Friday, June 20, 2008

The Improbability of Being Alive

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the fragility of life (for pretty straightforward reasons – see my previous post). I’ve also been thinking a bit about the sheer improbability of being alive.

Here’s the most dramatic personal example I can come up with of what I mean:

Members of one of the families from whom I’m descended, specifically my father’s mother’s mother’s family, emigrated from Ireland to Virginia sometime in the late 1600s, establishing a nuclear family household there. Sometime shortly thereafter, this household was wiped out in a raid by local Native Americans, except for an infant son, my ancestor, who was left alive, found by other members of the Euro-American community and taken in.

Whatever their particular grievance, whether against the specific family or against Europeans in general moving into the area, and there were likely plenty of grievances to choose from, had this particular raiding party chosen to completely finish off the household, the world today would be little if any different in any big way, but I wouldn’t be here. Likewise if the child had died of starvation or exposure before being found and taken into another household. Even if the Native Americans in question had chosen to adopt the child into their own community, a not unlikely scenario in the circumstances, that child might have had descendants alive today, but I wouldn’t be here.

In many more mundane ways, my mere existence depends upon a highly improbable concatenation of little decisions having been made by untold numbers of people. Upon having his job as an engraver transferred from a paper plant in upstate New York to a new plant outside of Pensacola, Florida in the early 1950s, had my grandfather and grandmother decided that job or not job, they weren’t moving to muggy Northwest Florida in those pre-air-conditioned Jim-Crow-era days, then my mother and my father would have been around, but never met, resulting in no me.

Given that the human species did evolve, and given that the Neolithic transition occurred (both improbable to varying degrees beforehand), I don’t find it particularly improbable that there are people around now, or even that there are 6 billion people around now, but each of those 6 billion people, as individuals, is the result of an astronomically improbable chain of prior human actions and decisions.

Perhaps not the most profound or original thought (it is, after all, a basic premise of the movie Back to the Future), but something I’ve been thinking about lately.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Where I've Been

I’ve been a bit preoccupied lately.

In mid-April, my partner, Reginald Shepherd, suffered a serious, nearly fatal, medical crisis. For reasons still unknown, a perforation opened in his small intestine, leading to severe abdominal infection and peritonitis, blood poisoning (one of the things that nearly killed him), catastrophically low blood pressure (think in the neighborhood of 40 over 20) and a heart attack, kidney failure for a short period at the height of the crisis, about ten days on a ventilator and on hallucination-provoking sedatives, three surgeries over the course of those ten days, two weeks (that included the aforementioned ten days) in the intensive care unit, three more weeks in the hospital, and an ongoing recovery process at home. See Speech After Long Silence, Tiene Dolor?, and Long Hard Road Out Of Hell for Reginald’s account of the ordeal.

Reginald’s medical trials didn’t begin in mid-April. The whole past year has been quite rough for him, with a series of emergency room visits (in three separate states), that led in November to diagnosis with colon cancer, a successful surgery to remove the tumor, but also the discovery of the spread of the cancer to the liver, followed by many rounds of chemotherapy and a process called radiofrequency ablation to cook the two tumors on the liver. In short, the situation that began in April occurred after a very trying year and after we were beginning to think (with good reason – his cancer prognosis looked and looks pretty good) his medical condition was under control. As a result, I have mixed feelings about the timing of this crisis: after the entire past year and everything he and we have been through, especially once things were looking up, it’s frustrating, frightening, even shocking to have something else come along to make “Stage 4 Metastatic Cancer” seem like a walk in the park, while at the same time, if this was going to happen, better in mid-April than a few months earlier when the cancer was very much not under control, when even the best case recovery from the acute crisis of blood poisoning would have meant a long delay of chemotherapy at a critical juncture.

As a result of the past year, and especially the last couple months, I have a somewhat different perspective on health, illness, doctors, nurses, medical care and institutions than I did a year ago, but more on that over my next few posts.