 1:26 as a rationale for political action:

“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

I am ashamed to admit that during my Bible College days, one of the authors I enjoyed was Francis Schaeffer, someone whose work promoted an aggressive, assertive, muscular Christianity that went so far as to push existentialists to the point of suicide and to suggest Christians should exercise God’s dominion in secular society by taking control politically. His work has since been used by people like Pat Robertson and others with dominionist leanings.

You will also find clues to the dangerous nature of this theological viewpoint whenever someone suggests that democracy itself and religious pluralism are unacceptable.

As Chris Hedges says in his newest book American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America,

“All Americans, ­not only those of faith, ­who care about our open society, must learn to speak about this movement with a new vocabulary, to give up passivity, to challenge aggressively this movement's deluded appropriation of Christianity and to do everything possible to defend tolerance. The attacks by this movement on the rights and beliefs of Muslims, Jews, immigrants, gays, lesbians, women, scholars, scientists, those they dismiss as "nominal Christians," and those they brand with the curse of "secular humanist" are an attack on all of us, on our values, our freedoms and ultimately our democracy. Tolerance is a virtue, but tolerance coupled with passivity is a vice.”

Some friends and family members wonder why I write about and am concerned about such issues. It's not just that I am, much like a reformed smoker, trying to rectify errors in my past (although, to be honest, there probably is an element of truth in that proposition). It's that my reading of history has utterly convinced me that dangerous ideologies often exercise undue influence in democracies because of our mistaken interpretations of freedom of speech and tolerance (see my earlier blog entry

Whenever I detect ideological intolerance - secular or religious - my antennae go up immediately and I ready mysefl for battle. This, I believe, is the way it should be. Pluralism and democratic ideals should never obscure the importance of vigilance and the courage to defend those without the means or ability to defend themselves. Just as vigilance is important in the struggle against cancer, so too is it critically important in the never-ending battle against fascism, bigotry, hatred, racism, and sexism.

If, as Jesus is purported to have said in the gospels, "The poor you have with you always," then it is equally true that the dangerous are with us always. As, just as we should give to the poor, we should stand up courageously to those who would gladly obliterate our freedoms.

Friday, April 13, 2007

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0506 - Remission and/or N.E.D.

Do I still have cancer? Is it correct to say that I am a cancer survivor? Am I in remission? Or am I simply in a state of No Evidence of Disease (NED)?

Others in similar situations have written about the experience of no longer receiving treatment for cancer. While that happened to me in late September 2006, the end of active treatment was followed by a series of tests that lasted until just recently. The signature moment for me occurred when the most recent CT scan was done and my medical oncologist told me that there was no evidence of disease. It was a pivotal moment mainly because I had no further medical appointments on my calendar directly related to cancer diagnosis, treatment or followup procedures.

There will, of course, be many followup procedures and tests over the next few years, but until and unless there is some indication of recurrent cancer, I can realistically consider myself in a different category. So why, then, do I hesitate to call myself a survivor?

It's not about pessimism, nor about an unfortunate loss of hope. It's more about a permanent shift in my knowledge and understanding of how cancer works. Doctors have told me that they no longer talk about a cure for cancer. They talk about treating cancer as a chronic disease, sometimes with acute phases, but chronic nonetheless.

And as I have become better educated about the causes of cancer - especially the genetic underpinnings of the disease - I can appreciate what the medical authorities are trying to do be reiterating their message of "no cure". It's all about vigilance and learning to live with the after effects of treatment protocols. The specter of cancer seems omnipresent after you have been bombarded with radiation, after you have undergone serious surgery, or after you have experienced chemotherapy and its lingering side effects, months, sometimes years after the cessation of treatment. You know how awful treatment can be, so vigilance seems like a simple dose of common sense. But you pay for that vigilance whenever anything, anything at all, happens to your body.

For me, a simple gastrointestinal ailment is a serious problem both physically and emotionally. Not only does my body demonstrate that it cannot handle the distress of a GI infection very well, but my emotions betray the fear that cancer has reared its ugly head again. But then I bounce back to the realization that things are better, much better than they have been for a very long time. And I succumb to gratitude.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0504 - One Renegade Cell

Easter Sunday, my family and I went out for brunch at the Mandarin, a Chinese restaurant that seems to specialize in quick and attentive service from a cadre of Chinese waiters and a decent selection of both Canadian and Chinese options at the buffet bars. The most striking thing was just how many fat people prefer buffet dining. I could count only a few individuals who weren't at least 40 pounds overweight.

I paid for the extravagance of that buffet meal Sunday night and most of Monday, followed by a Tuesday from hell. I'm not sure there was any food poisoning involved, but my gastrointestinal tract was complaining loudly and frequently. In fact, at one point yesterday, I was in much the same level of pain as I experienced when suffering through radiation proctitis over a year ago. I could hardly move. Today, on the other hand, things have improved dramatically.

Sunday, we also went to Chapters to look for books. I especially like searching the science and history of science books on the remaindered shelves. One I picked up for $4 was published in 1998 making it far too old for my preferences, but still, it was inexpensive and its title was intriguing - One Renegade Cell: The Quest for the Origins of Cancer. I know - it's not likely to be a best seller, but for someone like me still trying to make sense of my unwanted journey, I couldn't pass it up. And thus far, it has proven to be well worth the minor investment.

I'm only about half-way through the book, but it truly is riveting. Although it was published before the Human Genome Project was completed, you could sense the author's (Robert Weinberg) excitement about how genetic research into the origins of cancer would flourish with a full mapping of the human genome. Weinberg's Whitehead Institute was responsible for the discovery of the first human oncogene and the first tumor suppressor gene.

The website for the Whitehead Institute has a number of podcasts from various members of the staff in addition to Professor Weinberg. The topics range from Evolution as a toolkit for understanding human disease to Stem cell myths and realities. There are also video broadcasts, a magazine and a newsletter available to the educated public. Not bad for a $4 investment, eh?

Monday, April 09, 2007

The Blogger Code-of-Conduct Debate

About a week before the Kathy Sierra incident blasted into the blogosphere, I composed a short piece about the roles played by codes of conduct and education in combating racism and bigotry. They are just tools we use to curb the worst excesses of a world of inequity.

The readily apparent social and national inequities of our modern world call out for some kind of explanation. As Jared Diamond has argued, luck and accident have played their roles over the past 13,000 years in determining who wins and who loses. It's not IQ, skin color, gender, or even religious belief, despite what our parents, grandparents, teachers and peers may have told us that explain the discrepancies.

Accident and luck may explain a lot about inequality for much of known history, but what about the future? Bill Gates argues that in the age of information technology, accident and luck will be superceded by intelligence, skill and leadership. Those with more of each will win; those with less will lose.

But, there is still a problem. While it may be somewhat comforting to believe that intelligence, skill and leadership will eventually supercede bigotry, sexism and racism, information technology is available to everyone right now. This means that almost everyone can have their say, even if what they say is misogynistic, hate-filled and patently bigoted. Limiting freedom of speech is clearly not the solution, as almost everyone has agreed from Kathy Sierra herself to most of those who have reflected on her predicament.

So, if we don't limit free speech, what other solutions are available?

One person who has demonstrated leadership, skill and intelligence in proposing an alternative solution is Tim O'Reilly (see his proposed code of conduct). Dave Winer, Jeff Jarvis, and Mike Arrington all disagree with my assessment. But while I read their concerns, I couldn't shake the feeling that it was like being in the men's washroom listening to "the good 'ole boys" bemoaning political correctness or complaining about how rules and regulations about sexual harassment infringed on their personal freedoms. It was like standing outside an office skyscraper with the smokers denouncing regulations limiting their rights to smoke their stogies at their desk.

If I understand O'Reilly, all he is proposing is that bloggers clearly articulate what kind of place it is that they are hosting. One wouldn't walk into a Baptist church, for instance, and start swearing, "Jesus Christ, would somebody turn up the heat in here!" But in a bar, that conduct might be entirely acceptable. All he's saying is that we need to be clear about what level of civility is permissible in our blogging home.

It's about setting expectation levels and then choosing either to enter the conversation and abide by our host's rules or to go someplace else. That just the decent thing to do.

When we readily sacrifice decency to make a point, it inevitably leads to hurt feelings (see Robert Scoble's description of the way Dave Winer responded to Maryam Scoble's concerns about death threats and misogynistic comments). Hurt feelings are one thing. Death threats another. But a blogger's code of conduct might have helped in both situations.

Sure, a single blogger's code of conduct may not suffice. Nor will a single "Anything goes" badge suffice for for permissive arenas. But if traditional media, corporations and associations benefit from codes of conduct, why not bloggers?

Saturday, April 07, 2007

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0500 - Thanking Mike

Shel Israel wrote a moving tribute to his friendship with Charlie in a recent blog (Shel does this every year on the anniversary of Charlie's death of cancer  Charlie's birthday; Charlie died of cancer). Shel wrote me about this time last year as I was receiving treatment for cancer, mentioning Charlie again and their long-term friendship.

Cancer takes a lot of things away from us - time, energy, opportunities, health, even friends and loved ones. But there are gifts as well as losses, sometimes unexpected, sometimes coming with the regularity of clockwork. One of those gifts I received over the past 18 months was a renewal of a long-term friendship with a childhood buddy and best-man at my wedding, Mike.

Mike's father died of colon cancer at my age. I suppose there is an aspect of that memory, and the inability of a son to say the right thing at the right time to a terminally ill father, that motivated Mike to keep in contact with me from diagnosis through treatment to recovery. He had, because of my similar medical condition, another opportunity to reflect on cancer, death and relationships. And I have to say that, more than any other friend, Mike's support has been consistent, helpful, insightful, and as faithful as one might expect from a good friend.

We live a long distance from one another, Mike in the middle of the country, me here in southwestern Ontario. We have not seen each other face-to-face for quite a few years. But we are on the phone with one another regularly; we correspond frequently, and we share photographs of our families and our cherished possessions - his vintage electric guitar collection is f***in fantastic!

With my recent good news on the most recent CT scan and the fact that I now have no medical tests on my calendar for the first time in over 18 months, I am thinking more about the possibility of getting together to drink a few beer, to disagree about Canadian politics, religion, and anything else that occurs to us. I now have the luxury of anticipating opportunities like that and to say, just by being together, how much I appreciate all he has done for me over the past 18 months, not to mention a lifetime.

Thanks, Mike. You're a good buddy, a true friend, and one of the few who really meant it when you wrote, "I've got your back, Don." You've said the right things at the right time. I know your father would be proud not only of everything you've accomplished, of your family and friendships, but also of your support and care. Thanks.

P.S. 300 posts on this blog; 500 days since my diagnosis - a symbolic day!

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Scholarship and Faith

There is an interesting article in Biblical Archaeology Review titled "Losing Faith: How Scholarship Affects Scholars". It's an interview in which the editor Hershel Shanks interviews two scholars whose studies led to abandoning their faith and two who remain believers. What struck me most was the claim from James F. Strange, an archaeologist and Baptist minister, who suggests that his scholarship has not affected his faith, although he no longer believes in Biblical inerrancy and yet admits that Christianity makes historical claims.

Yes, I can understand the existentialist emphasis on experience mentioned by Strange, and yes I can understand Lawrence Schiffman's claims that Judaism has never been about biblical literalism. But how can one make sense of a faith whose foundation is a historical claim by ignoring the historicity of that claim? One way is to radically alter the nature of traditional Christianity or even revive a faith which institutional Christianity snuffed out in earlier centuries. But is it still Christianity?

This is the nature of my discomfort with liberal, mainline Christianity and even progressive faith communities like Faith Futures Foundation. Inevitably, the actual congregations or churches that are representative of such communities share almost nothing in common with traditional, institutional Christianity except recitation of the foundational stories. If these communities could readily acknowledge that there is no more historical validity to these foundational stories than, say, the stories of Tolkien's tales of middle earth, well, then I guess I would have no problems.

But it seems to me that despite the claims of such groups, there is too much fence straddling. Someone else has called this liturgical fundamentalism. But I just think they lack internal clarity and appear to those outside as virtually indistinguishable from traditional forms of Christianity. There is too much nostalgia and too little courage to affirm their differences from the faith of their fathers.

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0497 - An Image for the Future

The CT scan looked almost exactly the same as the one taken in December. No swelling of the lymph nodes, no additional growth, no need for further biopsy sampling at this time. In fact, for the first time since any medical tests have been done in the past 18 months, I have no further testing scheduled. It's all about regular follow up protocols.

How great is that? Now all my energies need to be focused on recovery or, as Dr Craig Hildreth, aka the cheerful oncologist, puts it, I need to "go jump in the lake!" I need to forget about half-way measures, about dipping my toes in the water; instead, I need to dive right in. That's what the lifeguard is telling me to do.

Sure, to push the analogy a little further, I still have to know when to stop swimming and diving, get out of the water, eat, drink and get rested. But the point is to start living life to the full again. Take chances. Invest in the mundane, the everyday, the stuff of the ordinary, just as if it all never happened. That doesn't mean to forget, just to get back in the game to the very best of my ability.

One luxury I haven't indulged in during my fight against cancer is to imagine the future as if I was fully recovered. I know that some of the psychological techniques have recommended doing so as one way to activate the body's defenses against the cancer cells. But I am the kind of person who believes in evaluating as realistically as possible the pros and the cons and making sensible decisions based on the logistics of the situation. Now, I can honestly say that I have good, practical reasons to begin to dream - realistic reasons why I should be more indulgent about the future.

I want this. I want to think and visualize about the future, unfettered by the chains of cancer. Now is the time.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

This is no April Fools' Day Joke

Thirty-five years ago today, my wife and I became engaged. I can hardly believe it has been so long. We were sooooo young!

Today, if my son told me he was getting engaged at age 20, I'd go a little crazy. But when I got engaged, I was merely 18!

I have to wonder now just how many people thought we were both crazy. At the time, neither my parents nor my fiancee's parent said anything negative to us at all about our age, about our decicion to get married, about anything at all. Maybe they knew something we didn't. Maybe they anticipated that 35 years later we would still be partners.

I remember the day we became engaged fairly well. It was a Saturday on April Fools' Day 1972. My fiancee's father and I spent the evening together watching the Toronto Maple Leafs play hockey while I worked up the guts to ask for his daughter's hand in marriage. The next day, on Sunday, I was performing a concert with a band in Peterborough and my fiancee came along with us. We announced our engagement to the crowd since many of those attending knew us both (I was attending college in Peterborough). Now I wonder how many there in the Dublin St. church thought we were out of our minds.

But here we are 35 years later, still together, still very much in love, still anticipating many years together. Things are definitely different, though. Now we look forward to our 2 sons announcing engagements, getting married, having children...or maybe not; that will be their decision.

April 1st, 1972 was a very good day. Today is even better.