Maybe I'm just getting up late these days (though I don't see how this could happen with B.B. (Kitty Queen of All She Surveys), yelling in our ears if we don't get up and feed her, but the sun seems to be mainly up by the time I finally stumble down the hill to the commuter rail station in the morning. Once I finally wake up on the train amongst the stock brokers headed to their offices in the financial district, morning seems to have moved along into the full processes of the day. It's in the evenings, when I emerge from whatever windowless tech room that I have been working in during the day at MIT, that the lack of light bothers me the most.
I tell myself that I have to keep in mind that this lack of illumination only lasts for a while. It's the Winter Solstice and, from here until June, a little more light is afforded us every day. From here at the bottom of the cycle, I always find it a good practice to evaluate the year and reflect on the fact that I've somehow made it through one more round. I agree with Socrates that "the unreflected life is not worth living" and I like to do my reflecting at least partially on a schedule.
If there was a theme this year it was: "Health - Having It, Not Having It, and Trying to Have It". At 61 years old, I now understand one of the mysteries of my childhood: why did grownups always start conversations with commentary about their various medical conditions? I now understand that the plain truth is that if you have medical problems, they threaten to consume your entire life if you let them. And even many times if you don't let them, they do it anyway. It certainly seemed like this is what happened to me for the first part of the year.
The Cancer Thing
After carefully watching my prostate cancer numbers for three and a half years, toward the end of 2010 I noticed that my Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) number, the indicator for activity in the prostate, suddenly started to climb. While you can never be totally sure about these things, this was probably a sign that the cancer in my prostate was getting more active and my situation was probably getting more serious. If you have prostate cancer, the one thing that you don't want it to do is to metastasize outside of the gland so, if you're going to have "treatment," it's much better to do it early than to do it late. The PSA news combined with a appearance of a new "bump" in the right lobe of the gland told me that it was time for the "treatment" that I had been avoiding for so long. At the very least, it was time to end the Mind Games involved in having cancer, but not having any symptoms - how do you keep yourself focussed on paying attention to something that really isn't "there" as a part of your everyday experience, but can kill you if you don't pay on-going attention? It was three and a half years of mental strain. I was ready to move on to new parts of the cancer experience.
In my case, my urologist and I agreed that the placement of "radioactive seeds" in the gland next to the tumors was probably the way to go. This treatment had the advantage of being almost as effective surgery that would take the prostate out, without all the messy collateral problems of trying to take out an organ that is buried deep within my pelvis.
So, on January 28th, I showed up bright and early at Mass General and Dr. Anthony Zeitman M.D. knocked me out and placed 70 titanium seeds which had been irradiated with radioactive Iodine 125 into my prostate, just south of my urinary bladder. For someone who had avoided being the hospital his entire life, this was an experience. (For the blow by blow, you can go to: http://mtspriggs.typepad.com/ncf/2011/02/index.html ). And even through I went home later in the day (7 hours door-to-door) I found that it was not the "procedure" but the recovery process that was underplayed when I talked to the Docs.
Most of February was spent in two locations quite close to one another in our apartment: the couch and the bathroom. I lay on the couch for long periods of time immediately after the surgery - indeed, I had no real motivation to do anything else for the first couple of weeks, but if I did move it was in the direction of the bathroom. After the first couple of weeks I started to feel more energetic and then, (this time the docs did warn me), the bottom dropped out again. It seems that it takes a couple of weeks for the radioactivity to get cooking, so you get to recover from the bodily insult of surgery just in time for the second wave of symptoms to mow you down once again. Then I developed a major back pain issue (unrelated, but never the less quite real) and I moved from getting off the couch to go to the bathroom to crawling off the couch to get to the bathroom. This was not fun and it lasted for around three more weeks.
Slowly I managed to gain some momentum and March and April were spent stumbling up the big recovery hill. I went back to work part-time (the folks at MIT were really fantastic about giving me all the time that I needed to recover) and by May I was almost back to full impulse power (except, of course, for the frequent and sudden runs to various men's rooms all over the Institute which continued through the summer and, actually, continues to some degree to today). Seems that my bladder didn't really like being irradiated all that much. I'm told that it takes a couple of years for things to be totally set to rights and I'm very much looking forward to this in early 2013.
Prognosis? Actually, the stats are pretty good. Seems I have somewhere between an 85 and 93% chance of continuing to pump out these insanely long emails every year for the next 15 years. Unless I have a heart attack or something that is. Anyway, the docs seem happy so far, but I really won't know if I have to fight the recurrence beast (who, I hear is very nasty) for at least a couple of years. I keep telling myself that not knowing is good for my Buddhist practice.
Adding insult to injury, the annual spring physical showed that I had diabetic levels of blood glucose and that I had high blood pressure to boot. So over the summer I went on a restrictive diet and did quite a bit of exercise. The result was a loss of 10-15 pounds and bringing the blood glucose numbers back around where they should be. The blood pressure numbers - they're still high - a reminder that I've still got another 15 pounds to go.
The Wedding Thing
Somewhere in the middle of all this (Denise's birthday in fact), Denise and I decided to get married. She had somehow managed to put up with living with me for a year and a half and she seemed to want to keep doing it. Anyway, I love her and, incredibly, she seems to love me. This is a good thing. I figured that we should build on it. She agreed.
We then had to decide whether we wanted a tiny ceremony or a big blow out since there didn't seem to be anyway that we could to do anything in-between and still remain friends with a number of people. Moderate Big Blowout won and that meant doing it later rather than sooner since, (as I have now been educated) there are whole industries that must be involved in manufacturing such an event. So at the moment, we're aiming toward late June. More news about this as we figure it out after the beginning of the year.
The Harvard Thing
One advantage to being relegated to the couch for so long was that I had a lot of time to consider that I was coming down to the wire on finishing my Master's thesis at Harvard. I almost always meet deadline on these sort of projects, but then they never get done early and, besides, in the first part of the year I had other things on my mind. But I had done the research and I knew the story that I wanted to write, so I was simply a matter of sitting down and disgorging 26,000 words. It took me years to finally get to the place where I had an analysis of how the populist Know Nothing party blew an incredible political advantage in 19th century Massachusetts, coming, dominating, and going in all of four years. Now all I had to do was make this comprehensible to other people.
But it somehow got done. It was even on time (barely). And I got to suit up in my funny black robe at the end of May and sit in Harvard Yard on a beautiful day and contemplate how glad Mom would have been to see me there. Most people who know me know of my on-going war with college. It took me 17 years in and out of higher education to finally gain a bachelor's degree at UMass Boston. A Masters from Tufts followed two years later just to show that the initial degree wasn't a fluke and then, this year, the second Masters from Harvard was the exclamation point at the end. I think that I've finally put the issue to rest. I've beaten it to death by degrees.
The cherry on top was an invitation to present my research in the Harvard Extension School Thesis Forum where, as one of six presentations during the evening, I wowed them with 19th century Massachusetts in 20 minutes. Everyone was very interested about the implications of my research for figuring out if the current Tea Party would last. Alas, I had to tell them that, though there we a number of lessons from the Know Nothing experience that the Tea Party could learn, the past is unfortunately a lousy predictor of the future. I think that this would be especially so for people who would drag us back to a mythical 1950's if they only could. Some seemed disappointed that I wouldn't take the Pat Buchannan pundit role of mouthing off about things that I don't know anything about, but they seemed to like the presentation anyway.
The Citizen Thing
I finally, after all these years, got called up for jury duty in the Superior Court in June. This was the day after the FBI nabbed Whitey Bulger in California and upon checking in the court personnel started asking me how the flight back to Massachusetts was. They gave me a high number (probably feeling that no one would want to be judged by a Whitely look-alike) and I was not called to serve. So, besides murder, racketeering, and extortion, Whitey messed up my chance to serve my community. He's a obviously a bad man.
The Politics Thing
I know that my sister waits for my yearly rant about the state of the politics of the country, but it's going to be hard this year. Talking about the Tea Party is almost like making fun of the delusional. In fact, it's exactly like making fun of the delusional.
Yes, people are in a lot of pain and their pain is real (15% of Americans now live in poverty and the number is growing). The Free Market policies of Bush and the Boys tanked the economy but good, and now, of course, the people who weren't responsible for this happening get to take it in the shorts. And they're pissed. And they should be. But they should be pissed at the right people and they're not.
The problem is not all those Mexicans who want to take our precious landscaping jobs, or Planned Parenthood being part of a large international conspiracy to kill people for no discernable reason, or those dirty, uppity, hippie people in the tents in parks all over the country. The problem is with the large corporations and the people who run them who are not only greedy, but are so greedy that they are willing to totally corrupt the system that they have done extremely well in. They will bankrupt the system that made them. Basically, as long as they get to live out the lifestyles of the rich and insanely rich, they don't give a damn about anyone or anything else. The "job creators" as the Republicans (a wholly owned subsidiary) call them can't even do a decent job at doing that - the corporations that they run are sitting on over a trillion and a half dollars that remains in their banks un-invested because doing that would involve paying people. The one exception to this penury is the vast amounts that they will spend to make sure that Congress does their bidding and thereby ensure that the cash keeps flowing upward. Of course, that's not spending - it's always a wise investment to have a a few members of Congress you can just call up when you need to.
The other big political story for the year was the Occupy movement. Being someone of a practical bent, I have my problems with the Occupy People. If they're going to be more than some sort of artistic lifestyle movement, they're going to have to actually indulge in the dirty business of politics to get anything done. Wishing that things were less corrupt is not quite enough to make things less corrupt. But they did serve one useful function - they pointed the finger where it needed to be pointed. Not at the deficit, but at the people looting the system that then created the deficit. At least they got that right, even if they don't know what to do about it.
Barak has been a major disappointment. He's so committed to rational judgement that he doesn't seem to realize that as far as rational discourse goes it takes two to tango and the other side doesn't want to dance. He's a manager at heart and he's managed us through a number of crises (pulling out of Iraq and keeping the economy from totally falling into the abyss being notable examples), but the job calls for a leader, not a manager, and that we have not seen. It remains to be be seen if a second term will free him of this obsession to have "everyone just get along" and will result in some movement beyond the Gilded Age sequel that we seem to be mired in. At any rate, given his probable opposition next year, you have to give him points for at least dealing with reality. That puts him way ahead of a large sector of the Party of Fantasy.
The Health Thing - Denise Version
Just when we thought that maybe we were out of the woods on the health front, in November Denise was diagnosed with cysts that, the doctors said, had to come out. It was day surgery, but any surgery is anxiety producing. But everything turned out fine - no malignancy. So, she took her place on couch (that had been so thoughtfully broken in by me) for a couple of weeks and is just now going back to work. She went through surgery, nose bleeds, migraine headaches, and allergic reactions to drugs and still managed to keep her sense of humor. I don't know how she did it, but I don't think that it had anything to do with my cooking.
The MIT Thing
I continue to work hard at the Institute and they continue to pay me. Some of my clients even appreciate the work that I do for them. Without going into detail, suffice it to say that It has been a rough year for internal politics. I've lost more battles than I've won. And the place gets more and more corporate as time goes on. In that way, I suppose, it's a lot like the rest of the country.
The Arts Thing
No time to be artistic this year (which is a source of frustration), but I did get to do a little drawing at the end of the year. The ratio of good art to bad art has gotten appreciably better and I even like some of the stuff that I've done. Writing? The thesis took all the juice that I had this year. That writing wasn't my best, but there sure was a lot of it. I never thought that quantity trumped quality, but I guess that it was good enough. After all, they did graduate me.
The Gratitude Thing
So, I got up this morning, as I do many mornings, thinking about the fact that I'm still managing to get up in the morning. It's been 47 years since my mother's death and the dissolution of the family that sent me down a road from which I thought that I'd never return. But return I did and, even after all these years, I still don't know why. Luck? Yes, there was an element of luck in this, but I've always thought that a major element was and has been the care and help of people like you have given me over the years. Some people are grateful for specific things in their lives. Me? I'm grateful for all of it. And I'm grateful for all the people who have helped this be the case. The Solstice helps me to remember this.
So, the light returns. Starting today. Starting everyday, if we would only realize it. If you hold it in your heart, it never goes away.
Thank you for all your love, help, and support and for being my light. Have a great holiday and new year.
Marshall T. Spriggs