Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Under Our Skin

If/when this film is screened in your area, please go see it. Please.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Currently Reading

I've recently started reading Cure Unknown: Inside the Lyme Epidemic. I highly recommend it to anyone curious about Lyme disease--what it is, why it's so controversial, and how it can affect patients (and the doctors willing to treat them). Also, it's just a darn good read for anyone who enjoys science writing or investigative journalism.

It explores how hubris and "experimenter bias and expectation" can have a profound impact on how the scientific/medical community can view, understand, and treat a disease. Even for someone completely untouched by Lyme disease, it's a keen insight into common human failings.

As a companion read, I recommend How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman, a physician and occasional writer for The New Yorker. It's a great tool for patients, and--again--a fascinating read. Even with my limited cognitive abilities (thanks, Lyme disease!), I plowed through the book in just a few days. I love non-fiction page-turners.

Luckily, I think I'm finally making some headway against the neurological symptoms of this disease. My cognitive abilities are not as hampered as they once were. Last night I was able to read over 100 pages of a book! While this was completely commonplace before I got sick, in the last year it's been nearly impossible to read for even thirty minutes at a time. Not only was it simply difficult to understand the words on the page, the act of reading itself was painful. The effort of processing what I was reading was just too much. But now I think I am getting a little better. I hope.

I still have difficulty finding the right words sometimes. I will forget the names of common objects. For example, last night I told Nick that he could put the dirty laundry in "um, the thing that, um, makes stuff clean." Luckily, he's used to this by now, and just put the laundry into the washing machine.

And my grammar and spelling are not perfect. Writing is still hard. I have to go back and correct simple misspellings--mixing up "here" and "hear," for example. And I find myself using the wrong verb tense, especially while speaking. But not as often as I used to. Progress!

Solstice Celebration

Today is the winter solstice. After months of growing darkness, we will once again move towards longer days and more sun. Living so far north, the effects are particularly pronounced. The sun is rising around eight and setting shortly after four, and it will be a wonderful change to see the light gathering again.

Ofelia Zepeda, a poet from the Tohono O'odham tribe, describes a melding of body and earth/time in her poem "The South Corner." She opens: "My body is in line,” then continues, “It is at its darkest point, but only for a short time.” As the long night reaches its end, "the light becomes stronger." The speaker explains:
And so I begin another cycle
along with the animals, the plants, the oceans, and winds
and all that feel this same pull.
I come into balance.
I begin again.

I, too, feel a sense of renewal at the solstice. As such, I feel this is the most appropriate time to adopt my new name. Tonight (despite the eight inches of snow!) I plan to have a private name ceremony in which I will formally accept my name. The legal paperwork will come later, but the real change will happen tonight. I have explained my reasons here.

Have a wonderful solstice, and may the new year bring you all that you need.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Profound Change

I've quoted from Coyote Healing before. I do so again:
The Native American perspective is simple: When you are sick you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you have been heading in this direction for too long. Therefore you need to turn around; you need a new direction.

Later, Lewis Mehl-Madrona mentions that an aspect of true healing is profound change. If you've been going in the wrong direction, you need a new direction. This is a powerful force for change. I've experienced this on a fundamental level over the last year. My old way of viewing the world (very Western) has been challenged, massaged, and transformed. I see things in a different way...it's very difficult to explain. My shamanic healing process, which I now see as an essential counterpart to my Western medical treatment, has taken me on journeys. I've met spirit guides, and I've caught a glimpse of the timeless expanse stretching backwards and forwards, which both exists and does not exist--a part of our "consensual reality," which is only one world of many (one of three in the Q'ero tradition).

All of this has changed me, softened the hard edges and transformed rigidity into something more fluid. I am embracing "profound change."
Profound change means that you must become a different person in some fundamental, recognizable, important way. The extreme version of this is the Cherokee practice of giving the desperate patient a new name, which means a new identity, since name is identity. [...] Treatment fails without a profound change. Hope also thrives in such changes. We must become a different person to family, friends, coworkers, and the self. In some palpable way, we must be reborn before we can heal.

I read this a few months ago, and it was like a puzzle piece finally coming into place. I wasn't sure exactly how to proceed, but I knew this would be important.

Recently, on a journey with my power animal, I found my name. I was also given a name-that-is-not-a-name, something very private and special and powerful--but that is not to be shared so publicly. My new public name, however, will become my legal name soon. (I don't look forward to all the paperwork!)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Snow Day!

Making Lyme-ade

Take lemons and make lemonade, right? Well, I'm taking Lyme and making Lyme-ade.

OK, I know that was really funny, so you can take a moment to catch your breath. Ready? No? OK, another minute... Now you're OK? Good.

Anyway. Recently I heard that one of my friends believed that I was unhappy. I was flabbergasted. Unhappy? Me? Really?

Which made me realize...I am happy. Seriously.

Are there things in my life I'd like to be different? Of course! I'd love to wake up tomorrow and spend the day sea kayaking in the islands instead of sluggishly plodding around the house. I wish I could spend my money on manicures instead of medications.

But there's always something you want to change, isn't there? The key is to find joy in what is, while working your way towards what you want.

This is not to say that I'm a little ray of sunshine. There are times when I get upset. I whine and fuss and curse my disease and my medications and my predicament. As I've often said, I think I'm having a reasonable reaction to an unreasonable situation.

Still, if I look at my life as a whole, I spend more time laughing than cursing. And I'm working towards wellness. Will I be happier when I'm well? I don't know. I'll be more comfortable. But happier? Hard to say. I think I'm pretty happy right now.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

All I Want for Christmas

One of the most challenging aspects of being sick has been that I can't do all--or even a fraction--of the things I used to do. Some things I miss are small, like burlesque dance classes or trying new cookie recipes. Other things are much larger, and the one thing I most want to do again is leaflet for Vegan Outreach.

I'm an activist. But the key component there is "active." And I just can't be active the way I want to be. Back in 2003, when I realized that my calling was animal rights activism, I had this light bulb moment--this is what I'm supposed to do during my time on this planet. It was a moment of absolute clarity of purpose.

When I started volunteering for Vegan Outreach, I found what I believe to be the single most effective way to channel my activist energy. I leafleted schools in Arizona, and when we moved to California, I jumped in with both feet. I leafleted across the Bay Area, and I'd go on road trips to Southern California to leaflet schools in San Diego and Orange County. All told, I've handed out over 54,000 Vegan Outreach booklets on college campuses.

In the past year, I've handed out zero booklets. I've simply been too sick get out into the field. Which is where I know I belong. But I can't do it right now.

Which is where you come in. Yes, you, dear reader! Because Vegan Outreach doesn't run on energy alone. We've got the most amazing staff and group of volunteers, and our outreach efforts have been massively successful. In the fall semester of 2008, we reached over 130,000 more students than we did in the spring semester. And while we couldn't do this without the energy of our members, we also couldn't do it without financial support.

As you know, I'm on the VO board of directors, and I get the financial reports. I can tell you that we don't waste money. Our paid staff members take exceedingly modest salaries, so that the money donated can be used for our stated purpose: to decrease suffering.

Every Christmas Nick and I ask for donations to Vegan Outreach, so this request is not going to come as a surprise. However, this year I'd like to ask you VERY LOUDLY. Because I've been sick, I haven't been able to contribute my physical energy to Vegan Outreach. I honestly cannot express how frustrating (and depressing) this has been. So if I could have one magic wish this Christmas, it would be to regain my full health so that I could jump back into leafleting and making this world a better place, one little piece at a time. But I'm not going to be well by Christmas. I've got months, if not years, ahead of me.

So I'm asking that, rather than purchasing a gift for me, you make a donation to Vegan Outreach in my honor. Vegan Outreach runs on energy and generosity. You can't give me energy, but you can direct your generosity. Any money you would spend on a gift for me, no matter how small, I would prefer be given to Vegan Outreach. Nothing could touch me more, especially this year.

You can donate securely online at VeganOutreach.org. We currently have a matching donation challenge, so your donation will be doubled--so remember to mark your donation for the matching challenge in the "comments" section of the donation form!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

So far, so good

Neurontin (generic name: gabapentin) has so far been a big hit. I've had two nights of good sleep! Amazing! And I'm not terribly sedated in the morning!

There haven't been any negative side effects thus far, and I'm hoping that it stays that way. Because getting sleep is very nice.

Last night I went to bed around ten and got up this morning around eight. And then we went out for breakfast at the Wayward and I ate my way through an awesome plate of scrambled tofu, hashbrowns, tempeh bacon, toast. And there was coffee. And it was good.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Better living through chemistry

Recently I've complained that I've been unable to sleep. Well, I can fall asleep just fine, but then a few hours later I wake up and can't get back to sleep. Taking more clonazapam helps me sleep through the night, but leaves me feeling sedated and hungover the next morning. Obviously, this is not ideal. It's already difficult enough to get out of bed and function without the drug fuzzies clinging to me.

So today I discussed this issue with my doctor, who after considering my sleep difficulties and the neuropathic-type "pain," prescribed Neurontin (generic name: gabapentin). Hopefully the change in medication will help me sleep as well as treat the weird hot/cold/pain sensations.

I know that "hot/cold/pain" isn't a great description. But pain is one of those funny things that is nearly impossible to describe unless the person you're speaking to has experienced a similar type of pain. We can categorize pain as stabbing, throbbing, sharp, dull, etc., but only because we generally agree on what those words mean. We've all had dull pain, sharp pain, etc. However, the hot/cold/pain isn't something that I think most people have experienced.

I was talking today with my mom who has neuropathic pain (amongst other conditions), and she knew exactly what I was talking about when I was describing the pain. How it's like it's inside your bones, that the very marrow is affected.

Anyway, I found the discussion very interesting. How do you describe a particular kind of pain to someone who hasn't felt it? For example, assume I've never had a throbbing pain--and then explain to me what it feels like. Difficult, no? It's like trying to explain to someone who has never itched, what itching feels like.

However, I don't think that you, dear reader, need to precisely understand the quality of sensation. I'm just rambling about language and expression...it's just interesting to me. And we shall see what the Neurontin does for me.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

What kind of person do I want to be?

In which I present an essay by Matt Ball of Vegan Outreach. His title is "Is Being a Vegetarian Important?" The title I give it is "What kind of person do I want to be?"

As an activist, it's been very difficult being sick--which has meant not being active. And what is an inactive activist? I'll write more about illness and identity later. For now, I give you Matt Ball.

Is Being a Vegetarian Important?

Have you ever been in so much pain that you thought you were going to die?

Have you ever suffered so much that you wanted to die?

Every year, hundreds of millions of individuals in the U.S. do suffer to death. Slowly. Excruciatingly.

Egg-laying hens packed in tiny wire cages, unable to move because of how crowded they are, can have their wings or necks stuck in the wires, keeping them from getting to food or water.

Pigs, transported hundreds and hundreds of miles in all weather in open trucks without food or water – can freeze to death.

Chickens raised for meat, bred to grow so large so fast that their legs break under their own weight, leaving them incapacitated and unable to get food.

Vegan Outreach leafleter Wayne Hsiung described watching a downed dairy cow’s last few moments:

An hour before I was planning to leaflet, a friend of mine called and said that he had spotted a stalled transport truck with a downed dairy cow inside.

I arrived to witness a grisly scene. The poor girl was collapsed on the ground inside the truck, in a 3-inch-deep cesspool of feces and urine. You could see her wide, terrified eyes staring into nothingness, her entire body quivering ever so slightly. But she was making no sounds. The other cows had trampled her broken body; she had bloody wounds and bright red lesions that were clearly visible through the filth. Her udder was swollen to many times its normal size. We noticed a ghastly sliver of flesh on a gate mechanism above her. (It was later suggested to us that this might have been her tongue. Cows tend to lick the sides of the truck in search of moisture, but when it's a frozen mechanized gate, that desperate attempt can have tragic consequences.)

Our poor friend died that day, on the filthy floor of a bloody transport truck. We witnessed her body go cold, and her eyes stop moving. Her entire life had been enslaved and twisted by violence and prejudice.

Words cannot convey the horrifying conditions that bring about these slow, agonizing deaths – how the animals are bred, how they “live” on factory farms, and, for those who survive the brutal system, how they are butchered in industrial slaughterhouses. No verbal or even video description can begin to capture it; even visiting these confinement warehouses and slaughterhouses can’t begin to convey what it is like to live one’s entire life there, to be callously killed in the end.

It is enough to know that modern agribusiness is so inherently brutal that it will kill off, pre-slaughterhouse, hundreds of millions of animals through slow, agonizing means, simply as a cost of doing business. This is a system of cruelty so vast, so intense, that it really is beyond comprehension. As Michael Pollan wrote in the New York Times:

More than any other institution, the American industrial animal farm offers a nightmarish glimpse of what capitalism can look like in the absence of moral or regulatory constraint. Here in these places life itself is redefined—as protein production—and with it suffering. That venerable word becomes “stress,” an economic problem in search of a cost-effective solution, like tail-docking or beak-clipping.... Our own worst nightmare such a place may well be; it is also real life for the billions of animals unlucky enough to have been born beneath these grim steel roofs, into the brief, pitiless life of a “production unit....”

This is the system we endorse and support when we purchase its products. Consuming flesh foods from modern agribusiness not only pays others to exploit and butcher fellow feeling beings; it not only affirms the view of animals as unconsidered cogs in the machine of profit; but our purchases are what give agribusiness the resources needed to grow and brutalize more of our fellows.

This is enough to compel me to be a vegetarian, to make a daily, public statement against the breathtaking viciousness behind meat, eggs, and dairy.

For me, being a vegetarian is not the conclusion of an impartial set of utilitarian calculations, nor the endorsement of “animal rights.” Rather, being a vegetarian is a statement about the person I want to be: that I could not live with myself if I were to be a part of such unwatchable cruelty to animals. The phrase is: How could I look at myself in the mirror? And that is literally how it happened for me – looking in the mirror and realizing I couldn’t consider myself a “good person” if I continued to pay others to brutalize animals so I could eat them.

But of course, not everyone makes this choice. With factory farms concealed and society structured around eating faceless meat, we can easily refuse to take a stand and set ourselves apart. And if confronted with the hidden realities of modern agribusiness, we can seek out the “less bad” and call it good.

For example: Michael Pollan, quoted earlier, not only isn’t a vegetarian – he actively mocks the “moral certainty” of vegetarians. He fabricates fantastic rationalizations to continue eating animals. For example, he says that thinking in terms of individual animals is human-centric, and that we need to think in terms of species’ interests. Of course, this is exactly backwards. “Species” is a human construct, an abstraction that inherently can’t have interests. Only individuals have the capacity to experience pleasure or suffer pain and thus have interests. That we should eat the flesh of our fellows to advance the “interests” of a species is so absurd, such a perfect inversion of reality that it is truly stunning that an otherwise seemingly intelligent person would be willing to spout such ridiculous nonsense. Pollan is the perfect example of Cleveland Amory’s observation that people have an infinite capacity to rationalize, especially when it comes to something they want to eat.

(This may seem an unnecessarily harsh condemnation of a man who at least is willing to write about factory farms. But Pollan not only mocks vegetarians via laughable strawman arguments, he even rationalizes the brutal act of force-feeding geese to create foie gras! This level of repulsive rationalization should be exposed for what it is.)

Pollan’s unwillingness to seriously consider vegetarianism, combined with his firsthand experience of “our own worst nightmare,” leads his rationalizing capacity to praise “happy” meat from “humane” farms. Having had the time and resources to investigate the various farms available, the pinnacle of Pollan’s praise is Polyface farm, where “animals can be animals,” living, according to Pollan, true to their nature.

So what is Polyface like? Rabbits on the farm are kept in small suspended-wire cages. Chickens are crowded into mobile wire cages, confined without the ability to nest or the space to establish a pecking order. Pigs and cattle are shipped year-round in open trucks to conventional slaughterhouses. Seventy-two hours before their slaughter, birds are crated with seven other birds. After three days without food, they are grabbed by the feet, up-ended in metal cones, and, without any stunning, have their throats slit.

This is the system Pollan proclaims praiseworthy. While mocking vegetarians, he argues we should ethically and financially endorse Polyface’s view and treatment of animals.

But really, how can we expect better? In the end, Polyface’s view is the same as Tyson’s – that these individual animals are, ultimately, just meat to be sold for a profit. It is logically and emotionally impossible for there to be any real respect, any true, fundamental concern for the interests of these individuals when these living, breathing animals exist only to be butchered and consumed. If we insist that we must consume actual animal flesh instead of a vegetarian option, it is na├»ve, at best, to believe that any system will really take good care of the animals we pay them to slaughter. If you say an individual is just meat, they will be treated as such.

In the end, it really is a question of what kind of person we choose to be. Or, to think about it another way – what is the narrative of our life? Is it that we oppose cruelty or support slaughter? Do we make our own decisions or do we rationalize what we’re used to doing?

I believe there are more important things in life than accepting the status quo, following the norms of society, and taking the easiest path. Furthermore, choosing the road less traveled does not necessitate denial and deprivation. Making our lives a part of something larger expands our life’s narrative, enriches our existence, and allows for real meaning and lasting happiness. Writing our own narrative frees us from the constraints of the “norm.” Choosing to be a vegetarian makes a public, powerful, ethical statement – not just about the suffering of animals, but about the strength of our character. (I discuss this in more detail in “A Meaningful Life.”)

I ask you to consider one more thing.

The average American consumes about three dozen land animals every year. By choosing to be a vegetarian, you will accomplish a great deal of good over the course of your life – you will spare many hundreds of animals from the malicious maws of modern agribusiness.

But get this: Tomorrow, you could accomplish much more, in just one hour!

This may sound like an informercial scam, but it is true – for every person you convince to go vegetarian, you double the impact of your life’s choices. So, if tomorrow you hand out 60 booklets to new people, and just one person decides to go vegetarian, you will have saved, in only one hour, just as many animals as you will save with every single choice you make over the rest of your life.

In other words, if we agree that being a vegetarian is important, that standing up and speaking out for the animals and for ourselves is crucial, then we must also recognize that being an effective advocate for the animals is many times more important. Efficient outreach has truly enormous potential; if you think compound interest is a good deal, effective vegetarian advocacy allows for exponential returns!

In his book, Meat Market, Erik Marcus writes:

When I was a teenager, my greatest ambition was to one day be a millionaire. [Later] I adapted the millionaire concept for purposes of activism.... I wanted to [keep] a million animals out of slaughterhouses.... But is it realistic to think that a typical person could keep a million animals from slaughter? Absolutely! ... At two thousand [land] animals saved per new vegetarian, this means that during your life, if you convince five hundred young people to become vegetarian, a million animals will be saved.

With a reasonable level of investment, each one of us can do this. You don’t need to start a group. You don’t need to pass a law. You just need to make the choice to join with the others who are writing their own narrative, who are working for something bigger than just themselves. We can provide you with lessons from decades of experience and all the tools you need. Vegan Outreach exists to help everyone and anyone, in every situation, be the most effective advocate possible for the animals – for a world not just a bit less bad, but for a fundamentally better world.

Leaflets don’t print themselves, however. Vegan Outreach is dependent upon the financial support of those who recognize the importance of effective advocacy. There are many demands on our limited time and money, and we must choose to invest our scarce resources to do the most good. Working to expose and end the hidden horrors of factory farms is, we believe, the best possible investment. Every new vegetarian pays dividends every year, in terms of their food choices and the example they set for others.

In 2007, Vegan Outreach distributed 1.8 million booklets – 56% more than 2006. This was only possible because, from fiscal year 2006 to 2007, contributions to Vegan Outreach also rose exactly 56%. A donation today will lead to more booklets to more people tomorrow, which will lead to new vegetarians and myriad animals spared this year and every year!

In the end, in our hearts, we know that, regardless of what we think of ourselves, our actions reveal the kind of person we really are. We each determine our life’s narrative. We can, like most, choose to allow the narrative to be imposed on us, mindlessly accept the current default, follow the crowd, and take whatever we can.

Or we can actively author our lives, determining for ourselves what is important. We can live with a larger purpose, dedicated to a better world for all.

The choice is fundamental. The choice is vital. And the choice is ours.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Horse pills

Today I was at Ballard Plaza Pharmacy to pick up Bean's medication. It has to be compounded to get the proper cat-sized dosing, which is why I get it at the specialty pharmacy instead of the vet's office.

I was still in need of empty capsules into which I could shove the horribly bitter antibiotic pills. I purchased the largest capsules available at Whole Foods yesterday, but they weren't big enough.

So at Ballard Plaza Pharmacy, I explained my situation and asked if they could sell me some capsules that could accommodate my pills. They took my pills and went into the back. Eventually, the pharmacy assistant came out and explained that the 00-size capsules weren't quite big enough, so they had to move up a size. OK, fine, whatever, just as long as I get something, right?

He holds up the jar. The capsules looked large, but manageable. "I wanted to show them to you first to make sure you could swallow them. We normally use these for horses."

Monday, December 1, 2008

New antibiotics, Day 2

Last night I couldn't sleep. Actually, I fell asleep quite readily, but then woke at 2:45. This has been a problem for some time. One dose of clonazapam will not help me sleep through the night any longer. Yet any more than one dose (which, for me, is 0.5 mg) will cause me to be sedated and hungover the next morning.

So at 2:45, I took some Suntheanine, which sometimes helps me get back to sleep. No dice. So I went downstairs to the couch, where I could obtain a Percy cat, who I like to refer to as my Percivalium--for no mortal can stay awake with a purring Percy on her chest. Or so I had thought.

My brain was drowsy, but the die-off reaction from the new antibiotic was keeping me awake. As with the previous die-off, there is a great deal of "pain" in my legs. I use the quotation marks because it isn't exactly painful. It feels as if the marrow of my bones has been replaced by something very cold, so cold it burns.

I don't know if the pain is actually coming from nerves in my legs or if it's my brain perceiving something that it's "really there." Because the bacteria is in my central nervous system, when they die and cause inflammatory reactions, well, all kinds of weird stuff happens.

Anyway, the best way I've found to deal with the hot/cold/pain sensation is to provide my brain with overriding sensations. For example, a heating pad (brain perceives heat instead of hot/cold/pain) or a large pile of blankets (brain perceives pressure instead of hot/cold/pain). This doesn't always help, and isn't always practical. So I've found myself relying more on my pain meds.

Finally, I should again like to comment that the Ceftin is perhaps the foulest-tasting substance ON THE PLANET. This morning I emptied one of my quercetin capsules and jammed the Ceftin inside as best I could. That worked well enough, and I was able to take the pill without wanting to burn my tongue and throat with acid. All in all, a positive development.