31 December 2012

A fellow at my cancer club was wringing his hands over what are euphemistically called “final expenses”.  In the last year, three people close to him have shuffled off their mortal coils.  Two were relatives and one a friend.

In the first two cases, my fellow cancer patient had to cough-up a wad to bury the bodies.  He’s on a fixed income so the hit was pretty bad.  First there was the hearse, then  embalming and other preparations, then came the casket, the plot, the burial vault, the hearse again, fees to open and close the grave and a generous emolument for the gravedigger.  By the time it was all over, he’d laid out over ten grand.  And that was for just one of the relatives, the second one cost just as much.

All this just to stick a dead body in a hole where it will rot.  (The bugs crawl in, the bugs crawl out . . . )  What a scam!

Better to do a cremation.  Compared to a standard funeral, it’s dirt cheap.  The only costs are the hearse, the gas to fire what looks like a giant pizza oven, a small fee for the undertaking parlor and a little paper box imprinted with the undertaker’s logo.

The “ashes” are really nothing but burnt bones the consistency and fragility of egg shells.  These are pounded into dust and boxed-up.  Disposal of these “cremains” can be accomplished any number of ways besides formal (and costly) burial.  You can make a small shrine to the cremains up on the fireplace mantle.  You can scatter them in the garden or dump them along side the road.  Whatever works.  In my mother’s case, I used the cremains as cat box extender.

When all is said and done, you’re out no more than the price of a decent flat-screen TV, not the price of a small car.

I’m doing my best to convince this fellow of cremation’s economies and I think he’s coming around.  After all, his wife is sinking fast.

He said he might throw a nice party with the savings.  A good idea, I think.  If I get an invite, I’ll bring a bottle of scotch.


The Nut House

21 December 2012

Back in the day, America took care to ensure certifiable head cases were properly sequestered.  Back in Minnesota, I knew of such mental institutions as I had the one at Moose Lake as a customer.

Back then, there were sufficient beds to accommodate all and the law let you commit people for as little as crapping in their pants at the dinner table.  It also let the sheriff, a headshrinker or some government agent, put you away.  Everyone around town knew who the odd folks were: Someone with that certain odd stare.  Someone talking about blowing up the world.  Someone talking about using an axe to part her father’s hair.  Or someone giving suspicion that running amok was clearly in the cards.

In these cases, the men with the net were summoned and off you went.  Safely in the booby hatch, you’d get a nice dose of Thorazine before breakfast so you could spend the rest of the day watching the soaps, feeding the squirrels and twiddling your dick.  The rooms were quiet (thought the occasional shriek could be heard), the food not too bad (better than what you’d get in prison), the grounds were pleasant, the beds were comfortable and the companionship was docile.

The goal was to keep you in the institution until you learned your lesson, until you had achieved normality and became disabused of your strange and frightening thoughts.  This could take years.

Then, in the mid-1960s, the do-gooders and budget hawks got religion.  Two camps normally at odds, they conspired to turn loose almost all the patients and close the mental institutions.  Presto-chango, the nuts were back among us and the state’s budget was balanced.  This was unfortunate for there was a frightful — but useful — stigma attached to mental illness.  Back then, we referred to penitentiaries as The Big House, The Joint, Stir, and so on.  Names that invoked the thumping of hairy manly chests.  Ah, but look at the names by which mental hospitals were known: Nut house, booby hatch, funny farm, screw factory. . .  Names dripping with mockery and derision.

Even today we venerate criminals as heroes; Al Capone or Raj Rajaratnam, for example.  Ah, but what right thinking person would present Ed Guien as a role model for our youth?  Though they may have accommodated John Dillinger, what public-spirited citizens would shelter Jeffery Dahmer from the law?  The stigma of mental illness was — and still is — awful.  I mean, in which would you rather be led away from your home?  Handcuffs or a straight jacket?  See what I mean?

In addition, and perhaps most importantly, the mere threat by being branded a nut was sufficient to stop untoward behavior.  An uncle would take the teen out to the barn, sit him down and tell him that he’s acting weird.  “Son”, he’d say, “folks are starting to think you’ve got a raccoon in the attic.  You don’t knock this shit off, the men in the white shirts a a-commin for you and, bingo, off you go to the insane asylum!”  So awful was the stigma of mental illness that in all but the worst cases, the kid shaped up and that was that.  Threaten the odd teenager with  prison and all you’d get is the finger.  Threaten confinement to a mental hospital and you’ll get a model citizen.

That this is so is demonstrated by the case of Colin Ferguson, New York’s subway shooter.  One day, Colin shot a bunch of people on their ways to work and he was subdued when he had trouble reloading his gun.  His lawyer told Colin there was no chance of escaping conviction so there were two options.  One, the lawyer could plead for leniency, hoping Colin could avoid the needle.  Two, pleading Colin as criminally insane so he could spend the rest of days in relative ease and comfort.  Colin lept to his feet   thundering “I’m not crazy.  I want my trial!”  His lawyer replied, “Colin, think man!  If convicted you could be put to death.”  “I don’t care,” Ferguson replied, “I’m not crazy!”  Well, Colin Ferguson got his conviction and is spending his days, not in a nice hospital with clean sheets where the birds sing and small animals scamper around the lawn, but in a filthy, rude and brutal prison.

It must be understood that the creatures who do run amok and shoot up malls, theaters and schools, don’t do so on sudden impulse.  You don’t have some fellow who has a lover, a fulfilling job, a happy family and a wide circle of friends suddenly awake one morning and decide to murder.  No, this kind of mental pathology takes a long time to brew.  And while it’s brewing, the brewing is obvious to almost everyone who has truck with the man.  If this were the 1950s, at least one person would call the cops telling them of the man’s strange and disturbing manifestations.  Officers would be dispatched and the man would be held for observation.  The shock of that “interview” was often all it took to break the spell.  Horrified at the prospect of suffering the life-long stigma mental illness, such men often forced sanity on themselves and the malls, the theaters and the schools would never be shot up.

Of course, in those cases where the stigma was not a sufficient deterrent, the law let a judge squint at the man for a few seconds them pronounce him incompetent and toss his ass in the nut house until whenever.

I believe returning to the way things were in the 1950s is a good idea.  When it comes to mass-murderers, proactive intervention early on would be a lot more effective then locked school doors, heavily policed shopping malls or theaters with snipers in the balconies while the nut still skulks about looking for victims.

Let’s re-tighten the laws on both civil and criminal commitment and reopen the hospitals.  We can’t afford not to.


A Caution to All

4 December 2012

Last night I caught a TV show about old farts and their medicines.  General theme?  Geezers take too many.  As often the case, the old galoots are prescribed one medicine to counteract the negative side effects of another.  Pretty soon, the old gent has a shelf filled end-to-end with prescriptions.  And he’s so goofy from all the dope he’s got the staggers and everyone thinks he has Alzheimer’s.

Over the last two years, I myself became one of these old fellows.  First there came the new prescription for the epilepsy.  Then the thyroid medicine.  Nexium for the acid reflux. One of the numerous statins for the fat followed shortly by some unpronounceable drug for my triglycerides.  That’s FIVE.  Of course my joints hurt like crazy so the the doc told me to take loads of Ibuprofen and Tylenol prophylactically, so the grand total of stuff with which I have fouled by body was SEVEN.

By the time I was taking all of them, I’d acquired a chronic sense of dizzyness, was falling off my chair from a total systemic weakness, generally felt like shit and came down with a maddening itch.  The itch started on my chest, moved to my right forearm, moved then to my left forearm, then back to the chest again in a horrible round-Robbin.  This itch wasn’t like the one on the bottom of your foot when driving, or that turns up in your fat creases when you haven’t washed for a few days.  No, this itch could not be relieved by scratching; I could claw and claw until the skin comes off and bleeds and, still, the itch persists undiminished.  I could layer-on the anti-itch creams — even scald it with hot water — and nothing helped.  An episode could (and did) go on for hours.

One day, my old buddy, David A., flew into town (he’s they guy who flits all over the globe in his Gulfsrteam).  We were having breakfast as I tore at my arm.  David asked about the problem, then showed me an app on his iPhone.  It’s name is “Triage” and was written by a bunch of med school professors.  It does many things and one of them is list every medication on earth along with their side effects.

On arriving home, I made a list of all my worrisome symptoms (there were a lot), downloaded the app and compared symptoms to my meds.  Well, whaddya know: Every damned one of them had at least one of my symptoms as a listed side effect.  The chief offender was the satin, as it hit seven out of ten.  Ibuprofen followed close behind.

The doctor looked at my matrix and said that, yes, taking a lot of stuff can lead to a bad synergism, such as my itch.  He told me to stop the statin, the triglyceride medicine and the Ibuprofen.   I did and before the week was out, the itch was becoming a bad memory and the dizziness began to abate as well.  A month later, I was fine.  Well, maybe not fine, as my blood fats are back to their record-setting levels.

So, my friends, download the Triage app.  See if there is any connection between unpleasant symptoms and the stuff you take.  You may be surprised.