december 2000

My mother had surgery for her cancer last Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving. They removed a tumor and 19 lymph nodes for testing, hoping that none of the lymph nodes would have cancer in them. 4 did. As a result, they have decided on a post-surgical treatment consisting of two rounds of chemotherapy lasting about 3 months each and then another 3-4 months of radiation. Her prognosis is good for a full recovery (about 70%), but it would have been a lot better without the cancerous nodes.

She will receive the chemo every three weeks. The first week of each cycle is supposed to be the worst; after that, her body will start to recover enough that she should be able to go to work, etc. Her normal worklife involves a lot of flying, however, which she will not be able to do for the course of the treatment. She is very optimistic about all of this, aside from the occasional bouts of feeling helpless and the immersion in books on cancer that probably give her more information than she can really deal with right now. But she has a lot of friends supporting her, as well as my sister who lives with her. She is trying to look at it like she would a virus or other illness: she is doing all the right things to get better and is convinced that she will recover fully, even though it will take a while.

Her first round of chemo starts this Friday. The doctors tell her she will be bald by Christmas, so she and a couple of friends are going out shopping for wigs this weekend. My godmother Jane, who was one of her best friends in college and nursing school, is going to fly down there on Thursday night and stay with her through Monday, to help her get over the first few rough days. Jane is pretty awesome anyway (she has always been fairly active in her role as godparent; I have usually seen her at least a couple of times a year ever since I was a kid), but she also has experience helping friends get through cancer recovery. My mom says that Jane wants to visit fairly often for the course of the treatment, but she'd rather Jane save the trips for the second round of chemo, which is supposed to be more excruciating than the first (my mom is not counting on being able to work for more than a few days every three weeks during the second round of chemo). I have a feeling Jane will be there a lot more than my mom expects.

The one flight the my mom has cleared with her doctors is her flight to Raleigh for Christmas, which we traditionally spend at my grandfather's (her father's) home there. If her system is not responding well to the chemo and she can't fly, we can always drive down to see her (she lives in south Florida), but I know that it would mean a lot to her to be able to have a normal Christmas and see her family just like she does every year. So hopefully that will happen.

When I talk to her, I spend a lot of time asking about the treatment options, the precise details of the chemotherapy schedule, the prognosis for recovery. She is more than willing to talk about them, too; she doesn't really want to talk about how all this makes her feel. Which I can understand; the facts and figures make the whole thing seem a little more distant, as if it's happening to someone else. It gives you a way to hold onto the situation, a way to grasp it from a scientific perspective. But she is scared and I am scared and the whole family is scared, even though we never say it.

I hate it when people drive EXACTLY the speed limit.

I think that every night, like every journey, has a point of no return, a point at which going to sleep is worse than just suffering through a couple more hours of insomnia before beginning your normal day. I think this point of no return probably varies for each person; some people would probably say that any amount of sleep, no matter how small, is better than none, while others might give up as early as 3 am and resign themselves to a few more hours of old movies and infomercials before getting ready for the day. I think for me it probably falls somewhere between 4:30 and 5:30. One thing for sure: if I start to see the sun rise, it's time to suck it up and get ready for work or just call in sick and forget about getting anything done that day.

Sometimes it is hard for me to draw a line between insomnia and what I think my body wants its natural schedule to be. If I had no other obligations, I think that I would probably sleep between the hours of 10 am and 5 pm, and do most of my productive work between midnight and 6 am. Most nights it takes me a while to fall asleep, because even though I am usually very tired by the time I get to bed, my mind is still very active and I can't get it to stop thinking about things. Falling asleep is never easy for me. It is usually a result of sheer exhaustion, not any desire on my part to be asleep.

I have always wondered about those people who supposedly don't need sleep. Edison was one of them; he used to take 20 minute catnaps a few times a day in his workshop, but other than that he didn't need to sleep. I think in some ways that would be a blessing: lots of extra time to do things, and no tedious hours of insomnia watching tv and waiting for exhaustion to come. At the same time, though, there would never be any relief from the world; the alternate reality of dreams, I think, serves a much greater purpose in keeping our psyches grounded than we know.

We finally gave in and got a DVD player recently, and it has rekindled my love of movies. The last time I was into movies this much was in graduate school. My first semester there I took a film noir class that required us to watch three or four movies a week, and my roommate at the time was also a film fanatic. Between these two influences I was watching and talking about movies a lot. I was never really big on going to the theater, though—I mean, I like the way that a good theater can alter reality enough to transform a good movie into something like a religious experience, but going to the theater regularly was more than my grad student income could afford (especially given my lifelong addiction to CDs, which took precedence over any other entertainment-related expenses). Plus, I get really easily annoyed by distracting sounds and movement in theaters; people talking, or getting up to get popcorn, or answering their cell phones, or kids running around the aisles completely takes me out of the experience. I can't concentrate on the movie at all when things like this are happening, and unfortunately these things happen on a fairly regular basis in movie theaters these days; it seems like everyone acts in a public movie theater the same way they would act in their living rooms at home.

Anyway, I've been really enjoying being able to watch movies in a widescreen format without any commercials and with really beautiful pictures and sound. Plus, most DVDs seem to come with lots of cool behind the scenes stuff, like deleted scenes and the director's commentary, which let you experience the movie and how it was made in a way that you really couldn't have before. For some reason I have been really into war movies; I have watched Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line in the past week (along with Gladiator, which kind of falls into the same category in terms of the themes that it explores). I have had a real itch to get Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, both of which I love but I haven't seen in a while. I've also been craving the film noir pictures from the 40s that we watched in my film class, great movies like Double Indemnity, Touch of Evil, and Citizen Kane. I'm actually surprised at how few of these have been released on DVD thus far, since the biggest DVD buyers tend to be film fanatics who love classic movies. But Sunset Boulevard and Kiss Me Deadly, two of the best films ever made, haven't been released on DVD yet. Hopefully they're on the way, though.

And of course, there is The Matrix. I got this movie on DVD last year, long before I had a DVD player at home. One of the machines at work has a DVD-ROM drive, and I would play it there, sometimes just leaving it on in the background while I worked. That's how much I love this movie. And stupid me, I listened to Entertainment Weekly when they gave it a bad review, so I never actually saw it in the theater. Stupid, stupid, stupid! But at least the DVD gives me a chance to see it in widescreen format with a perfect picture and high quality sound. Not as good as going to see it in a theater, sure, but a hell of a lot better than watching it on cable.

I watched an episode or two of Junkyard Wars on TLC a couple of nights ago. It's not a bad show, sort of a weird combination of Iron Chef and Battlebots. Two teams of four people each are given 10 hours to complete a machine that does a specific task; the next day, both teams use their machines to cross a creek the fastest or throw a rugby ball the farthest or whatever the challenge was, and the winning team moves on to the next round. Both teams have to build their machines from whatever pieces of scrap they can find in a junkyard. The teams are all British people, meaning that they usually have at least one very eccentric person, and more often than not that person seems to be the team captain. It's kind of cool to see the imaginative solutions that the teams come up with; one of the teams that was supposed to launch the rugby ball built a gigantic air cannon that was filled with air from a bicycle-powered compressor. Pretty elaborate for throwing a ball, but they kicked the other team's ass, going about triple their distance. I'm not sure yet if I'm going to make a point to try and watch this show (I'm hopelessly addicted to Iron Chef), but if I happen to pass it while flipping through the channels I'll definitely watch it again.

We bought a new house about 8 months ago, in a nice little neighborhood with lots of trees and dogs and kids. The man we bought it from was a real do-it-yourselfer: most of the interior of the house had been either constructed or renovated by him. We thought this was pretty cool at first: the hardwood floor in the expanded kitchen was beautiful, and the bedroom and bath that he had created downstairs seemed to have been done well. After we moved in, though, we kept discovering weird little things that had been done half-ass: silicon gel had been used in several places where regular caulk would have been more appropriate, the phone lines had been so poorly wired that the phone company had to come in and pretty much redo three outlets from scratch, and one of the closet doors downstairs was a different height than the other and wouldn't stay in its mooring.

My general theory about the house is that the projects that his wife was involved in, such as their bed and bath downstairs, the kitchen floors, and the window above the door, were all done well with attention to detail. The projects that seemed to be exclusively his, however, have indications of sloppy work. Mostly it is just finish work that wasn't completed, like not painting over the nail holes or not screwing things down all the way. Sometimes the flaws turn out to be more significant, though.

Some of the yard had also been redone by him. He is an environmental engineer, so I figured he probably knew what he was doing when it came to building outdoor structures. I don't think I could have been more wrong. He levelled out the yard, which used to slope from the upper left hand corner down to the lower right hand corner; now it is pretty flat except for an upturn at the back of the yard. But because he levelled his yard and the neighbor didn't, there is a steep dropoff into the next yard. I thought that it would be good to install a retaining wall at some point, mostly because the slope is extremely hard to mow and it is mostly on our side, so I approached our neighbor about possibly going in together on a wall. He told me that he was interested in doing that, but that Guy (the man who owned the house before us) had already put one in himself that had fallen over. This didn't surprise me based on some of the other things I was learning about his workmanship, but since it didn't really affect me I didn't worry about it too much.

There is also a fence in the backyard that provides some separation between us and another house whose backyard is behind ours; in other words, when we look out our back windows we can see their back windows. I had always assumed (I think because Guy had given me that impression) that the fence belonged to these back neighbors, which made sense because the ugly side of the fence faced their yard (usually the owner of the fence sees the ugly side, because it is the easiest to climb and so is not that great at keeping people out). Slowly, inexorably, we have seen one section of the fence drooping towards the ground, and we knew that time and gravity were all that it was going to take to knock that fence over. Recently, a couple of ice storms and heavy winds have helped the fence along significantly, such that when we returned home from Christmas shopping yesterday afternoon, we found that the fence, which previously had been leaning into the neighbor's yard, had been completely pushed over into our yard and replaced with a short wire fence (the neighbor has a dog, and he needed some sort of short term solution to keep it from getting out while we figure out what to do about the old fence).

So I decided to go speak to my neighbor to find out what he was planning on doing with his rotting fence. I was willing to go half and half with him on a new one as long as he paid to have the old one removed, which I thought was pretty reasonable. I knocked on his door and introduced myself and started asking about the fence. His immediate reaction was, "Well, if it was my fence, I would have picked it up, but it's not my fence." I explained to him that we had only moved in a few months ago, and had been told when we purchased the house that it was his fence, but he still claimed that it wasn't. I was trying to figure out if he could be lying to me in order to avoid having to pay for its removal and replacement until he started to give me some of the details about the fence. It turns out that the fence is only five or so years old (it looks 20), and that he knew it wasn't going to last long because Guy built it with untreated lumber which he never waterproofed and he didn't use cement when he was setting the main posts, meaning that the bottoms of the posts have been rotting away since the day he put them in the ground. This story made so much sense in light of everything else we've discovered about Guy's work habits that I no longer had any question in my mind that the fence belonged to us and that we needed to take full responsibility for removing it and putting up its replacement.

My neighbor's name was Lee and it turns out that he's a retired Baltimore policeman who now works as a local town cop. He seemed very nice, and was willing to consider helping to pay for the replacement fence. All I remember Guy telling me about him was that they had some sort of conflict over something, but just like everything else Guy told me about the house or the other neighbors, I should have taken it with a grain of salt and figured things out for myself.

I have been in a mostly bad mood today.

It snowed most of the day yesterday, which was nice. I don't worry about driving on snow so much anymore. I've almost gotten used to it now. In the south where I grew up, the four inches we got yesterday would have closed schools and businesses everywhere; it most likely would have been referred to as a blizzard. Ironic, because this is really the first significant snowfall we've had this year up here, but North Carolina has already had two storms with at least 6 inches each.

Continuing my bad habit of staying up late to watch movies on our new DVD player, I saw Being John Malkovich for the first time last night. We got it used for $10 from Blockbuster, and even though I hadn't seen it I had heard so many good things about it from so many people that I figured it was worth taking a chance on. It was pretty good, although I'm pretty freaked out at how intricate the puppets movements were. I'm mostly sure they were people in costume with strings attched to them to make them look like puppets, but I haven't totally convinced myself that this is the case yet. I think that DVD has a behind the scenes thing on it; maybe there will be info about the puppets on there. If not, there's always the web.

I was also amazed at how quickly I was able to accept the premise of a tunnel that leads into someone's head and then spits you out after 15 minutes. There was a website I found once linked off of one of the paranormal sites I visit that claimed to do something similar to the thing in the movie, so I went back there today to check it out. I now realize that this company is the same fictional company that has been set up in the movie, and that this website must have been sponsored by the filmmakers, but it doesn't look like a typical movie site. This is actually the way I think movie sites should be done; it doesn't really say anything about the movie at all, it is loyal to the ideas in the movie and helps expand the movie in a way that a traditional promotional site never could.

I found more information about the JM Inc. site on the official Being John Malkovich site. The site also claims that the puppets were real. Man, that's creepy.

I finally talked to my mother again last night. She has been going to bed before 9:00, and because of Christmas shopping and various other errands, we haven't been getting home until 9:30 or so. She wasn't supposed to fly to North Carolina for Christmas unless her white blood cell count was decent. Earlier this week when they checked it was 5, which is the low end of normal, but still good enough for her to travel. But yesterday when they checked, it was basically zero. This is good in one way because it means that the chemotherapy drugs are working. But as far as I'm concerned she shouldn't travel, she should just stay home and try to get some rest. Any virus or infection would be able to attack her system with no resistance at this point—she essentially has no immune system until her body is able to make white blood cells again. The doctor did prescribe medication that, injected once a day for six days, should hopefully get her body back on track, but it will take 4 or 5 days before she has enough white blood cells to mount an effective defense against infection.

So of course she is going to fly anyway, despite entreaties from several family members not to. It's probably dangerous enough just being out in the world with no white blood cells; an airplane has got to be one of the worst environments on the planet for avoiding infection, since you share the same recycled air with dozens of other people for the duration of your flight, not to mention the associated stresses of travelling. I hope it all turns out okay. I think that her optimism about her chances to beat the cancer is also translating into an almost adolescent sense of invicibility; she's not really changing much about the way she lives her life, even though she really needs to tone down all of her activities while she's fighting this thing and save her strength for the next several months, which aren't going to get any better in terms of the effects the treatment has on her body.

I don't know. I just don't think she should be travelling.

This will be the last update for a while. I'm not going to be gone all that long, but I won't sit down at my computer again until probably after the new year. Going to catch up on some reading, clean up from Christmas, and probably invest some time in watching DVDs. Happy holidays.
december 2000
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