The WHAT'S NEW! page contains the latest medical updates. If you're wondering how I'm going as far as health is concerned, this is the place to start. Latest: Wed 27 Nov 2013. 7.20AM

Friday, November 30, 2012

Rocket Men (2)

In the first part of this, I said there was an odd thing about that train journey on the Sunlander to Townsville.

   In 1961, the Sunlander had the distinction of being one of the rare air-conditioned trains in Queensland – rare in the sense that we bushies were unused to it. I liked the idea very much. It was about 30 degrees in Gladstone when we started, and we were going even further north, to hotter climes.

   The problem for us was that we were used to living in summer temperatures of 30-40 degrees C (86°-100°F), and the temperature in these carriages was about 17 (63°F). Sitting there without physical activity, I got cold, and was looking for a jumper or blanket fairly soon after starting out.

   I was put in a compartment with a woman and a little girl I took to be her daughter, aged about ten. There was some resemblance between them so I'll assume that. My guess was that they had come all the way from Brisbane, so had already spent about twelve hours on the train.

   The woman was tall and severe looking, and the girl not much different looking from any other of about her age – mousy brown hair and owlish looking eyes – when she looked up at all. She was focused on her knitting, at which she was obviously skilled.

   From the start I sensed there was something wrong. The girl's top lip was periodically beaded with sweat, but her skin looked goose-bumped as if she were cold. I think she was. A faint smell of stale odour exuded from her.

   When I got into the compartment, her mother who had been sitting opposite now sat beside her, and I sat facing them. The mother looked displeased at my presence, which was understandable if they had had the compartment all to themselves up to then. The little girl seemed indifferent, just burrowing down and concentrating on her knitting.

   At one stage the girl asked if she could go to the toilet. With a look of exasperation, her mother refused, and motioned to the knitting. The child obeyed without protest. Not long after, clearly distressed, she put down the knitting and fearfully asked again.

   I was shocked to see the woman raise her hand as if to strike her, but she must have thought better of it, motioned to the door and simply said, angrily "Go!" adding "Get back here soon."

   This was beyond my ken. No mother I'd ever seen behaved like that. I'd seen them angry at misbehaving kids, but not this deep inexplicable rage.

   The girl got up quickly, and disappeared.

   Train lavatories in those days were pretty primitive, even on the Sunlander. For very good reason, there was a prominent sign in all of them:

   Lifting the lid while the train was travelling made a sound as if from the depths of hell – roaring over bridges, screaming, and quite terrifying for little kids, who feared getting sucked down that pipe to where you could see the sleepers and gravel bedding racing by underneath.

   The little girl was on her own. She returned not long after, clutching the handerchief with which she was still wiping her hands, a vague faecal smell now added to the sour body odour.

   Her mother looked at her with anger and disgust, hitting her on the arm, open-palmed, as the child passed in front of her. The girl sat quickly in the window corner and resumed her knitting. The mother also knitted, expertly.

   At times she offended her mother in ways that were a mystery to me, and was smacked on the arm or across her back. The sweat beads on her upper lip came and went. There were many times when I went back to my poem or read a book to avoid the discomfort. What could I do? I felt outraged but I was a kid myself. Grownups were grownups. I couldn't interfere even if I wanted to. Besides, that woman was scary, even for someone like me who could have thrown her out the window. Not that you could open the windows on the Sunlander, unlike the old Rocky Mail.

   At about dark, the mother produced some squashed sandwiches from her bag and told the girl to eat them. Having been prepared maybe the best part of two days before, they looked unappetising to me, but the mother's fare was no better. They ate in silence. The girl ate every bit. I had no doubt she would be punished if she had not.

   She went on knitting, for hours. I still remember vividly those needles flashing in and out of the wool. The train made too much noise to hear their clink, but it would have been perfectly rhythmical. Never at any stage did I have an idea what she was knitting.

   Her mother ordered her to go to the lavatory again, which she did. I was hoping she could freshen herself up a bit, but obviously she was on an unspoken time limit and was no less smelly, poor child, than when she left the compartment. She didn't get a smack this time; just a threatening scowl and was told to go to sleep. Her mother flicked through a magazine for a while as if its contents offended her deeply. (Now, I realise it would have been of some interest to know what it was, but I could barely look at her.)

   The kid huddled in the corner, with some sort of shawl or tatty rug over her, closed her eyes and didn't move. The cabin lights were bright but she wasn't risking any charge of disobedience. Finally, the lights were dimmed and her mother and I settled down.

   I was pretty restless and was awake most of the remainder of the night. After all, I had exciting days ahead. I must have slept a little because I was disorientated. It felt like that sun was rising in the west and we were going back the way we had come.

   By dawn I knew we weren't far out of Townsville, and I wondered if the other two were going right through to Cairns.

   I soon had an answer to my question, and of everything unpleasant I had seen, then came the episode in this experience that imprinted most deeply in my memory. The mother and child were both sleeping deeply until well after sunrise. The woman woke with a start, peered out of the window and realised we were nearing Townsville.

   She peeled back the shawl from the legs of the sleeping girl, and delivered four very hard stinging slaps; the sort that echo in a confined space like that. "Get up! We're nearly there. Get UP!"

   That was her morning greeting and wake-up call for the little girl, who sat up quickly, blinking her owly eyes in the bright North Queensland sunshine. She didn't look at her legs, striped with bright red marks. They were not the last vicious smacks she got for phantom sins in the next few minutes.

   Not long after, the Sunlander pulled in, and the pair got off, the daughter propelled along before the mother.

   By 9 AM I was in the Townsville City Pool. I was still disorientated and it seemed to me the sun was where it should be at 3 PM, but the big clock at the end of the pool didn't lie. I don't even remember how I got to the pool, but there were memories I badly needed to wash out of my system.

   The sun behaved itself and rose in the east only when I got to Magnetic Island. I was glad it had sorted itself out. But I sometimes wonder about that little girl, who if she survived her childhood would now be about sixty. Would she turn into that monster if power came into her hands? 

   As to her sadistic mother – frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.

Rocket Men (1) | Rocket Men (2)

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Rocket Men (1)

When inspiration comes, you just have to go with it. Bugger any other story you're half-way through; you write about what's on your mind or it gnaws away at you. You try to concentrate on the other story but this one won't let go. You have no choice. You must get it out there. Set it free.

So here it is. I'll do my best to keep it short but it spawns at least three other stories
I will ignore. Fear not; there is a Part 2.

They're like Hydra's heads. You cut off one of them and you have to put several others on the list.

Who are these people who get writer's block? Didn't they ever have a life? Don't they know there's at least one good story in every day?

Now, here it is. Really. Cross my heart.

Dick Goon Chew and I. Guess who's who.
I was on my way to Magnetic Island. If you've been there lately, my memory of it wouldn't be recognisable to you, because this was 1961 and it was a pristine backwater with little habitation. 

  1961. Now that's a very significant date for me, but for reasons of privacy of one very close, I can't say why. (Stay with the story, foolish boy.)

   I was going to a Leaders Camp run by National Fitness Australia. I was 14 going on 15, selected because I'd been coaching gymnastics for several years, even at that tender age. (Stay with this story... stay... stay!) The camp was run by a very athletic Dick Goon Chew, together with guest instructors like the famous Laurie Lawrence. (Another two stories there, but.... stay... stay.)

Undecipherable: the text is below
   This is not about the NFC camp, but an incident on the way up on the train from Gladstone to Townsville, the latter being the jump-off point for the boat trip over to Magnetic Island. The experience to which I refer was so chilling for me that I distracted myself from it by composing a poem – a scrawled one written and revised at intervals on the jolting train in a second-class compartment on the Sunlander during the 18 hour trip. (The real Sunlander, that is, not this new-fangled tilt train that now takes half the time.)

    I viewed this scrap of paper again for the first time in 50 years, while looking for something else entirely. (Thanks, Tracey, for finding this poem, but... stay.... Don't stray....)

    This piece of doggerel, which I thought vaguely amusing as a 14 year old, had nothing to do with the incident I found disturbing, except as a diversion from it. All I intended to do by composing it was to take my mind off what was happening beside me in the train compartment. 

   I'm amused at how contrived it is, from this distance of half a century, but you know, I've seen some not much better printed in poetry books. So, I'm far from ashamed of it, for it was the product of my mind at fourteen years of age.

   It's the mind of a boy I think I can still recognise inside me, and maybe, if you've read some of my other stories, you will too. 

The Home-Made Rocket

The idea came with brilliant thought and planning –
A gem – from Rolly, Bert and Thomas.
It needed little ardent fanning,
That flame of dare which indicated promise.

The rocket was the product of tradition
Made to reach beyond the furthest star.
The wick was long, of subtle composition.
The fuel solid – as most modern rockets are.

All three inventors knew of its potential,
Though inert now, it generated fear,
So Thomas said (he was most influential)
"Light it Bert; it's really your idea."

In face of this the youngster could not fade
And set it up with inward trepidation,
But lacking that which mightier men has made
Retired soon to safer habitation.

The astronauts, with little close inspection
Now wished it dead at this eleventh hour.
It altered course; and right in their direction
And none of them had doubts about its power.

No prophet could foretell its course exact,
For weaving vaguely in its frenzied flight
The missile left its proper goal intact
And scattered its creators left and right.

So scientists, please note this little drama
The course you planned may well be parabolic.
But when you aim for unknown panorama
Your rocket too may turn out diabolic.
Rocket Men (1) | Rocket Men (2)

Monday, November 26, 2012

The view from the inside and the Chekhov heist (1)

Kindle Clippings File - graphic image only
Here I am. 6:51 AM. I'm not usually here this early. I don't particularly want to be, because it means I have had a disturbed night.

   It's not that I can't sleep – not in the way that many people can't sleep because they're worrying about things. It's that at 5 AM I was jolted awake by the all-too-familiar pinging in the fingers telling me that a focal seizure is under way.

   I was lying on my left side. It was first light, still almost totally dark in the bedroom. Usually when I feel a seizure coming on, I turn and lie on my back, but I decided to stay exactly where I was and see how coping with it went lying on my side.

   The other fingers began to get into the act strongly. It's strange how it nearly always starts in this one place, the fingers of the right hand, where the very first seizure began over a thousand days ago. 1088 days, to be exact. This time it spread to the thumb, which isn't usual.

   I don't like that. The thumb joint always has been perfectly mobile in all this time, giving me whatever power to manipulate objects that I have in the right hand. I was getting fairly good at using a dinner knife and tying my shoelaces again.

   It was quite a strong seizure, and as it died away slightly in the hand I felt the iron sheath slip over my upper arm; creeping then the right side of the torso. It wasn't painful; just uncomfortable. Always a bit disconcerting, not knowing if it's a prelude to some grand performance.

   It went on for a couple of minutes, increasing in force, and I felt nauseous. Then I felt it weaken as the sensation gripped the whole right side. Back to the fingers, and then it died away.

   It was probably two minutes and not much more, but I couldn't be sure it was over. There comes a time when I do know. I needed to lie there until any paralysis effects wore off. I was glad I didn't feel like my bladder was full. I didn't want to get caught in no-man's land in the bathroom like that other time, towelling off after a shower, when I fell and did all that damage to my back.

   I felt glad also that we made the decision long ago to sleep in separate bedrooms, in order to minimise unnecessary disturbance. In this case, if Tracey had been in here, she'd be just as jolted awake as I was, at the time she sleeps deepest – but when there's nothing she can do to help.

   There's a bell I have at hand. If I ring that she'll come running, knowing I would use it only when I thought she needed to be there; if a seizure had gone on too long or getting weird, for example. That's not now. The time may come when the bell-ringing gets more frequent, but not yet.

   It seemed that the seizure had passed. On the surface and as an isolated event, that particular one was trivial. But I needed to stay there, as safely as possible, until I was as sure as I could be that it was over.

   I'd have gone back to sleep if I could have - I've done that before, but I knew that the watershed moment beyond being able to turn over and sleep again had passed. The main window, the one cracked by the earthquake, faces east. It had grown lighter and a large flock of cockatoos had settled nearby; quite noisy they were. Very close. Other birds began their morning songs.

   I turned on the light, made a mental note of the time, and carefully I made my way to the bathroom. What to do next? Sometimes when I woke early, but not from a seizure, I would do the daily exercises. That felt a bit dodgy just after an 'event'. I went back to bed, and reached for the little Kindle.

   This device is brilliant. The smallest and cheapest in the wi-fi range [wi-fi meaning it can connect wirelessly to the internet], having it means I can immediately read the day's news or anything else worth viewing, with some limitations. I could read any of the books I have on the go.

   Or, I could read a couple of articles from the web I'd located yesterday that I'd decided I preferred to study on the Kindle screen. Doing that the way I do, details of which I'll spare you here, means that I can make notes in an electronic file that I can drop on the computer.

   And what did I read this morning? Two articles that hang together. Disgust made me want to get up and write. I was going to talk about them right here, because they couldn't possibly be more relevant to my life – and death – than anything else at the moment. So I took my notes, and now here I am to talk about them. Which is funny, because both you and I have had enough of this epistle for the moment at least, and the seizure has blurred my vision, so that will be Part 2. Frankly, I'm surprised we made it this far together.

   I need to eat now, and take my pills. It's 7:50 AM. By the time I've done that, and cleaned this up, it will be... let's see. [Insert posting time here ==> Nearly 1:00 PM.]

The reason for the cockatoo disputes. Cherry tree now stripped. Not one cherry remains!

After the pills, I felt a bit wobbly, and realised the possible precariousness of my position, so I went back to bed, and woke at 11 AM. That sure puts my routine for this day in a tailspin. Hey, but I'm still here.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Words: not to be trusted

We have interesting dinner conversations. A great fan of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy [who isn't?], Dr Who and some Steam-driven computer games, he was prattling on about time travel and infinite possibilities, portals and worm holes.

   "What's time?" I asked him, innocently. After all, he's nearly twenty, and knows a great deal.

   "Everyone knows what time is," he said, going on to discuss his time travel possibilities.

I know what time travel is," I said, as much as anyone does, which is very little. "I asked you what time was."

   He was sufficiently exercised by my question to get up halfway through his dinner, and go to the font of all knowledge [Wikipedia, I'm guessing] to get some backup.

   He was there a while.

   "It's a dimension," he said as he came back; which were the exact words I used, aloud, at the same time as he said them, "...measured in increments...." The word I used, in concert with his "increments", was "units."

   "Right. Now we can be sure we're talking about the same thing. That we have an agreed definition."

   "It's time he ate that nice piece of fish before it's ruined," his mother said, a trifle schnapperly.

   "I'll tell you what time is. Time's what I've saved quite a few idiots from doing." In the local courtroom or
pro bono up at Glen Innes, she was talking about.

   "...some who probably should have done a stretch," she added.

   We went on to discuss the relationship between time and space, the curvature of the latter – stuff like that.

   It's what we do at our dinner table. But that wasn't exactly what I was going to talk about.

The one thing that's come up again and again in my postings is the unreliability of words to get clear meaning across. Specialists in legal firms and government departments are devoted to clarifying what words mean. The best they can come up with are agreed definitions of words or terms, and these definitions can change quickly.

   Here are just two examples of how words mislead.

   1. Something happens that doesn't conform to what we might think of as "normal". "Ah," says Chris to Sam, "As they say, the exception proves the rule." Chris and Sam nod sagely at each other and walk off.

   "The exception proves the rule." What does that mean?

   What it doesn't mean is that because there's an exception, the rule must be "true".

   The problem lies with the word "proves". Here it's being used in an unusual, almost archaic sense. It means "tests". It tests the rule. It challenges it. Nothing more. It's very far from making the rule any truer.

   2. Chris has been discussing politics with Sam and says, "I was thoroughly exercised by the Prime Minister's views on that."

   Sam is confused. Sam doesn't know quite what to make of the comment. Exercise, as we all know, is good for us, so Chris must have agreed with the PM.

   Chris means just the opposite. Chris has been annoyed about the comment, not enjoying it.

   I've said many times how this lack of clarity with words has caused some of the greatest of human disasters, especially when there's an insistence that a word in a text can mean just one thing.

   When a Sufi said "I am God" he could be, and frequently was, burned at the stake for heresy. A Hindu philosopher understands with crystal clarity what the Sufi means [or meant, poor sod]. In Christianity, "I am God" would be regarded as heretical as well, though the days of physical stake-burning for such theological presumption are over, for the moment at least. Mentally though, there's still a bit of it about.

   The problem lies in two entirely different interpretations of what "I" and "God" mean. Get a room full of twenty people to write down in a sentence what they think these words mean and you'll get twenty different answers. Yet these same people may be willing to kill each other over their conviction about their particular meaning.

   Words, I say again, are good servants, but bad masters. Don't trust them, even though they're what we use for much of our communication – totally, in written conversation. How often does that get misunderstood, particularly without facial and bodily communication to go with it?

    I think that's all the words I'm going to use up on the matter, at long last.

   It is done, it is done...

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Aunty Amy's mustard – another 'tale from my wicked past'

A delightful posting here about plastic-tasting glug reminded me vividly of a saga with my Aunty Amy. I was living with her and Uncle Vic the whole three years I was at university in the late 1960s, after teaching ankle-biters for a couple of years.

    She insisted on packing me a cut lunch, which had its advantage in cost-saving for someone climbing down from a teacher's wage of about $50 to $19 per week. Apart from a piece of fruit, the lunch invariably consisted of two sizable packs of sandwiches. Aunty Amy was short and barrel-shaped, and her main mission in life was to try to make everyone else conform roughly those proportions. Me, anyway.

Avocado, not mustard. *SIGH*
    The only problem was that one packet of the two invariably contained ham sandwiches with a particular mustard on them I loathed. I figured I was being picky and should get used to it, so I ate them for some time. A farm life made it impossible to throw away good food.

    But, as in the piece mentioned above, it got to the stage where it was too late to say, "Don't put mustard on it" without raising a query from Aunty Amy about why, and I wasn't skilled enough in diplomacy to get around it.

    The problem was solved when I started meeting my youngest sister at the university refectory for lunch, she being in the first year of her degree. She had no objection to the mustard and was as poor as I, if not poorer, so for the best part of three years, Aunty Amy unknowingly provided lunch for both of us. [Had she discovered it, she would have simply doubled the rations.]

    Aunty Amy was Dad's sister, and much loved by us all. When we were little, on the rare times she was able to visit the farm, she snuck out to us kids on the verandah and told bum jokes.

    Aunty Amy was wicked, you see. That's why we loved her so much.

    "What's the difference," she would ask us, blue eyes sparkling, "between a postbox and an elephant's bum?"

    "I don't know," we'd chorus, with evil expectancy in our eyes.

    "Well," she'd snort, "I'm not going to send any of you to post my letters!"

    They just don't make them like that any more.

    Her only complaint was that she couldn't sit babies on her lap, "...because I don't have any lap!" she'd say sadly.

    But oh, she was rude, in the way the Vicar of Dibley is when telling rude jokes to Alice.

    "Do you know what I'm going to buy if I win the lottery?" She'd make sure our mother wasn't around, or pretend to, to make it more conspiratorial.

    "What will you buy?" we asked, knowing it was going to be deliciously rude.

    "I'm going to get a new bum," she said, "because mine's got a hole in it."

    Unlike the Vicar's Alice, we were rude too. We needed no explanation of the joke, and a splendid one it was, you must admit.

    If you're rude.*
*No kidding, this just came up on my tweetline: "Touch the hole in your life, and there flowers will bloom." ~ Zen saying. [I suppose now you can be certain that Aunty Amy and I are related.]

Monday, November 19, 2012

Two new brain tumour papers

 I am publicising only two very recent papers on new brain tumour trials and therapies, but I do it with important qualifications and differing reasons.

It's interesting that the first has taken so long, not only to have this trial done but to get it into the public arena. The fact is that it takes time and money to get to this point. If it's to be done properly, with intelligence, planning and post-number-crunching, then a good case must be made for investing in all of this.

Even more confusing is the conflicting evidence, and I'm living proof of it. The story on the first says that Avastin offers only 'extra weeks' on average for GBM victims.* In my case, a person in his 60s, Avastin has given me an extra two years or more so far, although it is clear that I am at the stage where the 'cure' becomes the 'poison'.

It's done its job. I can't ask for more, but the fact that it's an unbreakable pact between Avastin and me may explain in part why I did not opt for it months before I did – a question I've been asked several times. There are other reasons as well, but I won't go into them further here.

My point is that this report can have a negative impact on decisions by Governments to extend PBS subsidy to drugs like Avastin, if those who decide these matters think 4.5 months is not worth the $20,000+ expense. This means many may miss out on significant reasonable quality of life extension simply because they can't afford tens of thousands of dollars to see if it's useful for them. The benefit as in my case, is measured in years, not months. This could well be the case for others, like young parents.

In the first case, Avastin is in use in Australia, obviously, or I wouldn't be here now. In the second piece of research, it is likely that because it is only in the trials stages in the US, it won't be of any benefit to those in Australia who have brain tumours now. This is not to say that it has no long-term value, of course, but often hopes are raised, only to be dashed. 

I have taken chunks from these articles but you should read the originals at the sites indicated, as they say important things I leave out. I offer them to you to help move debate along as to new therapies and how they might work. As I said, please read the full article if you want a real understanding of its substance.

The first is a British study, the second American. Three dots [...] indicates where parts of the original article have been omitted. My sincere thanks to all involved.

Article 1 
Drug offers brain cancer victims extra weeks of normal life
By Victoria Fletcher

Patients with incurable brain tumours could be given new hope thanks to a drug currently used on bowel cancer, a study suggests.

Glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) kills more people under 40 than any other cancer... the most common and most dangerous of brain tumours.

Unlike other cancers, which are more likely to strike as patients get older, GBM is just as prevalent in patients who are young and healthy.

Unfortunately, the average sufferer will only survive for 14 months after diagnosis... and 2,500 die from their tumours annually.

However, a new trial published yesterday shows patients can be given an extra four-and-a-half months without their condition worsening** if they also receive the drug Avastin.

The trial on 911 men and women suggests Avastin can slow the growth of the tumour, giving patients a few more months of relatively normal life before the tumour grows so big that it starts to destroy their ability to speak, their behaviour, their memory and their movement.
...  'Giving them a few extra months to [prepare] before they deteriorate and cannot speak is important. This is an endpoint in itself, even if this drug does not improve overall survival rates.'

...At the moment, patients diagnosed with GBM are usually offered surgery to remove the tumour, followed by cycles of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. For most, however, relapse is inevitable and half will have died from the disease within 14 months. Around 25 per cent will manage to survive for two years, while fewer than ten per cent live for five years.

Avastin, which is made by the pharmaceutical giant Roche, works by reducing blood supply to the tumour and slowing its growth. It is already used to treat colorectal, breast and ovarian cancers.

Some patients in the UK already receive Avastin to treat recurrent forms of brain cancer, because it is not yet approved for this use on the NHS....  'In principle, anything that slows the progression of GBM has to be a good thing,' he said.

 'But this disease is such a minefield and it's important to remember different patients are affected differently, depending on which side of the brain [and the location D.W.] the tumour is found.

 'My wife was climbing mountains after she was diagnosed but then the tumour progressed and it was on the left of her brain, so it affected movement, personality and memory.

 'I would want any new drug to ensure it gives patients four more months when they can climb mountains and not four more when the disease has already robbed them of their speech and memory.'

It currently takes the average GP three months to diagnose GBM.

This is because symptoms include severe headaches, vomiting and blurred vision, which can be attributed to other conditions such as migraine. Sufferers may also experience an itchy head and feel as if something is running across their scalp.

Article 2

Brain cancer breakthrough: Experimental vaccine trains immune system to target remaining tumor cells after surgery

November 14, 2012 by John Murray....

UC Irvine oncologists are looking for new ways to treat glioblastoma multiforme, the deadliest type of brain cancer. While surgery followed by chemotherapy and radiation is the current standard of care, it doesn't fully eliminate the cancer. The goal is to develop an additional therapy that seeks out and destroys the cancer cells that inevitably remain.

Dr. Daniela Bota is testing whether enlisting the immune system to fight the tumor can complement surgery, drugs and radiation and improve a patient's odds of surviving....

"Cancer cells are like crabgrass: Once they take root, they're hard to eradicate.... The immune system is powerful, but it must be trained to recognize these cancer cells before it can do its job."

Enter the experimental glioblastoma vaccine. Think of it as a personal brain cancer smoothie: Pulverized pieces of a patient's surgically excised tumor are blended in a laboratory with his or her own white blood cells. When injected back into the body, the concoction programs the individual's immune system with new targets – any remaining cancer cells....

A previous trial demonstrated that this vaccine is safe and, in some cases, doubled patients' median survival after diagnosis from 15 months to about 31 months....

A glioblastoma vaccine does not eliminate the need for brain surgery, which is also required to collect the cancer cells used in the "smoothie."...

"Everyone responds differently, but immunotherapy has a great chance to be the next leap forward in cancer treatment," Bota says. 

Provided by University of California, Irvine

There is much more I could say on this, as it leaves many things open-ended. Another time perhaps – but lastly, and the most important thing – every case is different, depending on a variety of factors.

I may not comment on any or all comments, but others should feel free to discuss this in the comments section.

*Am I allowed to use the terms 'victims' and 'sufferers' for those struck down by GBMs? Some people object on the grounds that they are negative terms. Well guess what? It's not a positive disease! The terms are deadly accurate, so I'll use them if I like.

**In my case, my condition improved substantially – and immediately.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The first picture show

Anyone who knows me well will probably know also that I love The Last Picture Show – that bleak, stark b&w Bogdanovitch film set in a dusty tired little Texan nowheresville.

   Like matter and anti-matter, things have their reverse somewhere in time and space, and this incident in Calliope illustrates it.

   Shell Oil Co. would periodically bring travelling movie shows to little places like ours, mainly propaganda about how wonderful Shell was in helping to build our fair country by providing services for various progressive operations of national importance.

   One project I remember involved great tractors with a ball and chain between them, to mow down masses of the only spindly vegetation that could grow naturally in great swathes of the country. Then, using fertilisers sold by Shell, Gardens of Eden could result. Stuff like that.

   They also brought cartoons like Woody Woodpecker, a Movietone newsreel or two, and some health films, so we hicks could learn about sanitation and other things that hadn't crossed our minds.

    Because we had no movie theatre, they'd set up in the Diggers Arms dance hall, starting when it got dark enough to see the screen. Country people got up early and if Shell were going to get its propaganda in, then the show couldn't go very late.

   We loved these free shows and gladly put up with the boring stuff just to see the cartoons, which would be the subject of discussion in the playground for weeks after. No doubt we also absorbed the idea how altruistic Shell was in contributing to the growth of our nation.

    People brought pillows and blankets for the littlies, and put them on the floor down at the front.

   On the occasion I'm describing now, the Marr family, backwoodspeople even by Calliope standards, turned up for the show. There was a tribe of them that I don't think anyone, maybe not even their parents, could keep an accurate count of. Ma and Pa Marr just had fun year in and out, and kids kept on turning up. Had Ma Marr been in the USSR, she would have been declared a Mother of the Soviet Union and received the Order of Lenin from Stalin himself.

   This was their first picture show. First ever movie for the lot of them.

   The kids sat on the floor at the front, cross-legged, noses in a line nearly touching the screen until someone told them they'd see it better from slightly further back. They weren't entirely convinced, based on the principle that the closer you get to something like a red-backed spider, the more clearly you could see it – but they obliged. They were also told to stop getting up and down in front of the screen, which was a bit of a disappointment to them as they'd never been able to make shadows with the kerosene lamp at home anywhere near as good as those made by the film projector.

   They took seriously a threat from the back of the hall from Blue Savage that he would bite off the next Marr head or hand that made a shadow on the screen. With a couple of rums and several 10 oz. beer chasers under (and above) his belt, Blue Savage and his promises were not to be ignored.

   If you think I'm laying it on a bit thick, let me tell you that the first thing that came on the screen – maybe a movietone news – was such a delight that all the Marrs burst into gales of laughter. Regardless of subject matter, they chuckled their way through it, and roared gleefully at anything that moved on that thar screen. 

   To them, the cartoons were magic. Woody Woodpecker, which was in colour, did amazing things like getting chased by a live circular saw blade. They screamed in fear and delight, and were greatly relieved when Woody's indomitable spirit saved him time and again.

   Of course, everyone else in the vill-arge, seasoned Shell free-movie veterans, became highly amused at their antics, and there was much mirth all round. Even the serious bits of the propaganda soundtrack regarding Shell's vital contribution to the nation were compromised. In spite of earnest Shell executives on the screen, no-one could now hear them because of the squeals of glee coming from the Marr camp, plus the general guffaws from everyone else. Only the Shell guy seemed to mind about that, but he was outnumbered. Everyone else was having a rip-roaring time.

   The Marr chuckling bonanza lulled slightly until the Health film came on. This one was a colour cartoon about building an earth closet lavatory. What did they think we did – build nests to live in like gorillas, befoul it till it became unliveable, and then move on and make another one?

   The movie was at the stage where the dunny toilet lavatory was complete except for the cladding; in other words, at this stage, it had no wall covering. For a touch of humour, they had a little smurf-like boy character hurry into the dunny, and is about to drop his pants when he discovers, to his horror, that it's a completely see-through structure. But he is saved by the magic of Disney-like cartooning. The walls are added in a flash, wrap-around style, and a door appears exactly where a dunny door should be.

   This was altogether too much for the Marrs. They screamed with laughter at the smurfie boy who had been so nearly caught with his pants down for all to see. They rolled round the floor in hysterics and the littlest ones hugged each other at the spectacle. Never in their lives had any of them, I'm sure, seen anything so utterly side-splitting.

   It must be said that the laughter was infectious. You know where someone is in hysterics so much that you catch it too? That's what happened. The whole hall was full of people laughing so hard that not even a Blue Savage threat could have brought order to the proceedings. There wasn't much chance of that – he was nearly pissing himself laughing anyway, tears coming from both eyes, which was as near as Blue Savage had ever been seen crying – probably even by his mother.

   All were enjoying themselves except for the Shell man, swapping the reels of film over, convinced he had come to a backwater of lunacy so uncouth that its inhabitants probably did need basic toilet training. He still had several pieces of propaganda to run.

   He needn't have worried, for here's the funniest thing of all. The Marr kids, every last one of them, had hystericked themselves out. They were used to going to bed with the chooks every night of their lives. By the end of that Health film, not halfway through the proceedings, they'd had enough excitement, and not even they knew it.

   They simply sank exhausted from cross-legged on the floor to prone, and fell fast asleep in seconds. There was not another peep out of one of them for the remainder of the show. Not a murmur.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Myth does it better: the Parade of Ants

Shiva Nataraja – Lord of the Dance
In the last posting I wrote in the Illusion, truth and reality series, I tried to indicate how myth could be a better form of transmitting truth than preaching. It tells a story – and we all love a story. It doesn't have to be dogmatic, and it uses exactly the same method as the great religious teachers such as Jesus and the Buddha used – parable and metaphor. 

This is an example from the Hindu tradition, which tells its greatest truths in epic myths – the Mahabharata and the Ramayana in particular. This myth comes from an excerpt from the wonderful book by Heinrich Zimmer (Joseph Campbell, ed.): Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. I gave it to my students in Indian history every year, and always had my suspicions that I could have graded them on their reaction to it.

Here's the story.

The Parade of Ants

The endless cycle of Indras

Indra slew the dragon, a giant titan that had been couching on the mountains in the limbless shape of a cloud serpent, holding the waters of heaven captive in its belly.

   The god flung his thunderbolt into the midst of the ungainly coils; the monster shattered like a stack of withered rushes. The waters burst free and streamed in ribbons across the land, to circulate once more throughout the body of the world.

   This flood is the flood of life and belongs to all. It is the sap of field and forest, the blood coursing in the veins. The monster had appropriated the common benefit, massing his ambitious, selfish hulk between heaven and earth, but now was slain. The juices again were pouring. The titans were retreating to the underworlds; the gods were returning to the summit of the central mountain of the earth, there to reign from on high. ...

   [Indra] summoned Vishvakarman, the god of arts and crafts, and commanded him to erect such a palace as would be worthy of the king of the gods. The miraculous genius, Vishvakarman, succeeded in constructing in a single year a shining residence, marvellous with palaces and gardens, lakes and towers.

   But as work progressed, the demands of Indra became even more exacting and his unfolding visions vaster. ... he developed visions beyond visions of new and more complicated marvels. Presently the divine craftsman, brought to despair, decided to seek succour from [the creator god, Brahma].

   [Brahma assured Vishvakarman that he would soon be relieved of his burden.]

The brahmin boy

The next morning, a brahmin boy carrying the staff of a pilgrim appeared at the gate of Indra. ... The two retired to the hall of Indra, where the king asked: "O venerable Boy, tell me the purpose of your coming."

   The beautiful child replied with a voice that was as deep and soft as the slow thundering of auspicious rainclouds. "O King of Gods, I have heard of the mighty palace you are building, and have come to refer to you the questions in my mind. ... no Indra before you has ever succeeded in completing such a palace as yours is to be."

   Indra, full of the wine of triumph, is amused at the mere boy's pretension to a knowledge of Indras earlier than himself. "Tell me, Child! Are they then so very many, the Indras and Vishvakarmans whom you have seen - or at least, whom you have heard of?"... [The boy says he knew Indra's father, Kashyapa, the old Tortoise man, and his grandfather, ... son of Brahma. ..]

   "Oh King of Gods, I have known the dreadful dissolution of the universe. I have seen all perish, again and again, at the end of every cycle. At that terrible time, every single atom dissolves into the primal, pure waters of eternity, whence originally all arose. Everything then goes back into the fathomless, wild infinity of the ocean, which is covered with utter darkness and is empty of every sign of animate being.

   Ah, who will count the universes that have passed away, or the creations that have risen afresh, again and again, from the formless abyss of the vast waters? Who will number the passing ages of the world, as they follow each other endlessly? And who will search through the wide infinities of space to count the universes side by side, each containing its Brahma, its Vishnu, its Shiva?

   Who count the Indras in them all - those Indras side by side, who reign at once in all the innumerable worlds; those others who passed away before them; or even the Indras who succeed each other in any given line, ascending to godly kingship, one by one, and, one by one, passing away?

   King of Gods, there are among your servants certain who maintain that it may be possible to number the grains of sand on earth and the drops of rain that fall from the sky, but no one will ever number all those Indras. This is what the Knowers know."

A procession of ants

[The boy continued to speak in this manner while, meanwhile,] a procession of ants had made its appearance in the hall. In military array, in a column four yards wide, the tribe paraded across the floor. [This sight set the holy child laughing. At Indra's stammering request, he explains his action]:

   "I laughed because of the ants. The reason is not to be told. Do not ask me to disclose it. The seed of woe and the fruit of wisdom are enclosed within this secret. It is the secret that smites with an axe the tree of worldly vanity, hews away at its roots, and scatters its crown. This secret is a lamp to those groping in ignorance. This secret lies buried in the wisdom of the ages, and is rarely revealed even to saints. This secret is the living air of those ascetics who renounce and transcend mortal existence; but worldlings, deluded by desire and pride, it destroys."

   The boy smiled and sank into silence. Indra regarded him, unable to move. "O Son of a Brahmin," the king pleaded presently, with a new and visible humility, "I do not know who you are. You would seem to be Wisdom Incarnate. Reveal to me this secret of the ages, this light that dispels the dark."

   Thus requested to teach, the boy opened to Indra the hidden wisdom. "I saw the ants, O Indra, filing in long parade. Each was once an Indra like you, each by virtue of pious deeds once ascended to the rank of a king of gods. But now, through many rebirths, each has become again an ant.

   This army is an army of former Indras. "Piety and high deeds elevate the inhabitants of the world to the glorious realm of the celestial mansions, or to the higher domains of Brahma and Shiva and to the highest sphere of Vishnu; but wicked acts sink them into the worlds beneath, into pits of pain and sorrow.

   It is by deeds that one merits happiness or anguish, and becomes a master or a serf. It is by deeds that one attains to the rank of a king or Brahmin, or of some god or of an Indra or a Brahma. And through deeds again, one contracts disease, acquires beauty and deformity, or is reborn in the condition of a monster. "This is the whole substance of the secret. This wisdom is the ferry to beatitude across the ocean of hell." 

   Life in the cycle of the countless rebirths is like a vision in a dream. The gods on high, the mute trees and the stones, are alike apparitions in this phantasy. But Death administers the law of Time. Ordained by Time, Death is the master of all. Perishable as bubbles are the good and the evil of the beings of the dream. In unending cycles the good and evil alternate.

   Hence, the wise are attached to neither, neither the evil nor the good. The wise are not attached to anything at all." The boy concluded the appalling lesson and quietly regarded his host. The king of gods, for all his celestial splendor, had been reduced in his own regard to insignificance.

The old hermit 

The Chinese equivalent
Meanwhile another amazing apparition had entered the hall. [An old hermit, his head piled with matted hair] strode directly to Indra, squatted on the floor, and remained motionless as a rock. [When asked, he says to Indra:]

   "Each flicker of the eyelids of the great Vishnu registers the passing of a Brahma. Everything below that sphere of Brahma is as insubstantial as a cloud taking shape and again dissolving."... Abruptly the holy man vanished.

   It had been the God Shiva himself. Simultaneously, the brahmin boy, who had been Vishnu, disappeared as well.

   The king was alone, baffled and amazed. Indra pondered; and the events seemed to him to have been a dream. But he no longer felt any desire to magnify his heavenly splendour or to go on with the construction of his palace.

   He summoned Vishvakarman. Graciously greeting the craftsman with honeyed words, he heaped on him jewels and precious gifts, then, with a sumptuous celebration, sent him home.

   Indra now desired redemption. He had acquired wisdom, and wished only to be free. He entrusted the pomp and burden of his office to his son, and prepared to retire to the hermit life of the wilderness, whereupon his beautiful and passionate queen, Shachi, was overcome with grief.

   Weeping in sorrow and utter despair, Shachi resorted to Indra's ingenious house priest and spiritual advisor, the Lord of Magic Wisdom, Brihaspati. Bowing at his feet, she implored him to divert her husband's mind from its stern resolve. The resourceful counsellor of the gods... listened thoughtfully to the complaint of the voluptuous, disconsolate goddess, and knowingly nodded assent. 

   With a wizard's smile, he took her hand and conducted her to the presence of her spouse. In the role of spiritual teacher, he discoursed on the virtues of the spiritual life, but on the virtues also, of the secular. He gave to each its due. 

   [Indra ought not to abandon his life, but he most certainly ought to keep the endless cycles of the universe in mind in order to have the proper humility and perspective regarding his works in life.

   The vision of the countless universes bubbling into existence side by side, and the lesson of the unending series of Indras and Brahmas would have annihilated every value of individual existence. Between this boundless, breathtaking vision and the opposite problem of the limited role of the short-lived individual, the myth effected the re-establishment of a balance.

   Brihaspati, wisdom incarnate, teaches Indra how to grant to each sphere its due. We are taught to recognize the divine, the impersonal sphere of eternity, revolving ever and agelessly through time. But we are also taught to esteem the transient sphere of the duties and the pleasures of individual existence, which is as real and as vital to the living human as a dream is to the sleeping soul.]

It doesn't matter if you have problems with the notion of reincarnation, or a profusion of gods. All that's needed is to stand back from the story, and draw out its essential message[s]. 

   That's the beauty of myth. It talks to us at our own level of understanding, and this changes with time and experience of the world. But what we must not do is to treat the myth as historical fact, and defend it word for word as if it were.

Tandava: Shiva's Cosmic Dance p. 151-155
My thanks to the author of a review of Zimmer's book for excerpts, some of which I have corrected. As he is using an invisible page I presume he does not want to be acknowledged. I will happily do so if he wishes.