Monday, December 31, 2012

Reflections on the last day of the year

Perhaps it's because this particular December has been exceptionally gray and dismal in Seattle, or perhaps it's because of the way the two December holiday weeks fell this year, but I've had the feeling of being in a kind of limbo lately. When I woke this morning to another day-with-the-lights on and remembered it was the last day of the year, my mind made a couple of odd connections (not in itself odd for me, of course). One of these was the ancient Romans' practice of going off the calendar at the end of the year to make up the days of the year not accounted for in the official calendar. (Julius Caesar was the one to put a stop to that, in 46 BCE, adding 11 or 12 days (the variation caused by the addition of leap years, to make it all come out even). The other was Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars colonists going off the clock late every night to make up the minutes needed to make up the rest of the day not accounted for in a 24-hour clock operating on Mars, which doesn't have a 24-hour day. We are still on the calendar and the clock, of course. But this living in very short days when the light is so thin and gray and, when the sun briefly does appear, it is so low in the sky (something like 16 degrees, I think), feels strangely in-between.

The end of the calendar year doesn't usually move me to reflect on and review the year past (except, of course, for reading retrospectives)-- for me, that usually comes in the fall-- but this gray in-betweeness seems to demand some sort of effort to that end, perhaps to give me a sense of more solid footing. Two person events dominate my reflections. In September I lost my mother-in-law, whose humane extraordinariness became apparent to me slowly over the course of the 42 years I knew her. I met her at one of the most stressful periods of her life, and then had the pleasure of seeing her mature-- and seeing that maturing can be the concomitant of aging. I don't think I can overemphasize the importance of this for me-- of seeing this sort of beautiful becoming unfolding before me (perhaps more clearly because I saw her only at intervals). Despite our age difference, I never thought of her as a role model or any kind of authority. And yet it comes to me now, as I look back, that she was among the women who showed me that done right, age can give a woman a substance and an interior power previously denied her. How could I fear or regret the signs of age in my own body, having first beheld them in her?

The second personal event was the bizarre, serious infection that swallowed up more than two months of my year. It made me realize that doctors, especially the ones we regularly visit (in my case these days, residents, who often don't know basic things about human physiology or psychology and, being in their mid- to late-20s, have too little experience in either life or medicine to do more than follow crude formulas while speaking with the stern, absolute authority of a pupil repeating recently learned lessons), are shooting craps. I suppose it's a good thing most of us draw a veil over how much doctors don't know about the complex operations of the human body or disease, since the fact of their ignorance is very scary to face head on. I've long recognized that doctors generally follow formulas and just hope they work, and that the best doctors are able to apply the judgment and intuition acquired through experience to mediate their application of the formulas. But I don't think I properly understood how little experienced specialists know about, say, infection, even when the bacterial strain at work has been identified. In the course of a week, the official diagnosis of my infection change three times, as I moved from doctor to doctor. Treatment was a series of crap-shoots, along the lines of first we try throwing the most appropriate antibiotics at it, and if that doesn't work, we'll up the dosage, and if upping the dosage doesn't work, then we'll try draining the infected material, and if that doesn't work, we'll have to go to the last resort (i.e., surgery). For several days I was warned that if the infected area continued to expand, I should immediately stop eating & drinking so that I could be ready to undergo surgery as soon as possible. Various aspects of my infection puzzled the people treating me (and fascinated some of them, too), but since the practice of medicine is empirical, no one (but concerned and geeky me) was much interested in figuring out the microbiological mechanics of the infection. One of the doctors said the bacteria was so unusual he'd had to google it, but that apparently marked the extent of his interest in it. He also assured me that this kind of infection was so rare that its occurring again in my body is statistically speaking virtually impossible. I've long known of course that medicine is not a science and that a diagnosis is basically a sketchy narrative provided to justify treatment rather than a scientific identification of a problem, but I didn't realize just how black-box oriented medicine really is until I realized that once the treatment began to work, all the mysteries of my medical situation had become irrelevancies never to be explained. In the end, the doctors were very pleased that the infection responded to medication. Empiricism, sans theoretical knowledge, has triumphed. I now have only a very tiny bit of infection left and am confident that even that will soon be gone.

In fact, I'm ecstatic to be well again: although I complain a lot about my problems with insomnia, spending two months doing a lot of sleeping was really demoralizing. If insomnia is the price of health, so be it! That's one of my take-aways from this experience. The other is this: Medicine is based on empirical practice and is by no stretch of the imagination a real science; thinking of the practice of medicine in the early 21st-century US as science can only be wishful thinking. Given the extent to which the pharmaceutical industry calls the shots, I suspect it may be a long, long time before the practice of medicine even comes close to being in any way scientific.

Stepping back a bit from my personal life-- but still, of course, embedded in my own pov-- it strikes me (and a lot of other people) that this has been a year in which the reality of global warming has loomed large enough in the US to claim widespread awareness, despite its continuing to be politically unspeakable. Seattle has a mild, moderate climate, and so far our experience of the extremes felt through most of the country has been, well, moderate. Our rainfall this year, one of the wettest ever recorded, amounted to 48.26-- but apparently our annual average rainfall is only 36.3 inches. According to wikipedia, "Seattle receives the largest amount of rainfall of any U.S. city of more than 250,000 people in November, and is in the top 10 through winter, but is in the lower half of all cities from June to September. Seattle is in the top 5 rainiest U.S. cities by number of precipitations days, and it gets the least amount of annual sunlight of all major cities in the lower-48 states." Our spring was wet and cool and very long, followed by a summer so dry and long that the tomatoes we thought doomed (because of the length and wetness of the spring) actually yielded a bumper crop, as did the bush beans we planted later than recommended. The length of the dry period felt wrong, and the constant barrage of unbroken sunlight felt unnatural; seeing the trees leaves green long after they should have started turning gold and red and brown fretted me. (And why, I keep wondering, do some trees still have leaves-- some green, some dried up and brown-- hanging on them in late December? Did I never notice such a thing before, or is this anomalous, as I think it must be?) But how could I complain at the length of the summer, given the terribleness of the serious drought plaguing so much of the US? And then, when summer finally departed, the overcast rainy days arrived-- and are still here, with Dec showing 27 days of rain-- and again: how can I complain, given what Sandy has done to so many lives on the east coast?

Apart from such moderate versions of extreme weather, Seattle got another taste of the future here when a high tide washed into the yards-- and in a few cases, into the houses-- of 100 Seattle residents. Here's the Seattle Times on the event:
The damaging tides are magnified partly because sea level in Seattle has risen by 8 inches over the past century. "And the best available science tells us it is going to continue to rise and it is going to accelerate," Rufo-Hill said, adding that studies indicate the level of Puget Sound could rise by 2 to 4 feet by the end of this century. The combination of high tides and strong winds poured seawater onto yards and homes along Beach Drive Southwest, although just a small number had water that needed to be pumped out of their homes. The South Park area along the Duwamish River also sustained damage from high water. "Climate change is real," said Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn in the wake of the damage. "It is one of the things we've been looking at with regard to seawall design, shoreline codes and coastal areas subject to erosion."
Again, this bears no comparison to the experiences of people living on the front lines of climate change. But it's a reminder of the inexorable reality that our politicians refuse to face.

To give you a sense of how well we're doing in Seattle with environmental issues: although we have one of the oldest urban recycling programs, 2012 was the first year in which recycled materials outweighed landfill disposal. I was shocked by this, particularly since we have compost pick-up (which includes dirty paper, meat, and cheese). But it turns out that it's not household waste that is primarily responsible for landfill disposal, but construction materials. Apparently one reason the balance shifted this year was that the amount of construction debris fell below normal levels because construction was down. And then I have to note that we only this year freed ourselves from plastic shopping bags. The big-bucks lobbies have been fighting this for years. We're all adjusting nicely to this, thank you. But really it shouldn't have taken so long to achieve such a very small, obvious step.

Another widespread realization in the US this year was the reality of the demographic trends long in the making unmistakably brought home in this year's election results. For some, this recognition betokens a shift in mainstream conceptualizations of what "America" is and who "Americans" are. For others, of course, this realization has only heightened the phobic, racist panic that certain white men have been evincing since the election, in 2008, of Barack Obama to the presidency. 2012 also seems to have been the year mainstream opinion has noticeably begun to shift on both the many-decades-old "war on drugs" and what we in Washington State call "marriage equality" (i.e., extending the right to legal marriage regardless of gender). I'm not sure yet whether a broad shift is in progress in our attitudes toward gun control, but it's possible we might see that in 2013.

Rather than talk about the increasing curtailment of civil (and human) rights in the US, which the mainstream media take as the norm and excuse politicians from answering for, I'll mention one bright moment that strikes me as an important crack in the authoritarian totality of our administered reality: this year, the US Supreme Court declined an appeal to the Seventh Circuit court's ruling against a law banning citizens from videotaping police activity (which, in practice, usually turns out to be acts of brutality). This is serious, since all over the country people who videotape outrages committed by police officers have been going to jail for doing so, and cities, counties, and states have been passing laws banning any videotaping of police activities, which has resulted in some really awful arrests all over the country.

Reading Barbara Kingsolver's magnificent Flight Behavior, I find it difficult to feel honestly hopeful about our shared near future. All the moments of beauty matter tremendously to me, as they do to Kingsolver's characters. We need such moments, each and every one of us, as many as we can get. They keep us going, and when they're not a part of our daily existence, we know we are in trouble. But as Kingsolver drives home, those apprehensions of beauty are tiny shards that tell us only part of the truth of our lives. Earth, of course, has changed dramatically many times in its cataclysmic history; only a tiny portion of species have persisted through all of those catastrophic changes. One way to look at what is happening to the planet is to view it as part of the long, on-going process, in which most species live for a while and then die. Humans like to think we're not like other species-- hence, distinguishing them as animals, opposed to us-- also animals-- as humans, transcending the category of animal. Being smart enough to change the state of the planet doesn't necessarily mean, though, that we will survive the changes we trigger. If we can't become sufficiently aware and smart enough to save ourselves, will that distinction mean anything? The earth, of course, would go on without us, and likely spawn a new flowering of species. Most science fiction presumes humans will survive. How many people, I wonder, really care if they do? I have to wonder.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Timmi, you were right. These were so much more interesting than most commercial year-end lists. Thanks for asking me to participate and get a sense of the new community to which I now belong. Very worthwhile. Best wishes to all in 2013!

Sarah Tolmie