All shook up

October 5, 2008
The mainland, looking east from Quadra Island

The mainland, looking east from Quadra Island

Living on the west coast is marvelous. The weather is polite, the scenery spectacular, the people friendly.

What we forget is that we live in an active fault zone which has generated the most powerful quake recorded in modern times. Alaska experienced a 9.3+ quake in 1964. The geological record shows similar massive ruptures in the past as well. In the early 17th century, Japan was hit by an enormous “orphan” tsunami (no local earthquake before hand). The source has been found to be off northern Vancouver Island in what is known as the Cascadia subduction zone.

The Cascadia subduction zone is both large and complex, covering an area from the northern US coastal states to Alaska and from the coastal mountains in the east; well out into the Pacific Ocean. Mount St. Helens and Mount Baker rise in this zone and Vancouver Island comprises a large piece of it.

Earthquake theory predicts periods of gradual strain building along a fault until the pressure is released in an earthquake. What has been found during recent observations in the Cascadia subduction zone (hereafter called the CSZ) has been quite different. One of the most active segments of the CSZ is about 80 kilometers north-west of the tip of Vancouver Island. Here, small quake “swarms” occur every eighteen months or so, with values on the Richter scale rarely exceeding 5.0. It might be expected that these swarms would release strain along the fault and while this seems partially true, observations show strain drops only marginally and then begins to build again, rising fairly rapidly to levels above those found before the swarm. Core samples and coastal sediments indicate the last major quake in the central CSZ was over four hundred years ago, so we are well past the “normal” release period of a couple of hundred years between major quakes.

By comparison, the San Andreas fault, further south, ruptures fairly regularly with quakes occasionally over 8.0 releasing strain where those quakes occur. What seems (in my opinion) to be different in the CSZ is that while the San Andreas is fairly straight and the boundary between the Pacific plate and the continental plate fairly well defined, the CSZ has a large chunk of continental plate which is not North American interfering with subduction of the Pacific plate. That chunk drifted across the Pacific before piling into North America millions of years ago and is now known as Vancouver Island.

So what does this mean for those of us who live in the CSZ (and those around the Pacific Ocean who would be affected by a tsunami generated from a major quake)? Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Vancouver and Victoria are major cities which have never experienced a major quake and if a quake of the expected possible magnitude were to occur, it could eclipse the largest in California by a factor of ten times or more. It remains to be seen what might be left standing if, no WHEN, this happens.

All we can really do is continue (albeit with more urgency) to retrofit old buildings to meet current earthquake standards, build to more stringent standards now and in the future, become intimately familiar with the tsunami warning system and personally prepare for significant disruptions in supplies and transportation at some time between this moment and the not too distant future.

We do live in interesting times

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Attend tu le chien aboyer?

September 21, 2008

 

And then there are the nights when deep low pressure systems bring cold marine air off the Gulf of Alaska, High above the beaches, the salt scent of the north Pacific overpowers even the sweet decay of autumn in the forest. The air is so still and damp that beads of moisture form on every surface, wetting even under overhangs, leaves and railings, so thick that breathing seems difficult.

 

Light from the windows is scattered before it encounters anything with form and so the air itself appears solid. Rather than seeming pitch black, the night takes on a soft, gray-white glow undefined by color or shape. Normal night noises are also absorbed. If crickets are chirping their song is unheard. Drops from nearby leaves fall silently to the ground. Even my footsteps are muted – more felt than heard.

 

The humidity is so overpowering and pervasive it takes on a physical presence. Its effect is so strong that perception is twisted. Rather than receiving light and sound, eyes and ears seem to transmit – visions from the mind’s eye are projected into the grayness like a reflection in a steamy mirror, dim flashes of color and shape flitting through the aether and the loudest noise is the whistle of breath in my nose and the ringing in my ears.

 

The only thing external which is left is the ocean in the air and it too is more dream than reality.

On the threshold

September 16, 2008

 

 

As the long days of summer slide into autumn and the sun rises further and further south, the moon rises higher in the night sky. These are not the dark, drizzly, daring nights of winter but like the days, warm and in between and magical. Cricket songs still ring and the croak of barn owls echo across the moonlit forest. Hunting nighthawks hoot and reply across the rock bluffs and the hundred foot tall fir trees which cloak them.The warm night air is cooled only by the moon’s light which turns the thousand greens of the arboreal rain forest into a singular medium blue highlighted by deep black shadows. Bats almost silently zag through the pools of moonlight in the clearings and black-tailed deer, visible as their blue-white rumps slide from shadow to shadow, crunch quietly though the forbes on the forest floor. The stars are not yet swarming as they will on the clear nights of winter, only the strongest pushing through the glare of the gibbous moon.

 

I live for the nights too. Standing in a dappled shaft of moonlight I feel as if I have just wakened from a dream, more by the wondrous scene laid before me than the fact that I just have.

Baby give me one more chance

September 14, 2008

 

Amyloidosis is a rare and often fatal disease which is characterized by a build up of abnormal proteins in body tissues and the major organs. The exact cause is unknown and there is no known cure.

 

In healthy individuals, antibodies (white blood cells) are produced by the bone marrow, enter the blood stream to fight invaders and are recycled. Amyloids are antibody proteins which cannot be broken down by the body and so eventually leave the bloodstream, becoming deposited in tissues and organs. This deposition affects normal function and can lead to organ failure. As much of the white blood cell production is abnormal, infections – including fevers can also be fatal.

 

Symptoms include edema, weight loss, difficulty swallowing, irregular heartbeat, numbness or tingling in the extremities, shortness of breath, weakness, severe fatigue, diarrhea and skin changes.

 

Amyloidosis is currently incurable but several therapies are being studied. One, which has extended the lives of many patients (me included) begins with high-dose chemotherapy to kill the bone marrow, followed by a bone marrow transplant. While this almost never (if ever) stops amyloid production over the long term, it can extend life spans and in some cases reduce amyloid production post-transplant. Ongoing chemotherapy (see “Understanding Chemotherapy” below) is then intended to support the major organs while amyloid proteins are shed, control the more devastating symptoms and bolster the immune system.

 

Enormous effort is being expended to understand amyloidosis so the longer patients survive, the better the chances are that more effective therapies will be found or a cure will be discovered.

 

I live for that.

Going my way?

September 13, 2008

 

One of the primary reasons cancer treatment has advanced so quickly is the infusion of money from an aware and involved community. One of the main reasons I (and many like me) have survived  is the amazing support of the Freemasons/Canadian Cancer Society Volunteer Drivers program. The volunteer drivers essentially take cancer patients and their escorts to and from their appointments. Distance is not an issue. The trip can be from home to the hospital and back or from home (in my case Campbell River) to Vancouver and back. No matter. When I have been too unwell or too medicated to drive, I know who to call.

 

Locally it starts with Anne Marie, our dispatcher. She has an unfailingly can-do attitude and a lovely personality. Her feeling seems to be that her “clients” have enough to worry about without having to think about travel arrangements. Give her enough lead time and she can get you where you need to go, no questions asked, don’t worry. If she isn’t there to pick up her phone, she unfailingly returns messages. When she arranges a trip she always calls to confirm. Always. Her pay? The satisfaction of a job well done. Possibly the reward of knowing she is doing something fundamentally good. All this and her “clients” keep dieing on her. She sucks it up and keeps on going – always polite, always pleasant.

 

The van travels from Campbell River to Victoria three times a week if there are enough passengers to warrant a trip. Otherwise it will connect with a van from another community which has room. If there is only one passenger and no van traveling from another community, no problem. Two drivers pick up the passenger and take that passenger to Victoria. They take cancer patients where they need to go and then take them home. The van is clean, modern and comfortable.

 

The local drivers donate a day every month or so and two of them make the trip to Victoria, sharing the driving duties. They too are unfailingly polite and pleasant. Many of them have either been touched by cancer personally or have had a significant other affected by it. It shows. They drive with their passengers in mind.

 

In Vancouver, the experience is similar. As an outpatient following my transplant, the volunteer drivers initially took me from the Jean C. Barber Cancer Lodge to the hospital – just a few blocks. Then, for some months, they transported me three times a week from Richmond to Vancouver General Hospital and then took me back, often a trip of an hour or more (depending on traffic) each way. In many cases when my appointment ran late, the dispatcher took me to Richmond in his own vehicle. Today, they pick me up at the downtown bus depot (I ride across from Vancouver Island on the Pacific Coach Lines bus) and take me to my destination – any destination in the GVRD. The drivers donate a half day a week of their time. Their cars are clean and modern and comfortable.

 

You might wonder how someone on disability can afford what is essentially a limo service. The answer is surprising. The Freemasons/CCC Volunteer Drivers program depends on donations. While it is clear they accept donations from their passengers, they are not aggressive in seeking them. Their clients seem too important to them, too fragile to harangue. If one cannot make a donation, absolutely no mention is made of it. I cannot say too much about this service or speak too highly of their people. It is an absolute fact that if not for them it is unlikely I would have survived this long. Their willingness to handle any request when I was too weak or ill to deal with anything but making it until the next day has been extraordinary. Their clients are unfailingly weak and ill. The dispatchers and drivers are unfailingly pleasant and dependable. Their service is invaluable. I think the only reason they seem to shun publicity is that they would be even busier than they are today and would have trouble coping with the increased demand.

 

The Freemasons/Canadian Cancer Society Volunteer Drivers program is, without reservation, the finest example of community service in action.

Coming through

September 12, 2008

As a verbally challenged individual with an overactive mind, I find myself reflecting on the nature of communication. Just what qualifies as communication? It is obviously not just words.

Human written and verbal communication, while able to convey extraordinarily complex ideas is able to both enlighten and obfuscate depending on the agenda and delivery of the originator and the intellectual balance and viewpoint of the recipient. Symbolic languages such as mathematics would, on the surface, appear less open to interpretation, but again seem to depend on the capabilities of both the “speaker” and the “listener”. Human communication is a dog’s breakfast, best served with a grain of salt (how’s that for mixing metaphors?). We have always assumed that what separated us from animals was our ability to displace, to imagine ourselves outside our immediate time and place. We now know that at least one other species – the great apes, is also capable of displacement. A number of apes have proven capable of learning American sign language and have communicated ideas every bit as complex as those of a preschool child. They have even shown amazing creativity by combining symbols in new ways and creating new symbols to convey ideas not available to them with the vocabulary they were originally taught.

A number of other “higher” mammal species (dolphins are a prime example) are observed to have a structured vocabulary of sounds. It is possible, therefore, that other species are capable of displacement but since we have yet to decode non-human communication we can’t yet be sure. Is it possible, given the enormous vocabularies of these other species and the certainty that at least one non-human species can displace, that they (dolphins for instance) can dissemble?

Many animal species use sound to communicate but again, in more complex organisms, we observe the nature of those sounds depends on the state of the originator. Dogs, for instance, in similar situations will vocally express themselves differently based on whether they are excited, frustrated, fearful, neurotic or aggressive (among other things) and yet be thought to be “speaking” the same “word”. When we include body language (a dog’s primary form of communication) the complexity increases dramatically. Many animal species communicate primarily through body language, others via scent, touch or taste. It seems ANY combination of the five senses can be used to communicate. Can it be possible then that any non-symbolic, sensory based communication in organisms considered less intellectually complex than humans might be able to convey complex ideas and possibly exhibit displacement? Is the ability to dissemble really a stretch then?

Should communication as a definition be limited to the five senses? A case might be made that all interactions in this universe are a result of some form of communication. Even at the atomic level, can we accept that an electron communicates with a nucleus via “language” based on charge? There is certainly an extraordinary amount of complexity even in this supposedly simplest of relationships. If we view this interaction through the lens of quantum physics, things become stranger and more complex still. Particles on opposite sides of the universe can directly affect each other or can change state from particle to wave or can exist in more than one place at a time. Could this by definition be a case of the particle creating its own reality and affecting other particles based on what it “decides” to do? Could this be considered dissembling?

If, as it appears, this quantum “communication” is instantaneous, what of possible interactions which require centuries or millennia or aeons or longer? What of the stately dance of galaxies as they wheel through interstellar space? I can not imagine any interaction more complex than two or more groups of billions of stars moving around or through each other. Does this complexity allow – even create – new and totally unique forms of communication?

So, we finally get to the point of this little exercise. While I am having trouble learning French, I find myself convinced that if I could learn the underlying language of this reality I could, in fact, convince walls that I could walk through them.

Understanding Chemotherapy

September 10, 2008

Please recognise this is done more for my clarification and understanding than for the future reader of this posting, but if you care to wade through the maze that follows, please read on.

In January of 2005 I had a bone marrow transplant. I was not expected to survive the procedure. I did. Morphine and food through a tube in my chest made the following few weeks a dream. Eighteen months later the cancer had returned. While I had enough T-cells for another transplant, the risk of  not surviving a second was deemed to be too high. Chemotherapy or bust? I chose chemo.

What is truly extraordinary is that most of the many drugs I take in this chemotherapy regimen are acting in a way for which they are not commonly prescribed.

Thalidomide was originally developed by a German chemist who worked for the SS in the field of chemical weapons research. After the war, it was determined the drug was an effective sedative/hypnotic, but due to an unforgivable oversight (it was never tested to see if it crossed the placental barrier), was further developed and marketed as a sleeping medication and a palliative for morning sickness during pregnancy. The rest is history. Since then, however, it has been found to be an effective treatment for certain cancers and HIV, among other things. While  the mechanisms are not well understood, it seems to mobilize the immune system to take advantage of what the other chemotherapy drugs are doing.

When Thalidomide is taken with Dexamethasone, there is an “improved response rate” of up to 70%. Against cancer this is very good. Dexamethasone is a synthetic cortisone and is generally used to treat inflammatory and allergic disorders and is an immunosuppressant. In cancer treatment it is part treatment and partly management of side effects – primarily nausea. It also reduces sensitivity to the side effects of other chemotherapy drugs.

When taken together these two drugs cause greatly increased rates of blood clots, so I take aspirin every day. No headaches anyway…..

Cyclophosphamide is an immunosuppressant and is generally used to treat Lupus (and therefore serious kidney disease – a negative side effect of amyloidosis) and other disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis. It works by interfering with DNA to keep cells from dividing – leading to cell death. This is very good when targeted against amyloidosis and multiple myeloma but hard on the blood. It means regular transfusions of packed red blood cells and immunoglobulins (basically white blood cells). So every couple of weeks I spend a quiet morning in the hospital reading and getting “topped up”.

Next on the list is Rabeprazole. It is generally prescribed to treat too much acid in the stomach but one of the nasty side effects is that it lowers blood pressure. But wait, transfusions increase blood pressure and amyloidosis adversely affects the kidneys (among other things) so decreased blood pressure actually helps the kidneys. Everything that helps is good. Another side effect is that it causes lung congestion so I take Pseudoephedrine.

Pseudoephedrine is the active ingredient in cold medications and works by narrowing blood vessels. I have never breathed so well and the scent of the forest out my back door has never been finer.

Codeine phosphate is ised to moderate pain and in concert with other drugs to reduce coughs. In this chemotherapy regimen it is primarily used to sedate my digestive tract as amyloidosis and the other chemo drugs have made it painful and overactive.

Next is Furosemide. This drug is a powerful diuretic and is used to treat fluid accumulation and swelling caused by, in this case, kidney damage from amyloidosis. Another effect is reduction of blood pressure, so this is good.

On to Clarithromycin which is generally used to treat bacterial infections. As amyloidosis and the chemo drugs which treat it cause suppressed immune function, fevers can be fatal and infections are common. Clarithromycin protects agianst those. It is very hard on digestion and makes one feel quite awful but that is somewhat resolved by some of the drugs already mentioned and by Ativan.

Ativan is usually prescribed as an anti-anxiety drug, but when used in concert with chemotherapy is an effective antinausea drug and reduces the impact of muscle spasms caused by the diuretic effect and electrolyte depletion of Furosemide. Makes me feel goood too.

Add Quinine sulphate, generally used to treat malaria (and paralyse peccaries at the tip of a blowgun dart) – but in my case to reduce muscle spasms. 

Take all these pills together and that is a BIG lunch. Add Folic Acid, vitamins and a couple of other antinausea drugs and there is desert.

Hydrogen peroxide and antibiotic creams keep my skin from falling off so I’m good.

See? It really does make sense. It works too. So I can’t walk very far or talk very well but I wake up every morning. I can hug my kids (and communicate my love to the one who lives far away) every day and I can hope that at some point in the future all these drugs will finally whip my illness into submission and I will get better, faster – than I do today.

What could there possibly be to complain about? Really!

Fighting cancer

September 10, 2008

 

People wonder at my continued survival but it is no mystery. I have felt the stillness at death’s door and decided I have not had enough of birdsong when the sun rises through the forest or the laughter of my children ringing in my ears. The danger comes in wanting too much and becoming lost in one’s desires, diminished by depression; wishing to be what one once was.

 

A tree does not turn to dust when it is chopped down and turned into a fine piece of furniture, it becomes a fine piece of wood furniture. It becomes. There is a future in becoming..
 

On –

September 9, 2008

Doctors

A guy goes to the doctor. He has a cucumber in one ear, a sausage in the other and a pineapple up his nose. He says to the doc “Doc, I’m not feeling well. What is wrong with me?” The doc replies “It’s obvious. You are not eating right”

Doctors are always telling me I’m not eating right and I have yet to find a pineapple up my nose…..

Fan worship

I don’t like movie stars, popular musicians or any other famous people. They tend to be SO narcissistic. Every time I have hung out with one they only want to talk about themselves and NEVER want to talk about ME.

Climate change

Recent findings in the geological record show that volcanic activity has increased threefold in the last 1000 years. This means a threefold increase in greenhouse gases, acid rain and atmospheric particulates. These increases predate the industrial revolution by many centuries and the number of cow and sheep farts previous to that are insignificant (although they are one fifth of modern “emissions” and attributable to mankind as keeper of cows and sheep). 

Modern industrial emissions total about one tenth of current volcanic output. and while they are laden with man-made chemicals, heavy metals, carcinogens and other nasty stuff, the atmosphere just doesn’t care. What is true is that even if mankind were to reduce their output to zero, global warming would still be a fact. This is not to mean we should just carry on polluting. Nooooo. We must clean up our act or poison the earth. But, we must also prepare for the effects climate change will bring because whatever we do, climate change will happen. Change is good, right? Hmmmm. If you live at sea level you might want to look for a house in the mountains.

First blog ever

September 9, 2008

"Dolphin Dance"

Life is good. I have three amazing daughters, five brilliant grandchildren, a wonderfull nuclear family (yes Robyn this includes you) and everything to live for. I guess that is why I am WAY past my expiry date and going strong. Docs gave me three months three and a half years ago. Shows what they know.

I think I will use this blog to reflect on the nature of wood, my ongoing love affair with new challenges and the joy of discovery my family and friends bring to me every day. Today, just setting this page up and figuring out how to use it will be enough but watch out tomorrow and tomorrow.

All of my fave bloggers will find themselves reflected here too. They will show me the way….