November 2010 Archives

It is time for winter

| 14 Comments | No TrackBacks

I plan to post about non-death, non-cancer things again soon. But first this. My wife Air wrote something amazing on Facebook a couple of days ago:

It will all be OK. No more grueling chemo. Think of a tree in fall—beautiful and full. But then its leaves start to fall down. Trying to tape them back on to extend the tree's beauty is futile. Standing out in the cold and holding them up to the tree is exhausting. It is time for winter. Enjoy each season.

I wrote 35 paragraphs about my prognosis in my recent two posts. She did it better in one.


Writing in the face of death

| 14 Comments | No TrackBacks

My pre-death announcement over the weekend turned into a monster: a huge spike in my regular number of daily website visitors, dozens and dozens of comments (I didn't even know that Movable Type breaks them into pages of 50 until now), similar numbers of Twitter links and Facebook "likes" (my friends Bill and Darren mocked up a preferable "un-fucking-like" button instead), and quite a few emails and phone calls. It looks like I'll be on CBC Radio with Stephen Quinn again this week too.

Thank you to everyone who wrote. It's overwhelming. I joked on Twitter:

Social Media Guru Tip of the Week™: Need traffic/comments? Simply develop a terminal disease and announce it on your blog! Ask me how!

If you find that in poor taste, sorry, but I think you'll have to get used to it. As my wife Air says, either we laugh or we cry.

Anyway, I'll admit, this is exactly what I hoped would happen. I've been a compulsive writer all my life. Like Tim Bray, I can't not write, but I've never been able to keep a diary, because I've always wanted an audience. I write my blog for myself, of course, and as something for my family and friends, as a record of my thoughts. But deep down, selfishly, I also want an audience of strangers, people who know me because of my writing, and who find some value in what I publish on its own merits, not because they are my friend or my relative.

Sometimes I've found such an audience in magazines, or on television or radio, or even among people who never knew I was the one who'd written the instructions for their wireless modem. And I've genuinely found it here on my blog, more so than I could have imagined back in 2000 when I started it.

So, instead of getting paid, it's largely for the boost to my ego—and because I'm glad readers find value in my stuff—that I put together long series of posts on why cameras work the way they do, or on my opinions about religion and science, or about music and podcasting, and other topics. That's why I try to write something every day, on average (though I haven't managed it recently). It also keeps me in practice both writing and editing my own work.

What is comforting?

My most important legacy is with my wife and my two daughters, but that is a personal one, in the real world, a legacy that is quite peripheral to my writing, quite local, quite private. In public, it's what I write and say that might have an impact.

Yesterday, I received two especially moving emails. One was from someone who's been reading my blog for several years, but who'd never commented or written to me before. She told me that her father almost died last year, and that some of my posts about death had helped her handle the ordeal.

Like me, she doesn't believe in spirits, souls, or an afterlife, so she appreciated my take on thinking about death without them, while considering the joy that trying to understand life on its own terms can bring to the human mind and heart. To try to see the Universe as it really is, to understand how it works—and, so often, to succeed!—how can mere myths compete with that?

What, I wondered after reading her message, do I find comforting? To know that we are all made of star stuff (in Carl Sagan's phrase, or Moby's), and will be again; to know that every other living thing on Earth is our cousin; to see a blob in the sky and know it's the Andromeda Galaxy, as it was 2 million years ago; not to worry that life is some sort of perverse final exam, and to know instead that when it is over, that really is the end for each of us. Those things comfort me, not sadden me. Some find that hard to understand, but I hope what I write can help explain my feelings about it.

Not to fight

The second email was from someone I do know, whose brother died of cancer about a decade ago. She recalled when he concluded that the treatments weren't working, and how he decided to live after that, for however short a time. (It was a few months.) She wrote that "he may have stopped taking treatments, but he did not stop fighting."

I agree with her sentiment, but I would change one word now, after four years: "fight." I've used that word a lot too, but Christopher Hitchens made me think of it differently after he got cancer this year. It will probably kill him too. He wrote:

People don't have cancer: they are reported to be battling cancer. No well-wisher omits the combative image: You can beat this. It’s even in obituaries for cancer losers, as if one might reasonably say of someone that they died after a long and brave struggle with mortality.

He's right. Why must it be a fight, a war, a battle? (And Hitchens is no stranger to battles.) Those are stressful, soul-draining nouns, with images of violence and winners and losers.

I think less personally about my cancer than I used to. I fought it hard, I used to tell it to fuck off, I used to imagine the chemo snuffing it out like carpet bombing over Cambodia. More recently I've thought instead, no, cancer has no mind, no evil intent, no demon driving it. It is my own cells, my own tissue, malfunctioning, not able to stop growing when they're supposed to, not capable of doing their job of making body parts that keep me alive.

My cancer is a random, unthinking, physiological mistake. Some mutations cause cancer, some lead to new and wonderful forms of life. I got the bad one. For me now, my cancer is no more malevolent than bad weather, or an earthquake, or a rock I stub my toe on, or the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. There's no point getting angry at a rock, nor at my cancer, especially now.

I hate that it will kill me, and what that will do to my family. It's sad and unfair. But there's no one and nothing to blame. It's a pure example of "shit happens." (Oh, does it ever.) Like my correspondent's brother, my time has come to win the battle by not fighting anymore, by pushing back against the desire to treat the end of my life as a war and myself as a soldier. We all deserve better than war, whether in the mountains of Afghanistan or in the brain of a cancer patient like me.

I'll live my life, and when it's time to stop, I hope I can accept that when face-to-face with it. In some ways I have it easy: the hardest part is for everyone else, after I'm dead. By then I'll be gone, with not a care (or a thought, or a feeling) in the world. Lucky me?


The endgame

| 130 Comments | No TrackBacks

End GameIn the next couple of years, about 100 million people will die around the world—of old age or other natural causes, in accidents, of infections, from pathogens or poisons, in wars and terrorist attacks, from congenital defects, in fights, of suicide, in natural disasters, from medical errors, of exposure, by misadventure, by assassination or murder, and of various diseases and conditions. Between 10 and 15 million of those people will die of cancer. Today I'm telling you that I'll be one of them.

It's good that Thursday, November 25, wasn't Thanksgiving Day in Canada (it was in the U.S.), because that's when I found out. Doctors are notoriously reluctant to predict life expectancy, and for good reason—they're often wrong. But, with my wife Air in the exam room at the B.C. Cancer Agency with me, I drew it out of my oncologist, Dr. Kennecke.

"Do you expect I'll still be alive to visit you here in two years?" I asked, straight up.

"Honestly, no," he said.

There was more to it, of course, but that was the moment. It was no surprise. It's why I had asked Air to come along—she hasn't needed to join me for a doctor's appointment in a long while, but this week I needed her there.

How do I know?

My chemotherapy isn't working anymore, and after almost four years of different cancer treatments, standard and experimental, I've run out of new things to try. My tumours are still growing in my lungs, chest, and abdomen, so this week my doctors and I have agreed that I'm going to stop taking the drugs. I've probably got about a year before I die, give or take.

I discovered I have cancer at the beginning of 2007. Since at least 2008, it's been clear to me, after radiation, surgery, chemo, and everything else, that none of the treatments was going to destroy it or cure it. I've never been in remission, and with every CT scan and blood test it's been plain that the number and size of the metastatic tumours in my body has nearly always continued to increase, slowly and steadily. The direction of the arrow has been obvious—to me, to Air, to our two daughters—for a long time.

Chemo is never easy. Coincidentally, I discovered a couple of days ago that it was first developed from World War I bioweapons like mustard gas. Since late this summer, the latest cocktail has certainly felt like that. It's been brutal, probably doing more harm than good, not poisoning cancer cells any more effectively than it hammered the rest of my tissues. That led to side effects I'll be glad to reduce, and the weight loss I complained about last time I posted here.

My body is broken and failing. Precisely how long it will hold out, no one knows. But it won't be very long.

What happens now?

Importantly, I'm ready to accept it: I need to prepare to die. That's not giving up, it's facing reality. Anyone who knows me well, or who's read this blog for any time at all, knows I prefer to do that than to be deluded or in denial.

As lifespans have soared, our society has become lousy at dealing with death. I regularly receive emails from people I don't even know, who seem desperate to tell me about a very specific miracle treatment that I simply must take. They have good intentions, but it also feels to me like they refuse to believe that an otherwise fairly healthy 41-year-old man can get cancer and die, and there's ultimately no way to stop it. It seems to offend how some people understand the world.

Yes, I've looked into the options those people suggest, and the evidence for their effectiveness just isn't there. Many of the purported treatments would bankrupt my family and further disrupt our lives, almost certainly for no good purpose. The truth is that I have cancer, and it's going to kill me, soon.

I don't yet know exactly how things are going to go. The Cancer Agency has teams of people to help once patients (and our families) determine that we're terminally ill. I'll need more pain medications with time, and stronger ones. Since most of the cancer is in my lungs, I'm guessing I'll need supplemental oxygen eventually. At some point I may have to move into a hospice or check into a hospital permanently.

I don't play chess, but it includes the useful concept of the endgame, when tactics and strategies change because the remaining pieces are few, and the players know the game is almost over. That's where I am, so I know a few things.

As I predicted, our dog Lucy will outlive me. This might be my last Christmas, or I might see one more. I may or may not reach my 42nd birthday next June. I've probably bought my last car and pair of eyeglasses, but my final carton of milk and cup of coffee are some way off yet.

Facing my own death isn't easy. It's tremendously hard for my immediate family, for my parents, for my aunts and uncles and cousins. It may be harder for them than for me—after all, I know I won't have to deal with the aftermath. I'll be dead, and they'll be alive.

Still, I've had a lot of time to think about death and dying since the beginning of 2007. My wife and two daughters—my three wonderful girls—have talked a lot with me about it too, and we'll keep doing that. I'm not ready to die just yet, but I'm ready to prepare for it.

Off we go.


I'm too thin

| 13 Comments | No TrackBacks

Derek and GinsbergThere were lots of odious things about Wallis Simpson, the late Duchess of Windsor, but one of the most odious was her most famous quotation, that you can "never be too rich or too thin." We can argue about being rich, but she was wrong as hell about being thin. This year I've once again become too thin, far too thin.

After my most recent chemo treatment last week, my bathroom scale weighed me in at 163 pounds (about 74 kg). That's not the least I've ever weighed—check me out at a skeletal 145 pounds back in July 2007, after a few weeks in hospital following bowel-cancer surgery, and being unable to eat or even drink for several days at a time—but it is far too little.

For most of my adult life, I've weighed about 200 pounds (90 kg), give or take. I never worried about my weight one way or the other. I made it as high as 215 when I was really trying to pack it on in 2008. My ideal healthy weight is probably around 190, so right now I'm close to 30 pounds too light, and 12 pounds lighter than I was when I went in for that surgery in '07. I'm on the verge of what happened back in the post-hospital days later that month, when I found it hard to recognize the skinny bastard in the mirror.

The problem is threefold: First, I'm finding this current bout of chemotherapy especially brutal. I have very little interest or ability to eat in the three or four days after I get my treatment every two weeks, with nausea, fatigue, and general relentless blecch-ness. What I do eat, I might very well puke up. Second, even after I feel a bit better towards the end of the week, my appetite and the quantity of food I can consume are quite reduced from what used to be pretty normal voracious Derek levels—and I'm still likely to barf up a meal at nearly any time, out of the blue. Finally, I suspect my digestive system is working less efficiently than it used to, so I'm not absorbing nutrients as well as before.

My diabetes, which I've had for almost 20 years, doesn't help, since I can't just suck back banana splits at a whim. I still have to manage my blood glucose and eat carefully when I do feel up to it. I sometimes have to force myself to eat more than I really want—definitely a new experience for me—and that can backfire. Last night I had a few too many delicious perogies with sausage at dinner, and ended up heaving about a third of them back up later in the evening. But earlier in the same afternoon, I had eaten a big truck-stop sandwich with hash browns and a milkshake, and digested it without trouble. I want to eat and food is still delicious, but my body's reaction is hard to predict.

I have a couple of packs of Boost diabetic dietary supplement drinks in the fridge, and those help somewhat, though they're not the tastiest (the strawberry is okay, especially blended with crushed ice), and so are no good during my actual chemo-sick days. Strangely, sometimes I get cravings at the most peculiar times, and am happy to give into them: the very day I had my last chemo treatment a week ago Monday, I wanted a White Spot clubhouse sandwich at dinnertime. My wife Air got me one while out for supper with the kids, and I ate the whole thing. Shockingly, it stayed down. But I hardly ate again for the next two days.

I don't know if this is mostly a consequence of the chemotherapy, or whether it's more that my cancer is now, after four years, directly affecting my ability to eat and metabolize food. Likely it's some of each. Right now, in bed, I can feel the vertebrae at the nape of my neck. I have to buy men's size small T-shirts and sweaters, and even some of those are loose. Most of my jeans would fall down without a belt that's had extra holes punched in it. I'm really noticing our recent Vancouver cold snap, since I lack body-fat insulation, and sitting on hard surfaces can hurt because of my MPAL (Male Pattern Ass Loss).

Can I gain back some weight, or at least stabilize it? I don't know that either. I'll keep trying, one Boost and clubhouse and plate of perogies at a time.


Here's a second blog post about some of the places I've been that I recommend—some natural, some artificial, in rough order from nearest to farthest from my house. Go back to read part 1 or check out part 3 if you like.

  • Surf Babies 2My wife introduced me to Cannon Beach, Oregon in the 1990s. Near the northwest tip of that state's famous Pacific coast, it's a somewhat pricey tourist town for a good reason, with a long, stunning sandy beach punctuated by offshore seastacks and the imposing monolith of Haystack Rock. We've taken the kids there on family summer vacations four times since they were born, starting when our younger daughter was only a few months old. From Vancouver, we can reach it in a day by car, either via Portland or via the Columbia River and Astoria—in many ways it's easier to get there than to the also-wonderful Long Beach near Tofino on Vancouver Island, since there's no ferry and better roads. I hope we can visit Cannon Beach at least once more, like we did Tofino last year.

  • Rogers Pass summitTake the Trans-Canada Highway or the Canadian Pacific Railway east from Vancouver, into the Selkirk Mountains, and you reach the Continental Divide at Rogers Pass. Depending on the weather, you might not see much, or you might gasp at the peaks overhead. Whether going by road or rail, you'll pass through tunnels and snowsheds, and by train you'll cross over deep gorges via astonishing bridges. In winter, the pass region features one of the most extensive avalanche control programs in the world, where Canadian military guns blast dangerous snow accumulations off the slopes to prevent deadly slides. Even if you're passing through on the way elsewhere, don't forget to look up.

  • Sand Creek CanyonConversely, if you drive west across the northern U.S. along the I-90 freeway, there is a point in Wyoming where the Interstate veers north, skirting the Rocky Mountain foothills. Near Ranchester, you can leave the I-90 and take Highway 14 west again into those foothills, and then up the steep, imposing escarpment beyond Dayton, where the switchbacks take you from 4000 feet of altitude to 7500 feet over only a few dozen miles of road, between Steamboat Point and Horseshoe Mountain. (Make sure your car can handle it.) From time to time, roadside signs tell you the age and type of rocks you're driving past, and you can stop at occasional pullouts to admire the view of the parched landscape you just climbed out of. When I read those signs in 1991, I noticed something: as my friend Andrew and I drove higher and higher in my parents' borrowed station wagon, the rocks were getting younger. In forming the Rockies and more over tens of millions of years, geological processes have not only thrust up the huge mountain ranges of western North America, in the process they flipped the land over like a continental omelette. Holy crap.

  • Bison at Grand Prismatic Spring Yellowstone National Park WyomingKeep following Highway 14 and you'll climb up over 9000 feet above sea level, then down, then up again, along valleys and canyons until eventually you reach the remarkable caldera of Yellowstone National Park. You might feel a bit nervous knowing that you're standing on a potential supervolcano, but you'll also be seeing stuff you don't anywhere else: not only the famous geysers, hot pools, prismatic springs, and ever-changing hydrothermal formations, but also abundant and often fearless wildlife (including bison, bears, moose, elk, cougars, and wolves), and forest ecosystems recovering from recent fires. At night, as at Crater Lake in Oregon, the altitude and distance from cities give you an extraordinary view of the starry sky.

  • Grand Canyon National Park, ArizonaI've written before about the appeal of the American Southwest deserts, and their focus is, of course, the Grand Canyon. Some places are less impressive than legend makes them out to be (giant Redwood and Sequoia forests in California, for me, since they're much like groves I can walk to from my house), some are exactly as you might expect (Mount Rushmore, which was pretty much as big as I thought, but no bigger), and some are far more impressive than you can imagine in advance. The Grand Canyon is one of those. Yes, that's a cliché, but because it's true. You won't get an idea of the place until you go, and you should. While you're in the area, visit Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park in nearby Utah too—wonderful and beautiful in their own way, but not on the same scale.

  • Carlsbad Caverns Lunch RoomNo doubt there are more impressive caves in the world, but one amazing talent of Americans is making natural features accessible to regular people, and Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico demonstrates that genius. You can, and should, hike into the massive cavern complex using a reasonably easy paved trail with railings, lighting, and benches to sit and rest. Or you can simply take a high-speed elevator 750 feet down into the Earth from the flat New Mexico desert (parking nearby)—at the bottom there is a restaurant and even a post office where you can mail letters to your friends and family from deep underground. Some of the Big Room is wheelchair accessible. If you did hike down, the elevator makes returning to the surface a breeze. Yet that doesn't detract from the spectacle of the formations, which are enhanced by coloured lights and explanatory plaques. I've been spelunking in less-developed caves, with flashlights and hardhats, and that has its own rewards. But at Carlsbad Caverns, you'll wonder at both the stalactites and the engineering effort that went into making it easy for you to see them.

  • Too Much FunSince the jet-travel revolution of the 1960s, Hawaii has been a favourite destination for Vancouverites. In five hours or so, we can go from a wet and cold Vancouver winter to a tropical volcanic Pacific paradise that's still part of our neighbour the U.S.A. Yet I never visited it until 2006, when I was 37 years old. Hawaii includes many wonders, but I missed some of the most spectacular, such as eruptions on the Big Island or the crater of Haleakala—my family and I only saw Oahu, and even there the surf wasn't particularly large on the legendary North Shore. However, Pali Lookout was still something else. We have mountains here in British Columbia, and sometimes crazy winds, but they don't come together like they do at Pali, a cliffside perch overlooking Windward Oahu on the east side of the island. A natural wind tunnel, it is one of the breeziest places I've ever been, yet the blast is warm, not freezing as it would be at home. The nearby sheer mountainsides are unlike anything in my home province, striated as they are by deep tropical erosion gullies and entirely coated in warm-climate vegetation. Despite its precarious spot, Pali Lookout is easy to drive to in a car or tour bus, being just off the Pali Highway.

  • CN Tower from CBC TallThe CN Tower in Toronto was never the tallest artificial thing in the world, but for more than 30 years it was the tallest freestanding structure—one that doesn't need guy wires or the buoyancy of water to keep it up. It's still taller than any occupied building in the Western Hemisphere. Given the rate at which new supertall buildings and towers are now being built, it's unlikely any of them will hold the title for that long. The CN Tower is not an especially pretty thing, especially close up with its vast buttresses of concrete, but it has an Apollo-era Tomorrowland rocket vibe that newer competitors don't emulate. While visiting my parents in Toronto when they lived there, I once went to the bar and ordered a 7-Up, which came in an appropriately tall and skinny glass. From the Sky Pod observation deck you can look out more than 100 miles over the flat expanse of Greater Toronto and across Lake Ontario to the United States. You can also visit the glass floor to look down at the city below your feet, and the outdoor observation deck to feel a high-altitude wind that only birds felt for millennia.

  • Chrysler building by nightI never went inside the Chrysler Building during my one visit to New York City ten years ago, but that's no matter. Its gleaming metal spire with nested arches and triangle windows, Art Deco retro yet still vibrantly modern, "always looks like the future," in the words of Salon's Stephanie Zacharek back in 2002. Thankfully, no one so far has ever considered renaming it either. You can stand near the Empire State Building, like the CN Tower, and look up, saying to yourself, "Man, that's tall." But with the Chrysler Building, night or day, you say, "Man, that's beautiful." I wish Vancouver had even one skyscraper so pretty. Then again, even Manhattan has only the one.

Next time, we'll go overseas.


Podcast AwardsI know it's been awhile since we posted a show, and we will have a new episode of my long-running podcast Inside Home Recording tomorrow (Saturday, November 20), but my co-host Dave Chick and I need to get this out right away: please go to PodcastAwards.com today and nominate IHR (our URL is http://www.insidehomerecording.com) for a Podcast Award in these two categories:

  • Best Produced (we hope!)
  • Education

Why today? Well, the nomination deadline is Sunday, November 21, this weekend. And of course, add in your other favourite podcasts in the other categories.

UPDATE: Here's the new episode, featuring modes, musical mental archaeology, Pro Tools 9, moving the IHR forums, and more.

If we do get nominated, we'll remind you to vote when that time comes too. And watch for IHR #84 tomorrow...


Given the severity of my cancer, it's unlikely I'll be traveling all that far from now on, no matter how much longer or shorter I live. I have been fortunate enough, however, to have visited a few of the world's spectacular and famous places. Since I live in beautiful and spectacular British Columbia, some of them are quite close by.

This is the first of a series of blog posts about some of the places I've been that I recommend—some natural, some artificial, in rough order from nearest to farthest from my house—see part 2 and part 3. Many are popular tourist attractions and are quite easy to reach for nearly anyone with just a bit of money and time. That's fine by me. They deserve the recognition:

  • The ChiefThe Stawamus Chief, a ridiculous sheer cliff face just south of Squamish, is a short drive from Vancouver on the Sea-to-Sky Highway. It's our local El Capitan, and I've never even thought of climbing it, but my wife has hiked up the back side with school groups a few times, and once I rode by its rear base at the start of an adventurous mountain biking trip. The Chief itself is over 700 m (2300 ft) high, a grey granite slab rising almost straight out of the ocean. Even if all you do is stand near the bottom and watch cliff climbers through binoculars, it's worth the trip.

  • Whistler 2010 - Smoky valleyThe world's longest and highest cable-car gondola isn't in the Alps, but another hour or so north of the Chief, above the ski resort in Whistler. It's the new Peak2Peak Gondola. In the middle of the span between Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, as you cross above Fitzsimmons Creek, you are more than 430 m (1400 ft) above ground. The 10-minute ride is smooth and safe, but no matter your feeling about heights (I love them), somehow the trip still seems more appropriate for a helicopter or a small plane.

  • mossy giantsPeople from Vancouver think we know old-growth temperate rainforests. We have Stanley Park and the North Shore mountains, and dozens more parks and watersheds full of immense trees dripping with moss, right within our metropolitan area. But you need to take a ferry to Nanaimo, drive north to Parksville, and then go inland so you can reach Cathedral Grove. The highway to Port Alberni slices right through it, so like the Chief and the Peak 2 Peak, it's easy to reach. But unlike most of B.C.'s coastal old growth, it's never been cut down for lumber, and is a prime example of a rich rainforest valley bottom. There are firs and cedars and spruces hundreds of years old, larger and taller than anything you'll see without an arduous trip to distant B.C. wilderness, or to California's Sequoia and Redwood preserves. Personally, I think B.C.'s trees are prettier, especially in the snow.

  • Broken Island Group Near UclueletSome claim that the world's largest tide pool is on an island at the tip of the Broken Group in Barkley Sound, off the West Coast of Vancouver Island in Pacific Rim National Park. I've seen it, and I don't know if it really is the largest, but regardless, it didn't blow me away. That's because most of it is pretty barren of life, not chock-full of it like so many tide pools in this area. I don't even know exactly what mini-island it's supposed to be on—maybe Wouwer or Howell—but if you find it (you require a boat) and venture to its exposed southwest coast, then instead of looking down, look up to the horizon. Massive basalt sea stacks offshore look like railway cars crushed into the ocean. Waves that have crossed the Pacific explode into them, and you can feel the collisions in your chest, even from far away. And then think about where you're looking: directly south, beyond those sea stacks, there is nothing but Pacific Ocean (no people, no islands) until you reach Antarctica, 9000 miles away. My band wrote a song about it once, in which I called that spot the most beautiful place I'd ever seen.

  • First 747-8 in Factory With EnginesIt's not easy to watch big planes get built. Military contractors are expectedly secretive, and if you want to visit the Airbus factory in Toulouse, France, you need to confirm in writing at least 45 days in advance, with the waiting list still months long. Plus, you have to find your way to Toulouse. Much easier is a trip to Everett, just north of Seattle, Washington. If it's not the busy summer season, as it wasn't when we went in May last year, you can walk right up to a ticket counter at the Future of Flight museum, and be inside the Boeing Everett Assembly Building in half an hour. You're prohibited from taking photos, or even bringing anything resembling a camera with you, but then you have more attention to turn to the activities within the most voluminous building in the world. The new Boeing 787, the long-haul 777, the transatlantic champion 767, and perhaps the world's greatest aircraft, the Boeing 747, all come together inside this single structure. It is a marvelous testament to what people can do—and it's absolutely goddamn huge to boot.

  • Crater LakeThe Cascade Volcanoes are fearsome and beautiful, forming a chain of smoking peaks from B.C. to northern California. My favourite of them, however, is extinct: Crater Lake in southern Oregon, formed from the carcass of Mount Mazama, which erupted so violently a few thousand years ago that it collapsed on itself, leaving a basin to be filled with rain and meltwater (no streams run in or out). At its deepest it reaches nearly 600 m (2000 ft), making it the ninth deepest lake in the world, and by far the clearest. The blue colour of the water is unlike any you'll see anywhere else. The rimside lodge is spectacular. The views from anywhere around the lake are astonishing. And a trip on a tour boat across the lake or onto Wizard Island is remarkable. Because of heavy snowfall, the season is short, but try to make a visit happen.

  • Lunar Exploration Suit - JPL c.1959Greater Los Angeles has Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm, and Magic Mountain. It has Beverly Hills and the Hollywood sign, as well as the La Brea Tar Pits. It has an unbelievable tangle of freeways, and miles and miles of famous surfing beaches. I do not know if it surpasses Rio de Janeiro for plastic surgeries per capita, but I do know what L.A. has that nothing else does: the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), near Pasadena. Open houses happen only once a year, but I was able to take a private tour with my dad (through his connections in the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada) almost 30 years ago, around the time JPL was processing data from the Voyager 2 probe as it passed Saturn. JPL is an unassuming place, nothing spectacular to look at. It's an academic campus in the foothills, but it's where people have revealed some of the first close-up images from our solar system. When you hear the names of interstellar probes like Mariner, Pioneer, Viking, Voyager, Galileo, Cassini-Huygens, and the Mars rovers, JPL is where they came from, and where they've been piloted and run. Plus the people who work there get to say, "Yes, this is rocket science!"

Next time, a wet windy lookout, the Grand Canyon (of course), and a not-especially-tall building.


Cars used to be crap

| 4 Comments | No TrackBacks

Waiting in the carContinuing my anniversary theme, our Ford Focus station wagon left its factory almost 10 years ago. Many drivers don't notice it, but our Focus is a sign of how all cars have become way, way better in recent years, in pretty much every respect.

Despite being a decade old, and being parked outside that whole time, our 2001 Focus SE Wagon has no rust. We've maintained it, and it has needed some repairs, but overall it runs well. The interior's in good shape. With its cavernous cargo compartment, it remains our go-to car when we need to move stuff, even if I'm not schlepping a whole band's instruments and PA gear anymore. I just put some snow tires on it for the winter, since we still use it for most family trips where we need to bring a decent amount of luggage.

My first car, by contrast, was a beige, late-'70s AMC Hornet, which I inherited from my grandmother. It was also a station wagon, a model AMC called the "Sportabout." My Oma didn't drive—the wagon had been my step-grandfather's car before he died in 1981. By the time I took it over in the mid-'80s, the Hornet was the same age as our Focus is now, but it was piece of junk. The body was rusted through in several places, the driver's-side seat springs had collapsed (to be fair, my Opa was a big guy, but still), the windows leaked, the suspension creaked, the engine dripped oil, and at intersections, I often had to put it in neutral and goose the accelerator to keep the car from stalling.

While the Hornet had a 3.8 L inline six-cylinder engine, that motor only produced about 130 horsepower, and the car wasn't light, so it drove like what could best be described as a tubby land yacht. The Focus is a smaller, lighter vehicle, with a 2.0 L four-cylinder motor that produces the same 130 hp, so it's a lot peppier, and has a firmer, European-style suspension, so it's more fun to drive too. My wife Air's brand new Mazda3 sedan, with its 167 hp 2.5 L engine, is a step beyond that still.

I'm not sure exactly when consumer automobiles made the transition into this new generation of better-built, longer-lasting, more reliable vehicles. I'm guessing it occurred mostly in the 1980s, when Japanese and European manufacturers pushed their North American competitors to improve by outselling them with much better cars—and when onboard computers, electronic fuel injection, and other innovations allowed vehicles to diagnose and adjust things automatically that formerly required human intervention. (When we drove into the mountains in the 1970s, my dad used to adjust the engine timing under the hood for the thinner air. No one has to do that now.)

After a decade, that old Hornet was already a beater, and it didn't last much longer. (I was a young driver too, so I didn't treat it especially well, but it did get me to high school and university.) I drove a couple of other hand-me-downs from my parents—a Ford Fairmont sedan and a big Mercury Marquis V8 wagon, both also old-school designs—before eventually discovering what a modern car was like in my wife's two-door 1992 Ford Escort sedan. That was a fine little machine, but it was also too little—when our second daughter was due, we traded it for a similar 1999 Escort wagon, with four doors and storage in the back.

We might still have that Escort if it hadn't been rear-ended and totaled at a red light by a Mercedes in the summer of 2001. The safety systems did their job: my wife and kids were all inside when it happened, and their injuries were pretty mild considering the severity of the crash. The cargo compartment looked like it had been punched in by a giant fist, spraying glass throughout the cabin. Our insurance replaced the car, but by then the Escort had been discontinued, replaced by the Focus. The one we have now was the last wagon we could track down in the city at the end of that model year.

Oddly, Ford no longer sells a Focus wagon (or even a hatchback) in North America, so if we needed to replace it, we'd have to buy from someone else. That's a pity, because I see a lot of them on the road. It's obviously a useful design for many people besides us, and the completely new 2012 wagon looks great—but won't be available on this side of the Atlantic.


Lucyversary

| 4 Comments | No TrackBacks

LucyversaryWe've had lots of occasions this year in our household. Our younger daughter L turned 10, and her sister Marina 12, her last birthday before becoming a teenager. My wife and I had our 15th wedding anniversary (though I was out of town for the actual day). My parents had their 45th.

We saw the 25th anniversary of the Air India bombing, and the 30th since the big eruption of Mount St. Helens. I marked 40 years since Jimi Hendrix died, and what would have been John Lennon's 70th birthday (it will be 30 years since his death next month), 10 years since the release of Mac OS X and 25 since the appearance of the original Super Mario Bros. game. I passed three years since my cancer diagnosis, and this blog even turned 10 years old.

Today is another significant event at our house. A year ago, we bought a puppy and brought her home in our station wagon. She was already almost three months old, and we named her Lucy—my wife Air's idea, since her first dog as a child also had that name. Despite some extremely tiring early days, where I had to take her outside every couple of hours before she was housetrained, it has been wonderful to have her here. She is warm, and most often a calming and gentle presence in the house.

When I'm alone here with her, as I often am when my wife's at work and the kids are at school, the house is a more vibrant and alive place. We've never regretted bringing her home, and we're glad we brought Lucy into our family.


The young killers

| 2 Comments | No TrackBacks

Lest we forgetIt occurs to me on this Remembrance Day that in all the wars ever fought, in all the thousands of generations where people have been killing each other and destroying things for some sort of political or ideological or territorial aim, the vast majority of soldiers have been younger than I am now.

I'm 41. Those who have battled and suffered and died, for causes good and bad and irrelevant—whether in a Roman legion, a phalanx of Aztecs, a Chinese Imperial Navy flotilla, a German army unit trying to gain inches on a muddy trench-cut battlefield, a revenge raid in the highlands of New Guinea, or a Canadian strike force in the Afghan mountains—have usually been young men, often boys young enough to be my children. And they have faced an enemy with that same face. Youths, sent to kill each other.

The context of how I face the prospect of my own death is quite different. Cancer is slower and less surprising than a bullet, a spear, a roadside bomb, or the hooves of an enemy horse. But those youngsters who have set out to war have always shared a knowledge: There's a good chance I won't make it.

Many of them did. Many didn't, and never got to see age 41. I'm glad I have.


Why not save a step?

| 3 Comments | No TrackBacks

Today would have been Carl Sagan's 76th birthday, though he died at 62, in 1996, of pneumonia brought on by a bone marrow disorder. He was a big influence on me, in his many publications, and particularly in his PBS TV series Cosmos and its accompanying book.

Although I watched the whole series, and brought the book to school with me often enough that the librarian gave me one of those industrial-strength plastic covers to protect the dust jacket, the first minute of this segment, from Episode 10, "The Edge of Forever," still stands out in my mind.

It was originally broadcast almost exactly 30 years ago, in November 1980, when I was 11. Sagan knew he was treading on dangerous ground, especially in his native America, so he must have chosen his words very carefully:


"If we wish to pursue this question courageously," he says about a godly origin to the Universe, "we must of course ask the next question: where did God come from? If we decide that this is an unanswerable question, why not save a step, and conclude that the origin of the Universe is an unanswerable question? Or if we say God always existed, why not save a step, and conclude that the Universe always existed?"

I had been thinking along these lines myself already. However, perhaps it was the budding writer in me, but I appreciated Sagan's thrift in that statement. It's Occam's Razor at its most efficient: "Why not save a step?" (And in the process, supersede all religions and theologies, incidentally.)

If we can explain the workings of the Universe without the supernatural, he was saying, we should do so. That is both to avoid unnecessary complexity in our explanations, and because it's the basis of science, which has taught us more about our world in the past few hundred years (especially in the last century) than we learned in all the millennia before.

But perhaps more importantly, Sagan suggested, if we cannot explain the workings of the Universe, or the Universe's very existence—at least not yet—then supernatural answers don't magically fill the void. Postulating an incomprehensible deity doesn't make the answers clearer, but murkier. It pushes them another unneeded step away.

That's how we treat things in the rest of life. Take one of my other favourite quotes, from William Strunk, about writing:

A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.

By the same reasoning, a cosmology should contain no unnecessary gods. That made sense to me at 11, and it still does. Thanks Carl.


Big biweekly butt blowout!

| 3 Comments | No TrackBacks

The usual "perhaps too much information" warning applies to this post, if you're not fond of tales about bodily fluids. Last month I wrote:

The pattern has become this: roughly a week after I first receive the chemo dosage, my body decides to purge everything out of my gastrointestinal tract.

It's actually remarkable how consistent that pattern has become. Irinotecan, the main drug in my current chemotherapy cocktail, has diarrhea as its primary side effect. But you'd figure, as with most drug side effects, that would happen pretty much right away after I first take it.

Not for me. I have chemo every 14 days. Almost exactly a week (in my four treatments so far, either six, seven, or eight days) after my treatment begins, what arrives is an event I now call the Big Biweekly Butt Blowout. I had chemotherapy last Monday, November 1. Last night, November 7, with little warning, things got started around 6 p.m., and I was able to leave our downstairs bathroom around 8:15. As my guts calmed down over the rest of the night, I was able to get to sleep before midnight.

Of course it sucked, and I'm sorry my family had to listen to me barf up my dinner. But I quickly realized what was going on, and having been through it three times before, I knew roughly what to expect, as well as what I needed to do to ride it out. When I went downstairs with a few supplies, I told my wife, "I'm heading down to the bathroom. I'll probably be there for a while." I was quite right.

While I'm tired today, things are better. I had a late breakfast. The dog has been her usual great snuggler. If the rain continues, I'll meet the kids after school to give them a ride home. This week should be an improvement, before I get started with the process again next Monday.


Mountain faces

| 9 Comments | No TrackBacks

Mont Blanc du TaculI have a peculiar fascination with mountain climbing. Peculiar because I've never done anything like it, not even on local peaks like The Lions or Black Tusk. The most I've done is go from the ski area parking lot to the top of Mt. Seymour, which is a hike, not a climb. (Like The Lions, I can see the summit of Seymour from our front window.)

Maybe that's what interests me. Like Antarctica or outer space, high mountain peaks are somewhere I'll never go. I've written about how dangerous high-altitude mountaineering is. As a child, I was fascinated by TV documentaries on mountain climbing (I vividly recall a sherpa falling into a mud sinkhole on the way to Everest, before the team had even reached snow). Jon Krakauer's 1997 bestseller Into Thin Air riveted me from the first sentence:

Straddling the top of the world, one foot in China and the other in Nepal, I cleared the ice from my oxygen mask, hunched a shoulder against the wind, and stared absently down at the vastness of Tibet.

It remains one of my favourite books. Today another one of those scary mountain stories bubbled up, via Jason Kottke: a Vanity Fair tale of two young British men who died last year falling thousands of feet down part of Mt. Blanc. Because it's easy to access in the centre of Europe, but remains treacherous with difficult slopes and unpredictable weather, Mt. Blanc kills more climbers than any other peak in the world. Rob Gauntlett and James Atkinson, the climbers who died, were far from inexperienced.

A couple of years earlier, Gauntlett and James Hooper, both then 19, had become the youngest Brits ever to climb Mt. Everest. They followed that expedition with a trip from the northern geomagnetic pole to the southern one, from North America through South America to Antarctica—without any motorized power. At Mt. Blanc, Hooper and another school friend, Richard Lebon, had decided not to follow their colleagues up the mountain that day, and survived.

Even out my front window, I can see places (or at least, the tops of trees near places) where people wander off well-trodden tourist trails, get lost, and never return. Often in the summer. Once, a plane crashed on one of those slopes and wasn't found for decades. Mountains are beautiful and alluring, but fickle, and can be deadly.


Welcome back, Morpheus

| 8 Comments | No TrackBacks

Back in 2007, before I had my big cancer surgery, I was taking morphine tablets a couple of times a day. As of yesterday, I am again—quite possibly indefinitely. It's because of that pain I've been having in my torso, which so far has no obvious source, but which I'm guessing is simply the result of my ever-growing tumours. In recent weeks it's been keeping me from going to sleep easily, or waking me up in the night. I was taking too many Tylenol 3 and Advil pills. For someone like me, morphine is a better and safer painkiller.

The drug is pretty amazing stuff, really. When I had my last partial bowel blockage in 2008, it was excruciating. But a single injection of morphine abated the pain within minutes, and was able to keep it at bay in hospital while I waited for my body to clear the obstruction. So far the low-dose, twice-daily pills are working well against my current pain, and I have shorter-acting tablets I can take if things act up in between.

The team at the Pain Clinic yesterday also prescribed me Zopiclone, a sleeping pill, in case I needed it. Last night I tried half a tablet because the morphine hadn't fully kicked in by bedtime, but so far I'm not a fan. I've been in a zombie-like state most of the day, much more so than my usual chemo-recovery Thursday. I'm certainly in no shape to drive or operate heavy machinery. Or light machinery, for that matter. I'll keep the sleeping pills in reserve in case I really need them. But I think I'll sleep fine just reducing the pain first.


A return to bleah

| 3 Comments | No TrackBacks

How I feel about going back to chemo todayFor the first time in a month, I'm going back for more chemotherapy this afternoon. Dread is hardly the word to describe my state right now. Even after a couple of extra weeks off from the treatment because of that nasty blood clot, I still don't feel well.

I continue to have back and torso pains that move around, requiring painkillers (mild ones, so far), and which have sometimes kept me awake. The only appointment I could get at the B.C. Cancer Agency Pain Clinic is on Wednesday, when I'll still be in pretty sad shape from the chemo—but I need to go to help manage my symptoms. My intestinal tract is still periodically misbehaving itself, which is never fun. I'm often weak and tired, and though the scale tells me I haven't lost more weight, I'm still too skinny, but I can't eat as much as I used to either because of the above-mentioned problems.

That said, Halloween was fun yesterday: my wife and daughters and our friend The Badger wandered the neighbourhood collecting goodies, while I manned the door here at home. We had a pretty big mob of kids, though because of a larger-than-usual candy purchase, we still have lots of supplies left over. My youngest went so hard at the trick-or-treating that she didn't wake up till 9:30 this morning—I'm working to get her to school for lunchtime. I had fun setting up a new (to us) iMac I acquired from Alistair. The 24" screen is huge in our kitchen.

The next few days are going to suck for me and for my family. You'd think we'd be used to it, but no. Cancer doesn't give us even that luxury.