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

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The advantages of slavery

...not for the slave, let me add quickly – I'm talking about for me me me. There's not much fun in being the slave.

   Hang on, you may well say – you've already got someone who's being a virtual slave for you. She showers you, dresses you, brings you food and caffeine-based beverages, constant drinks of water, your glasses when you forget them (too often), washes your clothes buys your medicines is your chauffeur researches things scans document takes-photos-puts-you-to-bedandaheapofotherthings....

   No. The problem there is that I hate how hard it makes things for her. I love her. I don't want her to have to run around after me twenty-four hours a day. It saddens me. It makes me feel guilty. And yes, I know I've said this before, but it shows what stays in my mind in spite of all the reassurances.

Oh, OK. I guess you'll have to do....
   See, I want as a slave someone I don't care tuppence about, like the good old days of Rome and the cotton fields of the Deep Say-uth. I want someone I can pretend has no feelings; at least, none worth taking into account. Someone I could call to get up in the middle of the night from their own deep sleep and readjust my bedclothes or switch on the lamp not half a metre away, or just tuck the blanket over my shoulder as I want. Scratch my nose if it itches five minutes later. Open my iPad and turn it on. Hand me the glass of water. Yesthat one I can reach but I'm a little bit tired.

   And I could do it with no trace of guilt because bad luck, slave. Stiff karma and all that, baby.

   But that's the problem too. I've lived for long periods in places of virtual slavery and surprise surprise, those people have feelings as well. It doesn't matter how much I pretend, I've grown up in a country where, in theory at least, there's a democracy of sorts about an awareness of every person's needs and wants. True, you wouldn't know it sometimes. But it's there.

   No. What I really need is something that will come too late for me. Not a human slave, but a robot that has no emotions programmed in except a desire to serve me for 1440 minutes of the day. An android that registers no more than pure delight at providing every service, however petty, that I hanker for.

   Pity. Instead, I have to put up with the nagging guilt feelings that accompany being served by my darling slave. So hard for me me me, isn't it?

   Peel me a grape, Beloved. (I did say please.)

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Moonbeams and rooster

It's 5.20 AM. I'll go back to sleep soon, I guess.

   My head is not exactly pounding. It's more like a dull roar of general hurt. It makes thinking difficult, but sleeping even more impossible.

   I woke from a dream just now. I could rightly call it a nightmare. For the first time I have dreamt directly of the tumour. I could see straight into my own brain cavity. I don't want to describe what I saw.

   Perhaps I am coming to grips with reality for the first time. It's hard to say, but it's a lonely experience. You don't want to go there.  Me neither, but somehow I did.

   I want to say things. They come clearly to mind but then swirl away like a sandbank crumbling into the sea. They'll come back, but only when I'm lying there drifting off to sleep again. A couple of nights ago I could retain no thoughts in my brain for more than a few seconds. That would have been a frightening thought had I been able to hold on to it.

A ray is caught in a bowl,
And the cat licks it, thinking that it's milk;
Another threads its way through tree branches,
And the elephant thinks he has found a Lotus-stalk
Half asleep, a girl reaches out
And tries to rearrange the moonbeams on the bed
To share the warmth.
It is the moon that is drunk with its own light,
But the world that is confused.*

   Maybe not the entire world this time. It's just me.

   The clamping seizures on the right arm return every time I move for the first time after waking. They're starting to come back now. Sometimes I'm wakened by one. It's best not to think of them, because it invites them into consciousness and before long, fingers and thumb start to burn and twitch.

   I can hear the cock crowing across the railway line, up the hill to our south. It's often my signal to go to sleep. I guess it must be the alarm call for some, though it's surprising what you can get used to.

He leaves the nest;
And flaps his wings;
And stops, and struts;
And bit by bit;
He makes his way
To top of tree:
His neck up,
His tail up,
His foot up,
His comb up,
The cock lifts
His voice up,

C r o w s.*

   But now it's very quiet for a few moments. I hear a neighbour's alarm go off. The world around me will turn on its engines, little by little.

   The MRI-like images of the devastation in my brain fade as first light makes way for dawn.

   I'm pretty sure I'll sleep now.
*G Brough [tr.] Poems from the Sanskrit (3rd Cent. CE)

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Sweeping statements: " lucky as lucky can be...."

Excellent firewood
He turned up right on cue, the – what do I call him? chimney sweep, I suppose. It sounds so Mary Poppins, and it's nothing like that. But let's stick with it.

   He was on the young side of middle aged, neatly dressed for someone about to engage with tar and soot. He was well-spoken and ready to go.

   I'm not sure why I have this urge to tell stories starting from when Adam and Eve got turfed out of Eden, but I do. Bear with me for the next couple of paragraphs.

   I've been using slow-combustion heaters for nigh on forty years. When we lived in town in 1976, I had one of the very first glass-fronted ones, which they then called a Tile Fire. Maybe they still do.

   I installed a brand-new one in the house on the 25 acre property (that's 10 hectares for you decimal lot), and it worked like a dream for the whole time we were out there.

   There was a similar one here when we moved into this house back in town – a slightly different breed, but they all work basically the same way. They're extremely efficient when used properly, and a very pleasant form of heating.

   When we came to town, it was by good luck that I found a woodman who sold superb quality wood. It wasn't cheap but as the cost of electricity soared, it became highly competitive.

   Tracey became adept at keeping the home fires burning when I got useless at such tasks at the end of 2009.

   Our woodman got crook (for overseas readers, in Australia that means "sick", not that he turned into a criminal) and was no longer able to deliver wood. I was sorry because I had got to know him quite well over the years. And then, wouldn't you know it? Our cheery, spry little old sweep from Uralla who was well past 70 fell off a roof, broke a leg and gave the rooftop climbing game away

   I'd always worried about him. He'd written an autobiography which he flogged to his chimney customers, and it was pretty good; rather like Albert Facey's A Fortunate Life. I figured after his fall he'd better stick to writing. He'd had enough drama for one lifetime, and breaking bones at that age is unwise.  

   We got some local wood. I hasten to add that this wasn't the wood that friends had brought us, but an extra supply, mostly stringybark but with a lot of bark still on. I knew that bark of stringybark smoke was particularly bad for a flue and had always removed it. Think arteriosclerosis of the flue. Emphysema of the firebox. Not good.

   The fire suddenly got worse, by which I mean it was a fire in name only. I should have warned Tracey about bark earlier, but I had other things on my mind. The other night, she opened the glass-panelled door to put wood in, and smoke streamed out. Wisely, she let the fire go out, and consulted fiery friends – that is, ones who owned heaters like ours.

   Hence our joy at getting this very pleasant chimney-sweep, and even better, at a good rate. He was up on the roof in two shakes of a wire brush.

   During cleaning operations, the glass door of the fire was wide open. Once at the chimney top, our new sweeper must have removed the chimney cap and peered down inside.

   He had what's too-often hideously described as a "situation". What we discovered when he came down to get some heavy-duty equipment was that whatever smoke was getting up the chimney was doing so through a hole no bigger than a golfball in diameter. At the exact time he was peering down, we didn't know this detail, but we knew all was not well. 

   The reason we knew it was this. The space below the golf-ball sized hole flaring out downwards into the flue acted as a megaphone. Although he thought he was doing it softly, what he imagined was pretty much under his breath was an amplified stream of choice epithets of the most colourful kind, accurately reflecting his displeasure. Though concerned at the cause, Tracey was chortling at his inventiveness and vocal stamina even, as he imagined it, sotto voce. It was almost capable of extending her substantial vocabulary in the cussing department – words I know well enough but rarely use myself.

   Because I'm a good boy I am. The chimney-sweep wasn't quite such an angel as he seemed when he presented himself at the front door.

   He came down from the roof to get something. I didn't see it – I'm relating the facts second hand from Tracey, who is our chief negotiator with the outside world. Let's face it, the only one. He had no idea that he'd shared his deep and meaningful personal conversation with his client as well.

   "What's up?"

   Very politely, he gave her the above explanation, emphasising the size of the smoke-hole with index finger and thumb, which looked faintly obscene, I imagine. Then he went to his truck to get a hand grenade, a few sticks of gelignite and an air-to-surface tactical nuclear missile suitable for the job in hand. 

   Eventually the task was done, beautifully. Tracey was anxious to pay him extra but he would not hear of it, and she resorted to the artifice of saying she had nothing smaller, so he had to take it. 

   "And don't you go to the truck and try to find change."

   He accepted, finally, and with genuine reluctance. He could hardly take less than his fee after all that trouble, after doing such a good job, and unwittingly providing entertainment as well.

   "I'll bet you felt a bit like swearing when you saw the problem."

And that was less than half what came out!
   "Nahhh," he said airily, "I've seen this sort of thing before."

   It was a sincere lie.

   "As bad as this?"

   "I'm afraid not. Not in the past few years anyway. Just ring or text me tomorrow and let me know how it's going."

   I felt ashamed. I knew that stringybark bark was bad for flues, but hadn't realised we were in Tile Fire heart attack territory.

   One problem though. I've been in front of the fire all evening. 

   It's too hot in here. 

Someone seems to appreciate it.

Note: I wish I could restrict this posting to people outside a 100 km radius of Armidale. This bloke's too good to share with half the town, with entertainment an extra bonus complimentary free gift at no charge as well.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The man who had to blog

Orig Ebert photo adapted
Anne Ryan [USA Today]
I'm willing to bet that if you mentioned the name Roger Ebert in most company in Australia, you'd get little sign of recognition, but he was one of the leading American lights in cinema criticism. Yet he was more than that. He was a fine writer in a much broader way, particularly on the great themes of life and mortality. He had to face the certainty of his own impending death from cancer (yes, another one!) and died less than three months ago at the age of 70. 

   The reason why he had to blog was that in 2006, "... complications from thyroid cancer treatment resulted in the loss of his ability to eat, drink, or speak. But with the loss of his voice, Ebert has only become a more prolific and influential writer."*

   His best-known book is Life Itself. Earlier this month, the Brainpicker organisation published a series of excerpts, together with commentary, from the book. From this, I extracted the juiciest bits and even bold-faced several lines. I thought you might enjoy them, especially if you are a writer of any sort, or would like to be.

"RIP, Roger Ebert: The Beloved Critic on Writing, Life, and Mortality"

One of the rewards of growing old is that you can truthfully say you lived in the past. … In these years after my illness, when I can no longer speak and am set aside from the daily flow, I live more in my memory and discover that a great many things are safely stored away. It all seems still to be in there somewhere. … You find a moment from your past, undisturbed ever since, still vivid, surprising you.

I remember everything. All my life I’ve been visited by unexpected flashes of memory unrelated to anything taking place at the moment. These retrieved moments I consider and replace on the shelf. When I began writing this book, memories came flooding to the surface, not because of any conscious effort but simply in the stream of writing. I started in a direction and the memories were waiting there, sometimes of things I hadn’t consciously thought about since.

...the most useful advice I have ever received as a writer: ‘One, don’t wait for inspiration, just start the damn thing. Two, once you begin, keep on until the end. How do you know how the story should begin until you find out where it’s going?’ These rules saved me half a career’s worth of time and gained me a reputation as the fastest writer in town. I’m not faster. I spend less time not writing.

My blog became my voice, my outlet, my ‘social media’ in a way I couldn’t have dreamed of. Into it I poured my regrets, desires, and memories. Some days I became possessed. The comments were a form of feedback I’d never had before, and I gained a better and deeper understanding of my readers. I made ‘online friends,’ a concept I’d scoffed at. Most people choose to write a blog. I needed to. I didn’t intend for it to drift into autobiography, but in blogging there is a tidal drift that pushes you that way. … the Internet encourages first-person writing, and I’ve always written that way.

The blog let loose the flood of memories. Told sometimes that I should write my memoirs, I failed to see how I possibly could. I had memories, I had lived a good life in an interesting time, but I was at a loss to see how I could organize the accumulation of a lifetime. It was the blog that taught me how. It pushed me into first-person confession, it insisted on the personal, it seemed to organize itself in manageable fragments. Some of these words, since rewritten and expanded, first appeared in blog forms. Most are here for the first time. They come pouring forth in a flood of relief.

If you pay attention to the movies they will tell you what people desire and fear. Movies are hardly ever about what they seem to be about. Look at a movie that a lot of people love, and you will find something profound, no matter how silly the film may be.

RIP, Roger Ebert: The Beloved Critic on Writing, Life, and Mortality
My notes: Sunday, June 02, 2013, 05:48 AM

Monday, June 17, 2013

Sweet charity

I begin this posting with a declaration.
Commodore 64. Great in 1983 and still great in its way

I've used computers for more than thirty years, from Commodore 64s to today's range. PCs and Macs, you name it. A good computer, optimally set up for its capability, is a good computer. 

   I know instantly that anyone who starts a fight between people who are dedicated to their computer type, and those who take the bait, don't know much about computer systems as a whole. They might know their computer system thoroughly, but start prodding and you realise they know very little about the one they're rubbishing.

    This is a way of saying that although I have a preference, I don't buy into debates about computers by people who are usually comparing apples with oranges. Or, as in most cases, Apples with some sort of PC, with no allowance for variables.

    When we began what was for us serious video production in 2007, I bought a computer that by today's standards was fabulously expensive, but was far and away the best for the job. It was a MacPro, with a processor speed as fast or faster than that in many new computers today.

    That computer worked virtually non-stop for six years. Its original startup drive still operates it. It didn't miss a beat.

    So it was a bit of a shock one day a few weeks ago that it went on the blink. Literally. The startup light which had come on so faithfully every time a restart was needed was flashing.

    "No problem," said I to myself, "I'll just work through it with my series of tried and true steps." 

   These started with the very basic but important step of making sure all the plugs were in securely. That's something that is often not checked before a computer is sent off to the repairers, but when plugged in down there works perfectly. The owner is lucky if they just get hit with a basic fee of $70 or something. A disreputable repairer will charge for phantom parts and a couple of hours labour.

    Not I. I don't get caught like that. So I went through every trick I know.

MacPro. A box full of goodies
    It did start again but the various fans inside it began roaring, then it would give up the ghost. Some part was overheating it seems. This wasn't within my limited area of getting computers going again, so I called in my good friend Malcolm for an inspection. He knows more about this stuff than I.

    Have no fear, I'm not going to bore you any further with details, though what I'm leaving out is a gripping narrative for utter geeks and freaks. The point is, my computer seemed to be pining for the fjords.

   After a lot of tinkering, Malcolm rightly suggested it was a job for a repair expert. In these days of cheaper computers, repairs on older systems can often cost as much as a whole new one and you might still end up with a computer that will break down at any time. But we decided on a diagnosis by the expert at least so we might know what we could be up for.

   In the meantime, I had whined on Twitter about the fact that my trusty old computer seemed to have let me down at this very late stage in my writing career, making access to terabytes of data almost impossible. On Twitter, you may make friends that you will never meet personally, particularly if you live away from a big city as I do. But these friendships, based on mutual interests, can produce unexpected results.

   One of these friends, Rod Hagen, is very knowledgeable about Macs, and has good connections with user groups in Australia. Knowing my personal circumstances, he got in touch with a terrific guy called Matthew, and through this connection made contact with Masako Ojima, from the Apple Executive Relations in Asia/Pac division based in Singapore.

    I left Malcolm acting as go-between to sort out the technical side with the repairer, Paul, who had been delving into possible causes for the problem. Again, I'll spare you the details, but the simple fact was that there was no clear diagnosis. Without testing using replacement parts, there was no way of knowing, and cost of parts and labour was likely to be prohibitive. And it's pointless dwelling on how much you paid for an item six years ago when at today's second hand rate it's worth probably about 5%, at best, of the buying price six years ago. 

    This was not looking good.

    That's where Masako Ojima stepped in. She'd asked me by email to supply details of the MacPro, which was with Malcolm at the time, so I asked her to contact him. This was all due to Rod's willingness to see what was possible. 

   Masako had a discussion with Malcolm and Paul. Then she did something that makes you realise gigantic companies employ people who are not just about profits.

    Apple would allow Paul to get the computer into running order absolutely free of charge. Parts and labour. This is a computer a good five years out of warranty and way past their responsibility.

    As I said, the geeky part isn't included, which is just as well because it turned out to be not a simple matter and would have cost me a fearful amount in parts and labour. I was finally able to report to Masako that the MacPro was, and is, running like a charm. 

   Nothing was asked of me in return. To write about it here was my idea. In fact, I was careful to ask Masako if she minded my mentioning her name. After all, I'm sure Apple doesn't want people with a sob story and broken old computers to hope to have them kept going for no cost. It's not a good business model.

    I now have my No 1 computer back, and it seems to be running as well as ever. Of course, if it breaks down again, I will not be asking for further help from the makers, but will take on the decision about its future in the way I expected to in the first place. 

   What all this shows is that communities of disparate types, biggest to smallest, can get together to achieve (almost) random acts of kindness, if they contain even a small number of individuals with compassion. Usually I don't like to be the subject of such acts, but ego shouldn't be allowed to get in the way. My deep thanks to all concerned.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

"I am Officially Very Poorly"

Sunday, 16 June, 2013. 10:30 AM. 

"I don't really have that much to say for a weekly medical roundup on WHAT'S NEW!," I said to Tracey as we were sitting by the fire a few minutes ago. "I didn't [yet] have a strong seizure post-Avastin and things have kinda levelled out even though I'm getting a few minor seizures every day."

   "In fact, I'm about to have one right now."

   I could feel the familiar clamping of the entire right arm beginning. Then the fingers started to pulsate visibly and the hand curled and uncurled like the talon of a bird of prey, and the thumb in particular reacted. It went on for about a minute while I sat quietly. Tracey watched carefully as she always does. There's absolutely nothing she can do, and she's seen it all before — way too many times. She has the under-the-tongue treatment (Rivotril) ready if I want it.

   After a few exaggerated convulsions of the hand like those of a newly-shot bird lying on the ground, it finally stopped.

   Because I had the laptop open in front of me, I turned to the news page to fill in recovery time.

   "Some news headlines are very odd," I began to say, except that it came out,

   "Saa-smm-umm-umm-heh-lis-are-lines-some-verr-very-[pause]some-odd [pause] I-not-try-yy-tal-talk-a-while..."

   I was thinking the words with utter clarity, but the neuron(?)-panic which had caused the seizure in the first place had unbeknownst to me affected the vocal region, and the words were utterly scrambled.

   I tried again, but the results were no better.

   "I... stop."

   This is the tumour making its presence felt. The actual seizure, as I've said many times recently, doesn't cause the malfunction. It's just a symptom. A short seizure of a couple of minutes isn't painful. It's inconvenient and usually arresting, though once or twice I've just kept typing during a minor one such as today's.

   If it goes on longer than that, it can be tiring for, say, the fingers, which sadly can't switch off the pulsations even when they demand it. The "STOP" messages back to the brain just aren't getting through. If Tracey hasn't trimmed the nails for a couple of weeks, they can dig into the flesh of the palms when fingers curl and uncurl, although we're aware of that and usually keep them short.

   The attack on the thumb may not seem significant, but it is. Humans and their ancestors didn't advance without the capacity to use an opposable thumb. Long after the seizure has passed, an attempt to pick up a knife fails. Or any other instrument at all, like the controller for the electric lift-recliner chair I now have. Even though there's strength in the arm, it's useless. I can't even pull up the right side of my underpants with the right hand; the band just slips uselessly through the pathetically weak grip.

   It's getting weaker after each seizure, and being able to hold that right grip on the walker is critical for mobility because the right leg is damn near useless.

   After a few minutes, I tried to speak again. This time, there are whole words and in the right order, though a bit lispy and faintly slurred. My eyesight is still blurred.

   "What I'm afraid of," Tracey said, "is that after a seizure, very soon, you won't be able to speak at all, and I won't know if you're there or not."

   "You could put a keyboard in front of me. I may still be able to type."

   "And if your eyesight goes as well?"

   That could be difficult. Typing one-handed after a lifetime of using two has depended very much on seeing the keyboard.

   I know when I get up from this chair I will really struggle to walk post-seizure, and I need to pee. I want to walk. I need to keep walking!

   Ah. Another seizure has begun. Here we go again. Bloody hell, as Ron Weasley says... but I'm keeping on typing. 

   It's gone to my neck this time. The right side of my face feels hot.

   And I still need to get to the bathroom. 

   [Later: it's OK, sort of. We solved it. You don't need to know.]
"I am Officially Very Poorly" is the statement Iain Banks made in this remarkable interview. He died of cancer at 58 just last Sunday. If it weren't for the fact that he was a brilliant writer, engaging, sociable, erudite and unTwittered, he says nearly all the things I would have if I were a brilliant writer, engaging, sociable and erudite. Had I been unTwittered I would never have known of this interview, for which I thank the irrepressible and excellent Mr Julius Flywheel [@JuliusFlywheel]
On the use of the term "poorly" and its opposite, "well", please see this comment.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

My dear cousin and the new baby

I have a cousin called Gay. She is and always was a person of great honesty. But on this occasion, it was put to a severe test.

    There was a young woman in Calliope who was rather shy, so I won't mention her name. In the old days we would have described her (and many did) as "homely", which was a euphemism for one who isn't the most physically attractive. Now I think of it, its antonym would be "comely".

    What a difference a letter can make! I suppose it derives from the idea that this is a woman who should really not venture out too much, but stay where her family were used to her.

    Anyway, she must have ventured out at some stage, or her parents had managed to arrange a marriage for her. Regardless of how, she got hitched to a lad who was of equal homeliness in appearance.

    Again, he was a nice enough fellow, but "possessing of no outward comeliness". (That, incidentally, is a description by a remarkably honest biographer of one of the Turki-Afghan sultans who ruled India a millennium ago. The biographer, charged by the sultan himself with the duty of telling it like it was, used this terminology for the sake of keeping his head on his shoulders, but went on very quickly to describe the inner comeliness of the great leader. He retained his job.)

    In the fullness of time, an offspring was produced by the happy union, but let's be honest, the accent was well and truly on the "off" side of the ledger in the "spring" stakes. He was an heir of oddly mottled skin, a shock of straight dark hair even blacker than Eric Olthwaite's mother's black pudding ("Black pudding's looking very black tonight, Moother," you may recall from the Ripping Yarns "Denley Moor" episode, where "even the white bits are black"). 

   This strange little creature had a nose that would distinguish it little from our forebears newly getting over the excitement of not dragging their knuckles.

    Let me say at this point that I'm fully aware that it is unkind to make judgments about people based on their appearance, but that's what people do. And it's the only thing on which people can make judgments about a new baby. They don't sing, or do handstands or solve quadratic equations, or anything like that. Some ferociously ugly babies turn into amazingly passable — even good-looking kids or adults. Are we good? OK....

    One day, the proud mother was downtown in Calliope (which meant Mylne's store) with the little creature only its mother could love tightly wrapped like a felafel roll on snow-white mattress in a shiny new pram. Calliope being what it was, there was no escape for Gay in passing by the new mother – and son.

    His mother, not nearly so shy now that she had performed her maternal duty, stopped the carriage and its truly awesome contents more-or-less in Gay's pathway, and beaming with expectation, invited her to admire what she had brought into the world.

    With some trepidation, Gay bent over and peered in. The inspection revealed what word of mouth had rumoured, only worse. But Gay, as I said, had never been known to tell a lie.

    From what she could see of the babe, which wasn't much, no positive thought would come. He was lying on his side, unless in a cruel feat of black magic by You-Know-Who to match his own afflictions had allowed him born with head fixed at right angles to the rest of him. She continued to scrutinise the simian profile. Finally, inspiration came.

    Looking the adoring mother straight in the eye, Gay smiled and said, with utter truth and before moving quickly on to the buttons-and-zips counter at Mylne's, "It's a beautiful ... pram!" 

Old Fashioned Pram

Friday, June 7, 2013

Coke with your candy corn?

 My heightened interest in nutrition probably springs from my determination to try to keep being allowed to have a dose of Avastin every three weeks. This is in spite of the fact that it's putting my kidneys at grave and increasing risk because of this very long time as an Avastin user.

    I'm trying to do two contradictory things; to keep taking a drug that prolongs my life by slowing down the progress of a brain tumour, but permanently damages my kidneys. I have to keep protein levels excreted by my kidneys down as far as possible.

    My body needs protein, but it can also indirectly reduce the length of my life.

    I don't have much room to manoeuvre. Too little and my immune system suffers more than it has already from chemotherapy in the past. Too much protein and my kidneys register a dangerously high reading. A too-high reading, and the makers of Avastin stop supplying the drug to me, for good reasons.

   So, continue to take Avastin, and my kidneys will shut down at some point. Stop taking it, and my brain will be overrun by the tumour.

    How do I pick my way through this life-and-death matter? Mainly by understanding foods and how my body deals with them, minimising risk and optimising the balance between two dangers, both of which are deadly. And in my search for nutritious lower protein foods, I've discovered unexpected things relevant not only to me, but to other sick people, and to healthy ones (like you, I hope).

    Meat and seafoods are high in protein. Leaving aside any ethical objection, eating a sensible amount of them of good quality and properly prepared is healthy. No surprises there. But I'm ignoring them here and talking about vegetables.

    What I've found (in this case, mainly from the article referred to below), is that humans have unwittingly degraded the nutritive value of vegetables we take for granted as potent in promoting health. But here's what was the surprise to me. This isn't necessarily because of something recent. It started happening when humans changed from foraging for wild food to growing it themselves more than ten thousand years ago. It's obvious if I'd thought about it a bit more.

    I'm not fond of bitter vegetables, like rocket-style lettuce. I tended to go for something more bland, such as the Iceberg variety. But the more unappealing they may be to our taste buds, the more they mimic the taste of those from which they've descended in the wild, and their strength in fighting the scourge diseases of modern society turns out to be vastly higher.

   Baby-boomers in Australia were usually brought up on bland vegetables, cooked to within an inch of their lives. A vast amount of sugar was added to everything that wasn't meatfruits, desserts and cakes... and sticky lollies were reward items – caramels, boiled sweets, toffee.... No wonder we had fillings in every tooth before we were teenagers, and half the population had dentures. But to come back to the point.

      Dandelions have many times the disease-fighting properties of Popeye's famous spinach. In promoting health, yams are streets ahead of the supermarket potatoes that may appeal more to customers.

White sweetcorn: 40% sugar
    Farmers have chosen to grow vegetables most pleasing to the palate. It's hardly surprising. They are more marketable and still have good nutritive value in most cases – but not all of them, it seems.

   I was taken aback by what we've done to corn – the eating variety we call sweet-corn. The whiter the kernals, the sweeter, but the poorer in nutrition. I was shocked to find that they were up to 40% sugar – much like Coca Cola, but with a little more fibre!

Green is good
    Shallots – spring onions if you like, or scallions – they're fantastic –  especially if you eat the green part, much of which is often chopped off when you buy them at the supermarket. It's about presentation as well as taste. We like the appearance of the white part more, it's neater on the shelves and looks better value for money. It's best to buy a bunch untrimmed, chop it up and put every bit into the casserole, soup, or salad.

   I'm not saying the vegetables we're eating aren't healthy, but that some choices may be better than others. We just need accurate information. 

   Here are excerpts from a recent New York Times article on this subject from which I've extracted some of the above. I recommend that you read the complete article. It's not long. It may not be news to you, but a lot of it was to me.

     ✿     ✿     ✿     ✿     ✿    

...much of our produce is relatively low in phytonutrients, which are the compounds with the potential to reduce the risk of four of our modern scourges: cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia. The loss of these beneficial nutrients did not begin 50 or 100 years ago, as many assume. Unwittingly, we have been stripping phytonutrients from our diet since we stopped foraging for wild plants some 10,000 years ago and became farmers.

Wild dandelions, once a springtime treat for Native Americans, have seven times more phytonutrients than spinach, which we consider a “superfood.” A purple potato native to Peru has 28 times more cancer-fighting anthocyanins than common russet potatoes. One species of apple has a staggering 100 times more phytonutrients than the Golden Delicious displayed in our supermarkets. 

Throughout the ages, our farming ancestors have chosen the least bitter plants to grow in their gardens. It is now known that many of the most beneficial phytonutrients have a bitter, sour or astringent taste. Second, early farmers favored plants that were relatively low in fiber and high in sugar, starch and oil.

Anthocyanins have the potential to fight cancer, calm inflammation, lower cholesterol and blood pressure, protect the aging brain, and reduce the risk of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. 

The disadvantage of being yellow, we now know, had been an advantage to human health. Corn with deep yellow kernels, including the yellow corn available in our grocery stores, has nearly 60 times more beta-carotene than white corn, valuable because it turns to Vitamin A in the body, which helps vision and the immune system. 

Today, most of the fresh corn in our supermarkets is extra-sweet. The kernels are either white, pale yellow, or a combination of the two. The sweetest varieties approach 40 percent sugar, bringing new meaning to the words “candy corn.” 

Select corn with deep yellow kernels. 

In the lettuce section, look for arugula. Arugula, also called salad rocket, is very similar to its wild ancestor. 

Scallions, or green onions, are jewels of nutrition hiding in plain sight. They resemble wild onions and are just as good for you. Remarkably, they have more than five times more phytonutrients than many common onions do. The green portions of scallions are more nutritious than the white bulbs, so use the entire plant. Herbs are wild plants incognito. We’ve long valued them for their intense flavors and aroma, which is why they’ve not been given a flavor makeover. Because we’ve left them well enough alone, their phytonutrient content has remained intact.

Experiment with using large quantities of mild-tasting fresh herbs.

We can’t increase the health benefits of our produce if we don’t know which nutrients it contains. Ultimately, we need more than an admonition to eat a greater quantity of fruits and vegetables: we need more fruits and vegetables that have the nutrients we require for optimum health. 

Many thanks to Jo Robinson, "Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food"

Monday, June 3, 2013

No ado about anything

The last leaves of autumn

3 June, 2013. Morning. The curtains were closed. Tracey had set the fire, and its warmth bathed the lounge room in a cosy glow. We sipped our coffee.

   The Japanese Maple branches were patterned against the curtain, the bright sun behind them. The shadows showed that wrens came to the tree, and played in the branches. Played? Probably they were hunting for their breakfast of tiny insects, but they gave us our shadow play. It was pleasing.

   We watched for a while. It wasn't exactly the Ramayana.

   "Let's pull the curtains back. Let the sun shine in."

   Of course that means Tracey has to get up and pull the curtains. Sunlight flooded the north side of the room.

   "I wonder if the birds will come back, now that the curtain's open."

   A little smoke from our chimney drifted across between tree and sky. It pleased me. It was really glorious out there.

   "It would be nice to have a photo," I said. "taken right now, before it changes."

   "It can wait till I finish my coffee," she said.

   "A reasonable request," I said. "but now's the moment."

   "Oh, it wasn't a request. The light's all wrong. And the window's dirty." The centre-pane was a fixture.

   "It doesn't matter. Art is Reality, my dear."

   "Art needs a window cleaner, my dear. That's the reality. Preferably a good looking one."

   I agreed with her about the cleaner, although I suspect our visions of a window-cleaner differed somewhat. Mine was sort-of French maid. I doubt very much that hers was. More like something out of Lady Chat, I suspect. Handyman bare-chested splitting firewood - that sort of thing.

   I was wearing my drop-crotch pyjama pants with milk-and-cookies pattern. The comparison wasn't flattering, so I pursued the subject of the photo.

   "Here's the iPad," I said. "I have a theory.... Just take a photo of what you see out of the window, from as far down on the left as you can. Humour me."

   "When have I not, my Doctor? I can't say I'm always impressed by your theories."

   "Never have you not humoured me, it's true! My darling, you are a jewel beyond compare. You are the...."

   "Oh, shut up. Just gimme the iPad."

   My iDea wasn't bad, really. I had in mind a glowing sun in the corner, like we used to draw, complete with rays, in Grade 1. It was an essential part of landscape composition at the time, I'm sure you remember. Grade 1 teachers are reminded of it every art period, aren't they, Sylvia?

   With the sunlight behind, I'd get a silhouette effect on the maple branches at least, given that the colour would be drained out of the picture like blood from the French window-cleaner's neck after Count Dracula had been around.

   "I see the birds have flown," said I, stating the bleedin' obvious but filling a gap in the conversation.

   None had returned since the opening of the curtains.

   "...though how do we know whether they would have or not?"

   "So it's a matter of Schrödinger's cat. Or in this case, his budgies."

   "If you say so," I said, "You're the western philosophy major."

   I was going to add something frafully clever about a Pavlovian puppy, but it was really too early in the morning and I was already on a hiding to nothing.

   "This iPad isn't good enough. I'm getting my camera."

   Here you see the results. She really is that jewel beyond compare. And all those other things she wouldn't let me say.

   Sometimes there are days like this. They are the swirl of cream on the coffee of mortal existence.

All photos on this page were taken by Tracey James

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Fern Hill

While I'm composing a posting or three (three, actually), on this first day of winter 2013, I thought I might place this poem on my blog – the bitter-sweet one by Dylan Thomas which I like best of all his poetry.

"The night above the dingle starry"

Fern Hill

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
       The night above the dingle starry,
               Time let me hail and climb
       Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
               Trail with daisies and barley
       Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
       In the sun that is young once only,
               Time let me play and be
       Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
               And the sabbath rang slowly
       In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
       And playing, lovely and watery
               And fire green as grass.
       And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
       Flying with the ricks, and the horses
               Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
       Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
               The sky gathered again
       And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
       Out of the whinnying green stable
               On to the fields of praise.

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
       In the sun born over and over,
               I ran my heedless ways,
       My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
       Before the children green and golden
               Follow him out of grace,

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
       In the moon that is always rising,
               Nor that riding to sleep
       I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
               Time held me green and dying
       Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

Dylan Thomas, “Fern Hill” from The Poems of Dylan Thomas. Copyright 1939, 1946 by New Directions Publishing Corporation. Reprinted with the permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.

Source: The Poems of Dylan Thomas (New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1946)