Saturday, March 19, 2016


On Wednesday, I just drove 11 hours for a 90 minute doctor's appointment. It was a good doctor. On that ride, I listened to a book, The Martian. This book, now also a movie which I have not yet seen, proves that it is well worth paying attention in science and math class, and also learning how to plant a garden in an inhospitable place. If you don't know math, science and botany, you are pretty much fucked if you get stranded for 18 months on Mars. Also, air is important and complicated.

While waiting for the doc to come in, I had time to read much of the book When Breath Becomes Air. Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgical resident and neuroscientist at Stanford, who died just after completing his training. Of cancer. In his 30's. Just months after he and his wife had a baby. What I got from his book is that he loved life. And that his love of life, literature and knowledge saved him. Not literally, of course. But like our fictional friend stuck on Mars, it was the air provided that gave him sustenance. Air in the form of literature, poetry, love of family, knowledge of a greater purpose. He liked to operate. And he wrote this book for us and for his family, even when he was so exhausted. He quotes Samuel Beckett: "I can't go on. I'll go on."

When we run and are out of shape, or when we run at elevation when used to sea level, we suck air. That is to say, we feel like we are breathing through a narrow straw and sucking greedily to get what we need to survive. It is a luxury, of course, to suck air in the pursuit of a workout or race. Illness that causes this same sensation is not a choice. Thankfully we do have medications to help with such sensations, in those with illness. For the out of shape runner, sucking air is just part of the hazing process for induction into the fraternity/sorority of Delta Delta Pheidippides.

When I was young, Nike Air Jordan's were the shoe to get. The name made sense to me, in that the amount of air between MJ and the floor was epic. I wonder really if flubber was in play there. Now Nike has all sorts of shoes in the "air" line, including these:

Image result for nike air shoes pictures
In the literal sense, air is composed of 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen and a touch of CO2, water vapor, argon and whatever the local factories and cars and farting cows add to the mix.

We air our thoughts and air out our stinky camping gear. We put on airs. We look at the skies as "air space". Airiness can mean a lightness, or unconcerned quality, an open space, something insubstantial.

I am in the midst of a rather intense flare of an autoimmune problem. My best treatments are toxic, in that they slap down my immune system, which is, after all, an important thing to have except when it is trying to destroy you. My self-treatment for the stress of this, and the stresses of my work and life is a complicated regimen of petting my dogs, laughing with my family, watching the Warriors obsessively, playing piano and being out in nature, especially running. Illness can make all of the above tough to do while also holding down a rather intense job. But being outside, being in the open air, this is crucial. Turns out my immune problem gets revved up further by sunshine, DAMN. IT. But the fine doctor I saw on Wednesday did not suggest I stop running or avoid nature at all costs. Nah, he Rxed "sun beads" to monitor things, sunscreen that won't make my skin fall off, and special magic stuff "to wash your running clothes in", some kind of sun guard thing. I love this doctor for not telling me to stop running outdoors. Rx: get out and get some air.

And here is the thing. Paul Kalanithi knew that language, literature, science, religion all matter, in the sense of this is how we relate to each other and to the devastating reality of illness and death. I think "when breath becomes air" might be referring that old style Shakespearean concept of words as breath that flies into the air. Attention to our words matters. Please note this, Donald Trump and all ye who support that fiend.

To be a good healer, listen well, rush not, prescribe exercise and nature,  and read as many books from all genres as you possibly can. Understanding everything as well as possible is a quest worth tilting at, I think. Chased by a healthy shot of "I actually understand nothing." And when the headache from all of this heady thought and self awareness sets in, take 2 pills of "holy shit, does any of it matter anyway? I can't go on! I will go on." Witnessing suffering on a daily basis can get to you. Kalanithi puts it so well, referring to the "endless barrage of head injuries", saying "I began to suspect that being so close to the fiery light of such moments only blinded me to their nature, like trying to learn astronomy by staring directly at the sun." Later in that chapter he returns to the ER after just losing a patient despite resuscitation attempts, to rescue his melted ice cream bar, which he actually then successfully resuscitates in the freezer and enjoys very much.

In second grade, all of my daughter's little essays ended with the phrase "all in all…" , like "all in all, redwood trees are very interesting." So I would like to pay tribute to her here.

All in all, air is very interesting, very insubstantial, and highly under-appreciated.

I can't go on. I'll go on.

No comments:

Post a Comment