What If I Didn’t Come Back From The Dead?

by James Wallace Harris, 9/3/22

Last Monday I had hernia surgery and was under general anesthesia for over two hours. Being anesthetized is maybe the closest thing to being dead. Our conscious self is turned off so completely that it feels like we’re gone for good.

Interestingly, my book club book this month is Being You by Anil Seth and he introduces the study of consciousness with the discussion of general anesthesia. This was the fifth time I was put under so beforehand I was contemplating being gone. And I kept asking myself: “What if I don’t come back?” I thought it was philosophical fun to imagine nonexistence.

Mostly I thought about people I would miss but if I didn’t exist I wouldn’t feel anything. I think of death being like how things felt before I was born. I feel the only existence we know is this one. But my atheist beliefs could be wrong. I wondered how it would feel if I came to, but in another existence. I’ve always hoped if that happened I would be given all the answers to my questions about this existence.

My hunch is this existence is our only one. That reality is filled with many infinities but infinite existence isn’t one of them. Mostly I thought if I wasn’t coming back I should do a lot of paperwork before I might die to help Susan out. But I didn’t do that for two reasons. First, I assumed I was coming back. Second, because I’m lazy.

Still, it felt very weird and fascinating trying to imagine not existing.

Before my surgery, I had a long talk with my surgeon and he agreed to do everything I wanted. I was worried about two things. I was afraid lying on the surgical table for hours would inflame my spinal stenosis. I worried that I couldn’t hold my pee for that length of time because of my overactive bladder. I told him of these fears weeks before the surgery. He said he would try to arrange my back on the table like I needed and would give me a catheter but I would have to wear it for a few days at home. So I practiced lying flat each day before the surgery. Then on the day of the surgery, I told him to not worry about positioning me for my back but do whatever was best for his work. I also asked for the catheter to be removed before I came to and if I couldn’t pee on my own in recovery they could put it back in.

He seemed glad I practiced lying flat and agreed to my method with the catheter. This made me very happy and cleared all my worries. My surgeon then said he wanted to pray for me. I said sure. I’m not the kind of atheist that’s against religion or religious rituals. I am actually grateful for any prayers I receive.

I was impressed by the length of his prayer. He carefully went over all my problems and concerns and then covered all his goals in great detail while asking God for help. It was reassuring on several levels. First, it let me know how closely he listened to me, and second, it carefully laid out his working plans. But it fits in with my contemplations on nonexistence. And his prayer set the right mood for the occasion.

I felt that we each used a different language for understanding our shared existence. I use the word Reality for what he calls God. He believes in a personal relationship with God whereas I think I’m interacting with infinity and randomness. What he calls God’s will I call the unfolding of evolving randomness. Prayer assumes we can ask for blessings. I assume I will get what will be but I’m on one long lucky anti-entropic run of fabulous luck. The big difference is my surgeon believes there’s an existence after this one and I think death is oblivion. I’ve always been exceedingly grateful for this existence.

Well, I did come back. I’m writing this on my iPhone with one finger. The surgery went very well but it was more involved than my surgeon expected. I had no back pain after the surgery. And for 24 hours my back felt limber and young. Even after the drugs wore off it hasn’t been bad at all. And I peed right away when they rolled me back to my room after recovery. And in the days since I haven’t had much pain. I did without drugs except for a couple Tylenol and later, a couple of ibuprofen. However, I am suffering from a swollen scrotum which is typical of this operation and why I’m not sitting at the computer.

I’m quite glad to be back but I’ve learned that God’s will or reality wasn’t finished with me regarding this surgery. We never get what we picture, and my surgeon’s prayer didn’t cover post surgical complications. I thought going under inspired a lot of philosophical musings, but it turns out dealing with an expanding scrotum, generates even more existential thoughts.

One side effect of this experience is to feel sorry for women and their boobs. I imagine my affliction feels somewhat like getting a breast implant. My package is so much bigger it’s freaking me out. Having a sensitive globular appendage is not convenient. It gets in the way, making sitting and walking weird. So I imagine having two would be more than twice as inconvenient. And the size of my burden is still smaller that what most women have to deal with. I now regret every time I ever wished a woman had bigger breasts.

Yes, I came back, but to something I never imagined. But then, the future has always been what I never imagined.

If there is a God and he/she/they willed these big balls on me then I hope it’s God’s sense of humor and not punishment. So I will close with a prayer: “Dear God, please make my scrotum normal again. And if you intended a philosophical lesson help me learn it quickly. Amen.”

JWH

To Go, or Not to Go — To the Bookstore?

by James Wallace Harris, 7/21/22

Each morning before I get out of bed I plan to do something with my day. It’s never very ambitious because of health problems, lack of discipline, and laziness. And things seldom go according to plan. Today I decided to donate ten books to the library bookstore. That impulse came from getting a new toy. I feel like Jerry Pournelle in his old columns for Byte magazine called “Chaos Manor.” In those columns, Jerry would get a new computer which would cause a cascading series of problems. I got a new little tube amp, a cheap one, to set up a better stereo system in my bedroom. That single act has caused a domino-falling cascade of problems to fix.

The only place I have to put a stereo in my bedroom is on top of two bookcases. That’s okay if I don’t care about sound quality, but this new little tube amp sounds great — if the speakers are at ear level — but sounds like crap next to the ceiling. For me to solve this problem, will require moving two Ikea Billy bookcases and replacing them with a piece of furniture 72 inches wide and roughly 24-30 inches high.

“Ah-ha!” you might be thinking. “He’s finally getting to the part about going to the bookstore.”

Well, not quite. This is going to be a long story about getting old and how my aging mind and body affect my decision-making at seventy.

The quick and easy solution to my problem was to go into the dining room which we’ve converted into a gym and take the TV credenza and put it in the bedroom in front of the bookcases. That left the TV on the floor for now, but I had to give up exercising when my back went out a few weeks ago, so I can worry about it later. Since I’ve become semi-invalid the easiest solutions are the ones that work with the least effort.

If Susan and I had had the foresight to have children we could have gotten them to move the bookcases into the dining room, left the TV on the credenza, and then sent those kids to Ikea to get a cabinet for the stereo. Unfortunately, back in the early 1980s, we didn’t anticipate this need.

My back has gotten somewhat better. I can do a little lifting. I don’t want to do too much because I might screw it up again. I figured I could unload a shelf or two each day in stacks on the floor. There are two cases with six shelves each. You do the math. I could put slides under the cases and push them into the dining room, and then reverse the process of loading them back up. Ikea also offers delivery and assembly for a fee. Thus, without offspring, and if I’m patient, I can get the job done in a week or two depending if Ikea can deliver that quickly.

But is this the best long-term solution? Susan has long complained that she doesn’t want to deal with all my books after I depart this world — whenever that might be. I keep telling her she can just call Salvation Army or a book buyer, but maybe all those books are my responsibility?

This morning I decided I would start going through my books and weed out enough to empty two bookcases. I figured I could carry ten or twelve books to the library bookstore each week and eventually, I’ll donate two bookcases worth of books. So after doing my spinal stenosis physical therapy exercises I pulled the first book off the shelf I thought might be the first of ten I would part with today. It was The Long-Winded Lady by Maeve Brennan.

I opened it up to a random page and started reading. Whoops. There went my plan. Maeve wrote lovely little essays about living in New York City for The New Yorker. The first one I read was about seeing a young woman collapse on the street outside her restaurant window. The next was about an evening walk to see a farmhouse that had been moved from downtown to Greenwich Village. I bought this book after seeing a documentary, I think on HBO, about another writer who met Brennan before she died. That writer had discovered Maeve on the street after she had become homeless. I’d like to see that documentary again, but I can’t remember its title.

I’m afraid every book I pulled off the shelf had a story behind it, one that made me want to keep it. I have more books than I could read in another dozen lifetimes. It might take me years to find and decide which books I could give away that would free up two bookcases full of books.

That left me so despondent that I went to the library bookstore and bought five more books.

JWH

p.s.

The other night Janis and I were jabbering on the phone about all the hoarders we know. We felt horror at what has befallen our friends. Now I need to worry if that affliction needs to be added to my recognized list of afflictions.

Getting Too Close to Helpless

by James Wallace Harris, July 14, 2022

For this essay, I’m defining helpless as being in a situation where we can’t help ourselves or get help from someone else. As I get older I worry that someday my wife Susan or I will find ourselves in a completely helpless situation. This weekend it almost happened. Our hot water heater in the attic broke and water was pooling on the sheetrock of the ceiling above my computer room. A seam then spread open and water was draining onto the floor. Susan and I had to find a solution fast and several times I wasn’t sure we would.

First, we were lucky I discovered it so soon. I have an overactive bladder so I’m frequently going back to the bathroom which is annoying. But in this one instance, it put me Johnny-on-the-spot as I went down the hall to the bathroom. The pool of water was only in the middle of the floor.

I yelled to Susan and ran into the kitchen and pulled the filled garbage bag out of the tall kitchen trash can and ran back and put that under the water flow. I saw that it would fill pretty fast so I ran back to the kitchen and got the recycle bin and dumped the contents out on the floor and took it back to the room. By then Susan was there with a pile of towels.

I then went out into the hall, pulled down the attic stairs, and rushed up into the attic. The hot water tank is right next to the stairs and I could see the overflow pan was full and not draining. Damn. I went back down the stairs and ran outside and unscrewed the hose from the outside faucet and dragged it back into the house and up the stairs and connected it to the flush drain. It didn’t have a faucet handle but a slot so I yelled for Susan to get me a large screwdriver. I tried to turn off the hot water heater but it would only let me shut it down to pilot light. For some reason, I couldn’t make the button turn to the off position. I looked at the pipes and saw a red handle so I turned it all the way to what I hoped was an off position. When I had the screwdriver I opened the flush faucet and water started spraying everywhere from a leak in the hose connection. I turned it off.

Two weeks ago my back was hurting so much, that I could barely walk, so I was thankful I was able to be going up and down the stairs. I was moving at a frantic pace but I was calm. I wondered what would have happened if I couldn’t go up the stairs. I don’t trust Susan on the attic stairs. It was then I realized I could be helpless. If I couldn’t fix this problem I had to get someone else. Help means either doing it yourself or finding someone who could. I was suddenly scared I couldn’t, and we’d be helpless. I know this is a minor emergency, but it was enlightening.

Then I went back down the stairs and called our regular plumber. I told them immediately I had an emergency of running water but they made me give me my information first before they told me they couldn’t have someone out until Monday. It was Saturday afternoon, but I thought it was Friday. So I called another plumber thinking I might catch someone still there. The same thing happened. Wanted my information before telling me the soonest would be Monday.

I got some duck tape and went back upstairs and wrapped the hose. I turned on the drain again. It didn’t shoot water. I went outside and saw that water was coming out of the hose. I then went back to the computer room and dragged the first bucket to the front door and emptied it on the front porch. I took the empty bucket and swapped it for the full and emptied it.

I felt I had a bit of breathing room. Then Susan said she still heard running water.

I went to the computer and looked up emergency plumbers. I found one that claimed 24/7 service and called them. Same thing. Can’t come until Monday. I then ran to the hall closet and got my T-wrench and went outside to the street to turn off the water to the house. However, I couldn’t get the valve to budge. I figured I had to call MLG&W to come shut off the water. I didn’t want to do that because I didn’t know how long they would take to get here, and I didn’t want to go days without water.

I went back upstairs and realized that I had shut off the gas, not the water. I started looking around. This time I looked at the top of the water tank, which almost goes to the ceiling of the attic. There I saw water spraying from around the intake pipe, but I also saw another turn-off handle. I gave it a quarter turn and the water stopped running.

That gave me a sense of release. The flow of water from the computer room ceiling slowed, and in about fifteen minutes it stopped. I called the plumber and made an appointment for Monday.

However, I kept wondering what would have happened if I hadn’t been able to shut off the water. What would we have done? What would Susan have done if I wasn’t home? She probably would have called a neighbor, her brother, or MLG&W. I pictured us taking turns swapping filled buckets all weekend, even taking sleeping shifts at night.

It’s incidents like this when I want more control. I should have been prepared. I should have known where the water shut-off to the tank was located. I thought I was prepared by buying the tool to shut off the water at the street. When the plumber came Monday I ordered a new tank and ordered an automatic shut-off device that works with a water sensor in the overflow pan. I also ordered a new overflow pan and all new drainage pipes. But is that enough? I prefer not to deal with another computer room flood. This was the second. Years ago the HVAC installers made the mistake of putting in the condensation pan at a tilt – a tilt away from the drainage outlet.

We don’t have complete control of our lives. On the news that night there were stories about flooding in the east that ruined entire homes. Our flooding was nothing, so I was thankful. However, knowing we can’t control everything doesn’t stop me from worrying about becoming helpless. One sight that always scares me when I see it on the news is when first responders have to rescue old helpless people.

I know I’m worrying about the inevitable, but that doesn’t stop me from worrying. It doesn’t stop me from thinking of ways to be prepared. If I designed houses I wouldn’t put the HVAC and hot water heater in the attic. Every house should have a little machine room on the ground floor, with a floor drain and sensors for flooding. This house has had a hot water heater in the attic since 1952 and things have been mostly good 99.9999% of the time.

Getting old has made me worry about my body breaking down or my house breaking down. I realize there are things I can do to help myself. I also realize there are things I depend on Susan to help me do. And I know there will be other things I will have to depend on friends or hired help. This flooding incident has made me think about the times I might not find any kind of help. Generally, that’s never a problem because we have each other. But it’s a thought.

JWH

Are You Prepared for a Trip to the ER?

by James Wallace Harris, 6/10/22

Now I don’t mean are you wearing clean underwear or are you psyched up to wait in line for hours to see a doctor? I mean something different. Are you prepared for your body to fail? When I was younger I was rushed to the ER because my sister hit me in the hit with a croquet mallet and I was bleeding like someone in a horror film or the time when we were goofing around in PE and I broke my arm, but those are not the kind of bodily failures I’m talking about. Are you ready to start falling apart unexpectantly?

Last week I had to go to the ER. I had food stuck in my esophagus. It was below the windpipe so I could breathe, but if I tried to swallow water to help clear it, the water wouldn’t go down and I’d have to puke/cough it back up. I waited two hours for the food to pass. This has happened to me before and it’s always cleared, but after two hours I worried it might be really stuck. So I went to the ER. I should have gone to a GI doctor years ago instead of waiting for an ER emergency visit. My mother had her esophagus stretched. I think having food stuck in mine for seven hours did stretch it.

Luckily, after waiting five hours, I got to see a doctor, and just as she was getting ready to send me to a GI specialist, the food fell through. What a relief. I had been imagining the kind of things they’d stick down my throat. I still had to stand another hour to be released.

Unluckily for me, I was having a bad back spell, and standing for six hours aggravated the crap out of my back. When my back gives me trouble, I can’t sit. I can lie down or stand. (I’m typing this while standing.) So, instead of going to see a GI doctor about my throat, I’m seeing a back doctor and getting an MRI tomorrow. After that, I might schedule a visit with a GI doctor, but I have three other pressing issues, any of which could send me to the ER again.

I did not expect to get so old at 70 so fast. While I was waiting in the ER for five hours I watched the other people around me. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about waiting five hours. That’s part of the deal, and other people who came in before me were still waiting when I left. The ER was run very smoothly, and they have a triage system.

If it was obvious you needed help you got it immediately. The next stage involved a form that asked five questions to determine if they needed to act almost as fast. (If you could fill out a form, you’re not quite dying I suppose.) One of the questions was: Are you having trouble breathing. I wasn’t, since the food was past my windpipe. So I didn’t check it, if I had, I might not have had to wait five hours, but I didn’t want to cut in line. I sometimes started to have trouble, but I could cough up all the saliva that built up and I was okay again. The third stage, after a bit of waiting, is where a nurse takes your vitals and gets the details.

None of the form questions were about severe pain, and quite a few people in the waiting room seemed to be in a lot of pain. That old advice about seeing the ER doctor right away if you arrive in an ambulance isn’t true. We came in a car, but I saw people arriving in an ambulance that was told to wait in the waiting room, and the EMTs took them off the stretcher and put them in a waiting room chair. There were three waiting room areas, and I guess about forty people, but that included loved ones or caretakers.

One guy was in agony, I think from a kidney stone (he leaked blood by the urinal and on the floor while I was in there puking up spit). He kept demanding to see a doctor but was told he had to wait. He left claiming he was going to go find an ER that would help him. I wondered how to be best prepared for having kidney stones. Is it having a good urologist?

The lesson I learned in the ER, and it was a very educational experience, was to get prepared because I would be in there again, and maybe in worse shape. I had to call an ambulance for my mother a couple of times, so did my sister, and my mother even called them on her own several times. Getting old means getting to know the ER system. Getting old means learning to deal with all kinds of medical specialists. Getting old means learning to endure all kinds of diagnostic procedures.

I’m the kind of person that likes to picture what I’m going to do before I do it.

What I’m trying to figure out now, is how to be better prepared for trips to the ER. My mother said to always wear clean underwear, but there’s got to be more things to do to make the experience better.

JWH

Update: I’m not sure this essay succeeded in conveying the positive experience I got from my visit to the ER. It was painful for my back, and I would have preferred not to have had food stuck in my throat, but overall I found those six hours very enlightening. Contrary to that old adage, what doesn’t kill us won’t always make us stronger, but in this case, I think it made me wiser. I fear my writing effort here has failed because I haven’t conveyed that wisdom.

Does Retirement Cause ADHD?

by James Wallace Harris, 3/11/22

I’ve been retired for eight-and-a-half years and I feel it’s been one long slow physical and mental decline. Of course, that feeling of decline could just be natural aging. I can understand why my body is wearing out, I mean, what machine runs for 70 years without breaking down? But comprehending my mental decline is a little harder to visualize. I know the brain is also a physical mechanism but it doesn’t feel like one.

What if that decline isn’t entirely due to aging?

I know is I’m having a harder time focusing. This morning, I asked myself, what if that lack of focus isn’t due to aging? It occurred to me that maybe having all my time free is destroying my focus, and making me mentally lazy.

Let me use a rather icky analogy. I have an overactive bladder. Tests show my bladder has shrunk. One theory put forth by my doctor is I developed the habit of going to the bathroom as soon as I felt the need. That conditioned my bladder, and it shrank.

What if being able to do anything I wanted. when I wanted, has shrunk my attention span? My days are spent flitting from one fun diversion to another, but never sticking with any task for very long. After eight years, I now have the time-on-target of a butterfly.

For example, I have a very hard time sticking with TV shows and movies. I switched to watching YouTube videos a couple years ago because they were shorter. However, they’re starting to feel too long. I watch a few minutes of one, then click to another. Similarly, I’ve switched from novel-reading to short story reading.

My days are filled with a routine of chasing one interest after another. I do the same kind of flitting on my phone, spending many total hours during the day compulsively checking Facebook, email, Flipboard, Apple News+, Spotify, Audible, Scribd, Feedly, Wordle, Quordle, Octordle, Twitter, NY Times, NY Times Crossword, Google, Wikipedia, etc. That might be another culprit to consider.

Every night I try to watch TV after dinner. I used to watch the news faithfully, now I skip through the 30-minute recording in a few minutes. I used to watch Jeopardy faithfully, now I skip days, and if the topics aren’t appealing, I hit the old back button to return to the menu to find something else. I record countless movies on TCM I want to watch, but each evening I go through my recordings trying four, five, six movies, often just watching them for a few minutes each.

Every so often I find a movie or TV show I’ll stick to. I used to love binge-watching shows but seldom do that anymore. I end up clicking on YouTube and watching short videos. Especially ones that last under 5-10 minutes. When I tire of TV I switch to reading or listening to music or doing puzzles or blogging. I can always find something I enjoy doing, it’s just that I don’t stick with anything long.

I would say I was bored or depressed, but I don’t feel bored. I actually enjoy this constant grazing of different activities. I now check YouTube three times a day for new videos. I’ll read for a little bit, then listen to music for a while, then write on a blog, enter data for CSFquery, play with the cats, take a nap, eat a snack, visit a friend, go to the bookstore. There’s always something else to do.

When I worked I had to focus on my job from 8:30 – 5:00 each day. I wonder if that discipline gave me the ability to focus in general? During my work years, I could watch a 3-hour movie without getting the least bit restless. Or write for several hours until I was worn out and starving.

Has aging ruined my attention span or lack of discipline?

I’ve thought of a way to test this hypothesis? Start sticking to one project again and build up discipline. Then see if that beefed-up ability to focus crosses over and improves my attention span in other areas. It’s sort of like my bladder. I’m retraining it by waiting longer before I go pee.

I have no desire to go back to work but maybe I can find one task I can work at until I can stick with it for three or fours hours straight. I’m going to work at this, but I just remembered something. Before I retired my ability to focus at work was waning. Maybe it is old age. Some people train with weights. I need to train with focusing. Then I’ll know.

JWH

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