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11 Better Off Dead

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This is number 11 in a series. If you want to read this series from the beginning, scroll down to number 1.

At the moment, it’s early Monday morning, and I’m back on the pills that make me feel freezing cold and shaky. That’s how those pills work: three weeks on, one week off. And if I had to pay for them, they would cost $12,000 a month.

You know what’s worse? They’re not close to being the most expensive prescription on the market.

On the other hand, my out of pocket expense for them is $0, so there’s that.

At any rate, in order to have some semblance of a life, I get up very early and don’t take pills for a few hours. The effects of the pills—the freezing and shaking—only last a few hours, and recede steadily over the course of the day. So by the time I wake up the next morning, I feel fairly normal.

One of the things I did while feeling fairly normal this morning was to read more commentary on St. Thomas, and I ran across one of those things I find best about Christianity.

And yes, I know that it’s never been followed perfectly. But bear with me.

The idea under consideration is that human beings are made “in the image of God.”

And as St. Thomas stresses, thus means ALL human beings. All of them. And that includes those human beings born with what we now politely call “birth defects.”

The birth defect thing has been on my mind lately because of a pair of cases in the UK where the British National Health Service forcibly prevented parents from seeking further treatment for children born severely disabled because it was “in the best interests of the child” to be…dead.

The idea that the very sick and the profoundly disabled are better off dead is an old one, and it runs rampant through modern medicine. That is why I never dismissed fears of “death panels” as one of the reactions to Obamacare.

In a way, we have death panels already, evidenced by the rock solid conviction of so many medical professionals that very sick or profoundly disabled people “don’t want to live like that” or, if they do, are “irrational,” so their wish to go on living can safely be ignored.

But right now, I want to look at a very specific case: Down Syndrome.

One of the reasons Christianity spread so quickly in Greece and Rome was this: it condemned the common practice of killing babies born ”defective” or “deformed.”

This included a lot more than Down Syndrome babies, of course, but the principal was always the same. A child born otherwise than “normal” was a freak and a scandal and should be destroyed.

And the mothers hated it. And they knew that if they not only converted to Christianity but converted their husbands as well, the husband’s would be required to let the “defective” kids live.

Fast forward a couple of thousand years, and we find ourselves in a world where the need to get rid of “defective” children seems barely to have abated.

In Sierra Leone, a baby with Down Syndrome is a “devil’s child” and killed. In China, all women must undergo tests to determine if the child has Down and must abort if it does.

In Denmark and Iceland, there’s no requirement that women get the test or that they abort if a test comes back positive, but 80% to 85% get the test and nearly 100% abort if the test comes back positive.

The Danish government has expressed itself very happy that Denmark is on track to “eliminate” Down Syndrome in the not too distant future.

This sort of thing—defective people! better off dead!—would drive me crazy no matter who was being targeted, but targeting Down Syndrome children is especially egregious. Unlike a lot of genetic disorders—Tay Sachs, say, or sickle cell—Down Syndrome is not passed down from one generation to the next. It’s a copying error. Two Down Syndrome people could produce a child without the condition, and have.

And here I get to be happy about us. Or at least happier than I am with the rest of the world at the moment.

It’s not that we don’t abort Down Syndrome children because they have Down Syndrome. We do. Something like 67% of all women in the United States who have prenatal tests that come back positive for down Syndrome abort.

But it’s 67%, not close to 100%.

And we’re full of accommodations and programs and initiatives meant to help people with Down to live good lives and to convince people without it that a life with Down is worth living.

The Gerber baby this year has Down. There are child models with Down. My small town has a grocery store that hires Down Syndrome adults as baggers. They earn their own money and live in a state sponsored group home. They’re even encouraged and enabled to vote.

Yes, yes. I know. We could spend more money on this. The programs could cover more people. Blah blah blah.

The fact is that we don’t view them as devil children and we don’t treat them as better off dead.

And that’s exactly as it ought to be.

Oh. P.S. As to the last post.

Yes, of course, there would be dogs other than Samoyeds. I’m just partial to Samoyeds.

And I’ve had cats all my life, too, and I’d expect cats to be included—but Pope Francis didn’t mention them.


Written by janeh

July 9th, 2018 at 10:37 am

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10 The Necessity of Dogs

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This is the 10th in a series. If you want to read the whole series, scroll down to number 1.

Yeah, yeah. I know. It’s been a long time since I wrote a blog post.

And part of that has been because I’ve been enormously tired.

But part of it has been that I haven’t known what to say.

I don’t want this blog to be about politics, or Issues, or any of that kind of thing. I get enough of that in my day to day life.

Lately, though, there doesn’t  seem to be anything else. And, in a way, I get it worse than some of you, because my obsessive checking of the news isn’t restricted to American, or even Western, sources.

So I am sitting here, reading my way through a Peter Kreeft commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Summa, and it feels to me as if the whole world is going to Hell.


St. Thomas would have understood my use of the word “Hell” in that last sentence absolutely.

Americans are odd about all this, because we seem to have no sense of proportion. Raped women in Pakistan are first jailed for having sex outside marriage and then forced to give birth if they’re pregnant. A dozen countries, all Muslim theocratic states, impose the death penalty for homosexuality. Slavery—actual slavery, complete with slave markets and auction blocks–has returned in Africa.

And half the world is on the move. We obsess about what’s happening on our Southern border, but it’s a drop in the bucket next to what’s coming out of subSaharan Africa and some parts of the Middle East.

In the meantime, we behave as if we were the only people on the planet, and we add to that an unstated but adamant conviction that reality is optional.

What’s more, I’m fairly sure all these things are connected. After all, if we live in a “rape culture,” what right do we have to criticize what’s going on in Pakistan?

We indulge our orgiastic bouts of self flagellation at the expense of other people’s hides.

The rule of law, the equality of the sexes, individual rights to freedom of speech and press and conscience, the obligation to treat every human being as an end in herself and not the means to the ends of somebody else—none of these things are “white.” They’re the basis of any decent society.

They’re also hard. None of these things are, or can be, realized perfectly.

In a way, they’re all against nature. If we want the entire world to get with the program—to stop arresting rape victims for “having sex,” to stop executing gay people—we have to be willing to admit that this way is better than that, and that this society comes closer to realizing these conditions than a lot of others.

But I’m not going to hold my breath.

Instead, I’m going to think about Pope Francis, who has said there will be dogs in heaven, something St. Thomas wouldn’t have agreed with, and Peter Kreeft doesn’t either.

I think I’ll go with Francis, and imagine that Heaven is a place filled with sane people and Samoyeds.

If Terry Pratchett is right and we each get the afterlife we believe in, I may hit the jackpot.


Written by janeh

July 8th, 2018 at 12:03 pm

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9 Sunday Bloody Sunday

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This is number 9 in a series. If you want to start at the beginning, scroll down to number 1.

It is Sunday, and because it is Sunday, I am giving myself a stab at writing thus blog.

When I first started looking into the realities of what I was about to go through, I was told over and over again that virtually all the pain and sickness patients experience with cancer are not the result of the cancer itself, but of the treatments for it.

So far, I can attest to this. I get up in the morning (usually around 6 these days), feel more or less fine, drink a lot of tea, get a bunch done, then stop at around 8:30 to take my meds.

Half an hour later, I’m a mess, shaky and distracted.

So anything I need to get done has to get done early. Sometimes even reading is impossible later in the day.

What’s worse, starting tomorrow I go on a new and stronger medication, so 5hings may very well be about to GET worse.  I have no idea what this is going to mean on any practical level.

I have friends who say that if they were ever diagnosed with cancer, they would just let it go. They’d rather have a shorter time feeling relatively well and living a normal life than a longer time feeling sick and unable to do the things they love to do.

All of these people are, like me, “senior citizens.” None of them seems to have children like mine, who would stage apocalyptic fits at the very suggestion.

Have staged apocalyptic fits at the very suggestion. Don’t ask.

At any rate, it’s Sunday, and I’m worried about tomorrow, so I am having an absolutely complete day of rest.

Not only am I forgoing any real work, but I’m listening to my absolutely favorite Bach CD (Harmonia Mundi Bach Harpsichord Concertos from the Academy of Ancient Music with Richard Egarr on the harpsichord), which contains my favorite Bach piece (Concerto in D Minor, BMV 1052)—

But I am working my way through a venti caramel Frappuccino from the local Starbucks, which required my making a kid take a long and arduous journey to bring it to me.

If they complain about that sort of thing, I just reference childbirth.

Anyway, I’ve been doing all that, and reading Khalnani’s The Idea of India, and wondering why I am the way I am.

Because in spite of everything that’s going on, I don’t seem to have lost any of the interests I’ve always had, and I don’t seem to have lost any of my intensity about them, either.

There is the Bach, of course, and reading both heavy and light, but also things like double standards and freedom of speech and conscience, and a dozen or more other commitments that haven’t lost their grip on me by a millimeter.

I know we all live in a delusion: that life is forever and we will never die. We have to do that, because if we lived every minute of every day in full realization that we are inevitably going to die, we’d never get anything done.

But I would think that, having arrived at this situation, I would have started to let go of my conviction that taking a stand on these things, and fighting for them, is absolutely, desperately essential.

And I haven’t. Not even a little bit. Not yet.

I am still so driven by these things, I have several times managed to force myself past the shakes and dizziness and nausea that are the side effects of my medication to engage in FB debates about those issues.

I don’t know what that means.

But it’s Sunday, and I’m thinking about it.


Written by janeh

June 10th, 2018 at 11:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Every Victory Is Temporary

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This is part 8 in a series of posts. If you want to read the whole series, scroll down until you get to 1.

One of the worst things about January and February of this year, when I was sick with more than the cancer, was that I couldn’t read, pretty much at all. I managed to finish one book, a traditional mystery, in January, but I forgot to write it down. I think it was an Agatha Christie.

In February, I tried to reread Gaudy Night, but couldn’t finish it.

Then we called 911 the first time, and everything went to hell. I did the hospital for 2 weeks, came home, had to call 911 two days later, and then spent the next three weeks in a nursing home.

Which is a story for another time, and I hope to get to it. I have a lot to say.

Anyway, even though I felt steadily better through March, and got pulled back from the brink of almost-died, I still didn’t read anything in the first 3 weeks of March.

Anybody who knows me knows how really odd this is. I learned to read before I was 3 and I have been reading compulsively ever since. Other stints in the hospital—for a broken leg once, for C-section pregnancies twice, to have my gall bladder removed—didn’t even slow me down.

When I finally got home again, after the Really Bad Diagnosis but actually feeling pretty normal (although tired) otherwise, I went into a kind of hypergear with the books. I also went back to my customary method for choosing what to read. I followed fiction with nonfiction, liberal with conservative, back and forth.

It was this back and forth that landed me, this month, with reading Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West followed by Barbara Ehrenreich’s Blindsided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. Between them I read Lawrence Block’s Eight Million Ways to Die, which was definitely a change of pace.

Goldberg and Ehrenreich don’t have a lot in common politically, although they both hate Donald Trump.

And the two books are not even ostensibly on the same topic.

Except, oddly enough, they are.

Jonah Goldberg is writing about our retreat from Enlightenment commitments to objectivity over subjectivity. Barbara Ehrenreich is writing about our desperate clinging to the idea that our feelings control our reality.

Both of them are writing about our terror of living in a world where there is no permanent security, not ever, and never can be.

Oh, we do have temporary control. If you study hard and work diligently, you will definitely do better than if you start drinking every morning as soon as you get up and never venture out Excrpt to buy another bottle of booze.

But it’s like John Maynard Keynes said. In the long run, we’ll all be dead.

For most people on this earth, that particular problem has been solved by religion. Religion gave us an afterlife that meant that death wasn’t really death at all, and religion gave us a structure that said that this mess was controlled by somebody or something, if not by us.

In the 21st century, large numbers of people have abandoned religion for either nothing, or for what we call “spirituality.”

As far as I can figure out, “spirituality” is about keeping the parts of religion we like while jettisoning the parts we don’t. We keep heaven and get rid of hell. We tell ourselves that “everything happens for a reason.”

In the end, though, I think spirituality is a less powerful deterrent to terror than traditional religion. I think that may explain why so many people are so desperate to nail down “what you did” to get cancer.

This was the thing that drove me craziest when Bill was dying. The man had a form of cancer so rare there weren’t any risk factors for it. He couldn’t have “done” anything.  And yet, this was what most people wanted to talk about. Did he ever smoke? Maybe it was his weight? It had to be his fault SOMEHOW.

One of the wonderful things about Ehrenreich’s book are the chapters on her own breast cancer, and the way she was driven absolutely wild by people insisting that she maintain a “positive attitude,” as if a negative attitude must have caused the cancer or would prevent her from being cured of it.

The woman was trained as a molecular biologist. She wasn’t having any.

And she quite rightly pointed out that the real problem with the positive attitude approach was that its flip side is the worst kind of victim blaming. It’s YOUR fault you got cancer! It’s YOUR fault you died of it! You should of changed your attitude!

Living in the world is a scary thing. The universality of death is even scarier.

Jonah Goldberg is right. Every victory is temporary.

I wonder if we’d all do better—yes, even in enduring cancer—if we could figure out a way to accept that.



Written by janeh

May 25th, 2018 at 8:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 One True Thing

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This is number 7 in a series. If you want to read the entire series, scroll down until you reach number 1.

For several years after Bill died, I taught part time in a program designed to prepare students from very bad high schools to handle college work, and therefore—at least theoretically—make it possible for them to stay the four year course and eventually graduate.

Most of the students in this program were from high schools in inner city New York and Philadelphia, which meant I was frequently teaching sections whose students were entirely African-American. Some years later, when the whole “white privilege” thing became a cultural obsession, I would end up getting VERY low “privilege” scores because, among other things, I HAVE been required to be in places where I was the only person of my race in the room.

But this is not about that, exactly. If you want to debate “white privilege,” there are hundreds of places on the Web that will be happy to let you do it.

What I’m getting at here is twofold: something I read, and something I’ve learned about myself.

The thing I read is called Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, a memoir about growing up dirt poor in Appalachia.

What I’ve learned about myself is somewhat more complicated, but I’ll get to it.

Hillbilly Elegy was an extremely weird experience for me. Before I read it, I read dozens of comments about it on my Facebook feed.

Those comments had a few things in common. They were almost universally written by people who were, like me, middle class white girls. In other words, the people commenting had never directly experienced the kind of life the book described. To the extent that the commentators knew anything at all about the life described, they knew it either entirely ideologically, or they knew it second hand, by working with the “target population” as teachers or social workers or other members of the “helping professions.”

The comments were also almost universally negative. Vance, I was told, “didn’t understand the context” of these people’s lives—interesting, since Vance had actually LIVED the context, as the commentators hadn’t.

And Vance’s big sin was to insist that the failure, degradation and poverty he saw all around him was at least as much the fault of the conscious decisions his family made as it was of any outside forces.

By the way, as an aside—Hillbilly Elegy is the third memoir I’ve read by somebody who grew up in extreme poverty. All three of them insist that the poverty was largely the result of decisions, not circumstances.

But that’s another discussion, too.

What made Hillbilly Elegy such an odd experience for me was that it was all too familiar. The culture it described—the chaos, the violence, the drugs and alcohol, the long stretches of joblessness, the periodic descents into near starvation—was exactly what I had had to wade into with my inner city kids.

One group was black and one was white.  One group was urban and one was rural. One group founded formal gangs and the other embedded itself in complicated webs of biological kinship. It didn’t matter.

When I was still teaching in the program, I would get asked what I thought was the biggest obstacle to my kids’ success in academia. My answer was always the same, and would be the same today: disorganization and passivity.

The disorganization is so endemic as to be bewildering to anybody who hasn’t grown up in it. Most of us don’t realize how organized we really are. Culturally middle class families instill organization in their children automatically. There is a time to get up and a routine—take a shower, brush your teeth,  get dressed, eat breakfast. There are scheduled events throughout the day, school or work or church or Scouts or team practice. There is rhythm and regularity. There is predictability.

If you haven’t been taught this kind of rhythm and regularity, if you haven’t incorporated it into your very blood and skin and bone, you’re going to have a very hard time getting anything done. Showing up to class on time, or at all? Finishing your homework and handing it in on deadline?

The passivity goes at least as deep, and maybe deeper.  It is the deep seated, almost ineradicable conviction that whatever is going wrong in your life is not your fault, and nothing you can do will ever make it any better.

Both my kids and J.D. Vance’s family exhibited both these traits is extreme forms.

And that’s what brings me to the thing I learned about me.

My father used to have this thing he said, over and over again, in my childhood and adolescence: if something goes wrong, you better hope to hell that it’s your fault. If it’s your fault, you can fix it. If it isn’t, you’re just plain screwed.

I’ve got more reason than most people to accept the inevitability and importance of luck. I know all about circumstances beyond our control. I know that we can’t always overcome obstacles or even affect our circumstances. Neither people, nor life, is perfectible.


I also know that to the extent that I have accomplished anything in my life, it’s been because I have put that knowledge aside and convinced myself that my choices matter, that they make a difference, that they (and not some shadowy something or somebody out there) will determine the outcome.

The Franciscans have a saying: pray as if it all depends on God; work as if it all depends on you.

There’s one true thing.


Written by janeh

May 15th, 2018 at 12:20 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Just Desserts

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This is number 6 in a series. If you want to read the whole thing, scroll down until you get to number 1,

There is a sweet little single panel cartoon that gets shared a lot on Facebook.

There is a little dog, maybe a Scottie, walking off through the clouds side by side with the Grim Reaper, complete with scythe.

We see them both from behind.

The dog asks the Grim Reaper, “Was I a good boy?”

And the Grim Reaper says, “No, From what I hear, you were the best.”

I would post a link to this cartoon here, but, of course, as soon a I went looking for it, I couldn’t find it. Maybe somebody has a link and will post it to the comments.

But I’ve been thinking a lot about this cartoon lately, and for a reason that may seem a little odd.

The book I’m reading now is volume 1 of the Modern Library’s edition of Plutarch Lives.

This is a book that was a staple of a classical education for centuries. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison almost certainly read it.

Plutarch was a Roman writer, working in Latin. In this work, he took pairs of famous men, each pair consisting of one Greek and one Roman, who had enough in common to be recognizably related. First he wrote a short biography of each one. Then he wrote an even shorter mini essay comparing the two.

Then he went on to the next pair.

The reason Plutarch reminded me of the dog who was “the best” is this: the idea that there is a life after this one in which our condition is decided by the way we lived on earth is nearly universal.

It’s even true of the most esoteric forms of Buddhism, where the reward for living a good life is obliteration. The result of living a bad one, after all, is to be returned to the endless pain and travail of the circle if rebirth.

And I’m not knowledgeable about Asian religions, but one of my sons is, and he says you find the same thing there. What happens to you after you die is determined by the way you lived when you were alive.

I have a number of rules I try to follow when I think about life, and one of them is this: any idea or practice that is universal or nearly universal in human beings is grounded in something that is also universal or nearly universal in human beings, and must be taken into account.

This is what makes me such a cynic about so many of the causes my friends are passionately attached to. I don’t think that either “affirmative consent” or #metoo is going to change 100,000 years of human sexual evolution. I think slavery is always one distracted moment away from coming back as “normal.”

With the idea that we are rewarded after death for the good and evil we do in life, I think it’s easy to see the origin. It’s practically the only corrective available for one if the most depressing realities of human life.

Let’s face it. In day to day life, there is no obvious correspondence between Good People and Good Outcomes. We all know good and decent people who are hit by wave after wave of awfulness. We all know complete jerks and sociopaths who get everything they want, enjoy blooming good health into their 90s, and are too good looking for anybody’s own good.

There is a deep seated need in human beings—here’s something else that’s universal!—that life should be “fair.” Never forget it.

What isn’t as universals is the details.

I’m not one of those people who thinks that morality is different in every different culture, so that there can be no objective standard for good and evil. There are plenty of moral precepts that show up in every culture. The Golden Rule, for instance, operates everywhere.

And some things, that seem not to be universal, turn out to be more universal than not on closer inspection.

Cultures that seem to tolerate acts that other cultures find to be beyond the pale don’t actually think these acts are morally okay. Instead, they think these acts are evil, but can be visited on people who are themselves evil, as a deserved punishment.


They think these acts WOULD BE evil if they were visited on human beings, but the people they are being visited on are not, in fact, human.

Check out the way a lot of cultures deal with rape.


There are cases, and areas, in which there is real disagreement.

Which is how we get to Plutarch.

One of the short biographies in Lives is of Lycurgus, who was identified in legend as the founder of the Greek state of Sparta.

And one of the practices that Plutarch commended Lycurgus for establishing was one that saw middle aged men (and sometimes older teenagers) having close relationships, and definitely sex, with boys at the start of puberty.

Yeah. I brought that one up on purpose.

If there is a practice in classical civilization that we would recoil from, this is definitely going to be it.

But the fact is that this practice was not rare in classical Greek civilization, and it wasn’t restricted to Sparta. We know from the writings that have come down to us, that, in Athens, fathers would send their pubescent sons to live in the houses of successful men, and that these men would initiate the sons into sex. These live-in arrangements would last for years, and often continue after the boys were grown and living on their own.

Now, if it is indeed the case that there is an afterlife waiting where we will be rewarded or punished for the way we’ve lived this life, then one of two things has to be true.

Either the people who live in those societies that aka practices that are objectively evil automatically end up in the (equivalent of) hell, even though all they did was to follow moral rules they had no way of knowing were wrong.


The Catholics are right about the principal of the primacy of conscience.

In case you don’t know, the principal of the primacy of conscience says:

1) Conscience is the voice of conscience within us.

2) We must always obey our consciences.

3) As long as you have sincerely tried to interrogate your conscience and understand what it is saying, then to do something else is a mortal sin that can send you to hell EVEN IF what you did against your conscience was objectively the right thing to do.

4) Which means that two people on opposite sides of an issue—say, an abortion doctor and a pro-life activist, or an atheist and a believer, or two men married to each other and the baker who wouldn’t bake their cake—can both be going to heaven.

And all without confessing it and being absolved.

I give you a bet that that last one would have given even Sister Victor an aneurysm.





Written by janeh

May 1st, 2018 at 11:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 2 comments

This is number 5 in a series. If you want to start at the beginning, scroll down until you find number 1.

I am having a very odd day.

A little while ago, I posted a status on Facebook that went like this:

“Somebody should send me 3 extra large pizzas, 3 orders of garlic bread with cheese, and a large garden salad with blue cheese dressing.

That would make this a better day.”

The weird thing about this is that it’s literally true. If that stuff showed up at my door an hour from now, my day would be so vastly improved that it would be hard to exaggerate the difference from what this day is going to be like instead.

If I could get it sent from my local hole in the wall family owned pizza place, it would be even better.

The reasons why I can’t do this for myself today are complicated, and more self revelatory than I’m willing to be at the moment.

And that brings up an issue I hadn’t really considered when I decided to restart this blog.

Given the cancer, and the vast number of issues that trail along with it, I find myself running into a wall that is the fact that this blog is public.

Anything I put up here will be seen not just by me and mine, and not just by the people who already know about everything that is going on, but by dozens of people who know nothing about me at all.

And that brings me to a dilemma.

On the one hand, there’s not a lot of point to this blog if I don’t tell the truth, and the whole truth, about what I am living through.

On the other hand, I hate the feeling of being overexposed, and I REALLY hate the idea of presenting myself as Poor Little Me.

If there’s one thing my situation has brought home to me, it’s that no matter how bad this all has gotten—and some of it, including today, has been really, really bad—taken as a life as a whole, it’s been much better than a lot of other people’s.

This is true in a worldwide perspective. I’m not being gassed in Syria. I haven’t been kidnapped by Book Harum. I’m not being executed for blasphemy in Pakistan or subjected to female genital mutilation in the Ivory Coast.

But this is also true if I only compare myself to other more or less middle class Americans.

After all, neither of my children died at Parkland or Sandy Hook.  I haven’t descended into dementia. The cancer is mine and not Matt’s or Greg’s.

But even though I can point to all those things, I’m also sure that I’m not the only one who is working very hard not to sound like Poor Little Me. There are lots of us out there, and certainly on my Facebook feed, being careful not to give out information about how bad things get.

There’s a part of me, though, that wishes some other people would be more explicit,  if only so I could know if the things that happen to me are normal,  or such ridiculous outliers that I have a right to an emotional meltdown.

And there’s a part of me that thinks I should stop vaguebooking, or concealing things altogether, so that people who read what I write can get the same information.

I’m going to go off now and dream about all that pizza I can’t get.



Written by janeh

April 28th, 2018 at 11:29 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Imaginary Friends

with 4 comments

This is the 4th in a series. If you want to start at the beginning, scroll down until you get to number 1.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought this blog post was going to be about  my bucket list—once I figured out what was supposed to be on it. For some reason, the whole idea of a bucket list never caught on with me. There are always lots of things I want to do, and new ones all the time. Mostly, if there’s something I want to do, I get fairly single minded about doing it. I am sometimes so single minded, I scare even myself.

And right now, the only item I can think of that would fit the traditional idea of a bucket list would be to learn to play the harpsichord. That one, I don’t think I’m going to do. I’m bad at musical instruments in general. Learning to play would require a great deal of time and practice. And a really decent harpsichord would cost a year’s income of the ordinary sort, and with cancer expenses it would just be ridiculous.

But in general, I don’t think I have too much to complain about. I first decided I wanted to go to Vassar when I was 3. My father had a complete set of the Funk and Wagnalls encyclopedia, and there was a black and white picture of girls parking their bikes in front of Thompson Library. And I knew, as soon as I saw it, that I had to grow up to be in that place.

I graduated in 1973. When I was a student, I would go into the main reading room and just sit, looking up at “the great window.” If I’d never heard of the place before my college tour, that window would have made up my mind.

Most of the other things I wanted to do as a child I managed to do over time. I wanted to write what I wanted to write the way I wanted to write it and have a “real” publisher bring it out in hardcover. I did that. I wanted to live in Paris at least for a while. I did that. I wanted to get married and have children.

A good friend of mine always warns me that I shouldn’t say things like this, because people will resent it. Most people do not do what they set out to do in life. They take the existence if people who do as a kind of implied criticism.

I’ve lived long enough to know that criticizing the way other people have lived their lives is a dangerous pastime. Lives are full if variables, and luck makes far too much of a difference.


Part of the problem is that I am always aware that in the matter of the most important item on my childhood list, I failed.

Worse, I failed in a way I could not fix. I failed for the sane reason I would have failed at capturing a unicorn.

I was looking for something that did not exist, and that certainly does not exist now.

To make this a little clearer, you have to understand that I spent most of my childhood and adolescence as a person out of place. I just didn’t fit, with anybody. I was absolutely the wrong kind of daughter for my mother. She needed a daughter who loved dolls and make-up. She got me a doll every Christmas, and I discarded it as soon as I opened the box. She was one of the most intellectually insecure people I have ever met. Her parents responded to the Great Depression by yanking the girls out of school so the boys could finish, which meant she never graduated from high school. All I ever wanted was to read books and write them.

The fit with my classmates and my relatives wasn’t very good, either, although the classmates thing got better when I was sent to an all girls high school.

What’s more, around junior high I discovered two things: philosophy, and the Yale Co-op.

Philosophy turned out to be what I imagined people read and talked about in places like that black and white Funk and Wagnalls picture. It was the core meaning of “the life of the mind,” which was a phrase I’d come across in a novel by Mary McCarthy (Vassar girl!). There were, I concluded, places where people cared most about reading and thinking, and if I could just get out and away to one of those places, I could be happy.

What’s more, people had been doing this thing for thousands of years. It wasn’t something out of the way, or unusual, or odd. People thought and read about life and art and destiny and then they wrote down what they thought about it all, and that was “philosophy.”

What’s more, the entire point of the enterprise was to think and to know. That was it. Not to know in order to put the knowledge to use, but just to know, because knowing itself was the important part.

Without realizing it, I had stumbled over the entire rationale for education in Western Civilization. This was why Socrates taught in Athens, why Plato founded the Academy, why one medieval city after another established universities.

And, as I said, about this time, I discovered the Yale Co-op. My mother’s people were from New Haven, so we went down there fairly regularly. And the Co-op was open to the public. And, best of all, the Co-op sold books of philosophy, history, classical literature, and everything else, very, very cheaply.

From that point on, my focus was in finding a way to get to one of these places. It was , I was sure, just a matter of time. I would suffer through the nonsense I had to, and then I would get to one of these places, and then I would fit.

I don’t know when I first began to realize that these places I had imagined didn’t exist, or at least didn’t exist any more.

It’s hard to know whether something in the past ever “really” existed. Time tends to strip away complexities and contradictions. Put 500 years between yourself and Roger Bacon, and you can manage not to notice that there is a huge gulf between what he wrote and the way he lived. The man may have founded modern science, but he was an opportunistic, traitorous little shit.

Still, something like what I imagined must have existed, at least partially, somewhere. I had professors at Vassar who were just the kind of people I was thinking of, men and women who lost themselves in the problem of evil, or the metaphysical poets, had or the way in which Loves politics lead to Mill’s.

And there were other indications. There was, for instance, one of my favorite books on the planet, Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers. That was a portrait of exactly what I wanted, of the university—and the life of the kind—ands I had imagined them to be.


By the time I got to college, the thing I was looking for was already dying, if it had ever existed at all.

Of course, there were still individuals out there who did the kind of thing I was thinking of. I got really good at finding their books.

But the enterprise itself seems to have largely committed suicide. Rather than being dedicated to knowledge for its own sake, the people who claim to be engaged in the life of the mind seem to care only for what they can use to prosecute an agenda. To that end, they allow themselves to know as little as possible.

I don’t understand what to do with “professors” of political science who don’t know what a right is, or “experts” in moral philosophy who advocate infanticide for children born with disabilities and don’t seem to realize that that idea has a history, I don’t know what to do with literature “professionals” who think that railing about Shakespeare’s “misogyny” says anything about Shakespeare.

I do know that I never got to that place where I thought I would fit, and never will.

I thought the world I was aiming for was a goal.

It turned out to be the homeland of imaginary friends.


Written by janeh

April 26th, 2018 at 11:44 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Atheists in Foxholes

with 4 comments

This is part 3 in a series. If you want to start at the beginning, scroll down.

It’s Sunday, and traditionally on Sunday I have a Day of Rest. I listen to my favorite music on the planet—a two CD set called Bach: Harpsichord Concertos, by the Academy of Ancient Music, Andrew Manze director, with Richard Egarr on the harpsichord.

Bach composed for the harpsichord. Playing his harpsichord concertos on the piano is really wrong of you. I mean—

Never mind.

Because of the present situation, I’m not going to quite get my day of rest, because—forms! forms!

But I did listen to my Bach, and that got me thinking about…


God is what most people in my position seem to be thinking of. I know lots if believers, and lots of people who pray constantly. Some of them pray for me.

A lot of these people are convinced that people who say they don’t believe in God are kying, to themselves as well as the rest of the world. Faced with death, they will find their lies stripped away, and they will acknowledge what they should have acknowledged all along.

But I know a lot of people who don’t believe, and I don’t think they’re lying to themselves or anybody else.

And I think that both atheists and believers are to be envied. Somehow or the other, they just know.

But for me, the problem is a lot more complicated.

I don’t just know. I don’t know that God exists. I don’t know that God doesn’t exist.

When I feel the universe around me, I don’t detect a Presence—but I also don’t detect an Absence.

The universe does not feel empty, but it also doesn’t feel as if a consciousness capable of communicating with my own is out there.

This kind of thing is often called “agnosticism,” but that doesn’t feel accurate with me either.

Agnosticism is an intellectual position, and I’m not talking about an intellectual exercise.

If you’ve ever been alone in an absolutely empty house, you know what I mean about the quality of the silence. It’s different, and emptier, than it would be even if the only other person on site was someone out of sight and silently asleep in a bedroom upstairs.

The universe around me doesn’t feel like that.  The problem is that it doesn’t feel like anybody is home, either.

I have never heard of anybody talk about this like this. I have heard arguments from atheists, and from believers, and both kinds of people seem to just know.

Even now, though, I don’t just know anything.



Written by janeh

April 22nd, 2018 at 10:53 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Out of Time and Space

without comments

This is Part 2 in a series. If you want to start at the beginning, scroll down.

It’s taken a few days to get to this, and that may happen again over time.

I have a regular routine, and now that I’m out of the hospital and physical rehab, I’m trying to stick to it. Routines work well for me. For a long time in my life, I was doing far too much in far too many pkaces. Without a routine, I wouldn’t have gotten it all done. I may not have survived it.

These days, the routine helps, but I keep running put of gas.

I try to start the day working on fiction. Then I go to the practical matters that this situation makes necessary. Powers of attorney. Copyright assignments. Paperwork having to do with the treatments my body might just be able to handle. Whatever.

The blog should be the third thing, but sometimes I get there and have no energy keft.

So instead of the blog, I eat lunch and cons out for a while.

But still.

In a way, my routine has a tinge of the surreal.

For decades now, that routine has been unvarying.

I make myself a 48 ounce cup of Stash Double Bergamot Earl Grey tea, two tea bags steeped for at least 15 minutes (sometimes 20).

Then I sit down and read for half an hour to an hour.

Then I apply myself to fiction.

Then I apply myself to other things—including, hopefully, this blog.

Then I break for lunch.

If I’m teaching—I’m not, this term—I may have to break before lunch, to go do that.

But there it is, my day, which starts at 6 on the days I’m not teaching and at 4:30 on the days I am.

One of the reasons I landed in the hospital a couple of weeks ago was that I became incapable of doing much of anything in this routine except drinking the tea, and even that I made it only halfway through.

For years now, I’ve been keeping a composition book listing all the books I’ve read, month by month and year by year.

Unless I’m reading something very long and complicated—a history of the Protestant Reformation was one—I average about 5 books a month.

In January of this year, I read one. It was a short genre mystery, and I forgot to write it down. Which means that at the moment, I can’t remember what it was.

In February and March, I read nothing.

I was a mess in so many ways, I won’t even try to list them.

I was sleeping most of the day. I had incredible pain in my legs, so bad that I couldn’t walk at all without help, and even then I screamed out loud every time I had to put weight on my kept leg.

Hell, forget putting weight on it. If I sat in a way that the leg dangled, where I couldn’t put my foot flat on the floor, that made me scream, too.

I couldn’t concentrate. On anything. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t eat much, and when I did eat everything tasted like sand.

But although the time in the hospital landed me with a terminal cancer diagnosis, it—and the weeks of physical rehab—cleared up or significantly ameliorated a lot of the subsidiary problems.

I am definitely in a debilitated state in some ways. I need a walker to get around the ground floor of my house, and the stairs are really difficult. And, as I said above, I tire out faster than I used to.

But the most obvious thing is that I actually feel pretty much normal. My routine is back. I just finished an 800+ page book on the American Revolution and its aftermath. The plot of this book I’m working on is—okay, I really like it. And food tastes great, and I want a lot of it.

I feel so normal, when I’m inside the schedule I often find myself forgetting the situation I’m in.

When I was so sick earlier in the year, a part of me thought that if I was dying, it might not be the worst idea.

God only knows I couldn’t have lived like that for very long.

But right now, I am living the way I’ve always lived, and I find myself increasingly unwilling to give it up.

Not that my will has much to do with it.


Written by janeh

April 21st, 2018 at 11:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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