Daniel Menaker

Onconversations (sort of) IX

Monday, August 29, 2011

Check out this opinion piece published over the weekend in The New York Times about “battling” cancer.

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Onconversations VIII

Sunday, August 21, 2011

CHEMOTHERAPY NURSE:  Here are these three dexamethasone [steroid] pills.  You should take them now, before the infusion.
ME: I don’t think so. Dr. _______ said I could take one in the morning and one in the evening.
NURSE:  Well, with carboplatin, this is the protocol we follow.
ME: Well, could you call Dr. _______’s office and just check with him?
NURSE: Of course.
ME: It probably has something to do with the scheduling snafu in general. They sent me here, when usually they send me somewhere else. Something about being overbooked.
NURSE:  Yes, we’re very busy, even in August. Unfortunately.
ME: Yes, unfortunately. The less busy in this line of work, the better.
NURSE:  We need our jobs, but still ….
ME: Right: but still.
NURSE: Let me call Dr. _______’s office. Meanwhile, let’s start the saline.
ME: Bring on the saline!
(Nurse starts IV, very skillfully)
ME: Well-played!
NURSE: Thanks–I like to think I’ve got that pretty well down.
ME:  You do.  Four and a half stars.
NURSE: What happened to the other half star?
ME: Um, you tapped the vein once too often? I don’t know. Just giving you a half star to reach for.
(Phone rings a little later)
NURSE: You’re right. I apologize–this is our fault. You don’t need to take the dexamethasone.  You took one this morning, right?
ME: Yes, and I’ll take another tonight.
NURSE: Well, I’m sorry.
ME: It’s OK. Patients don’t hear that kind of honesty often, and anyway, we  have to be vigilant about our own care. Part of the job.

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Questions Without Answers

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

August, Vacation Central, seems like a good time to take some time off from cancertalk, so here is a brief post about ordinary conversation–all too ordinary.

“Who moved this chair over here?” a roommate might ask his or her roommate, or, more likely, ask the air when his or her roommate is in the immediate vicinity. There are only two roommates altogether, not so by the way. This kind of question is not a question at all, of course, and it’s not a question in two different ways.

First, it seeks and has no answer. Or I should say it contains its only possible answer. It’s usually a complaint-wolf in a question-sheep’s clothing. It usually means, “I don’t like this chair here–you shouldn’t have moved it.”

Second, as there are only two roommates involved, and the speaker him- or herself evidently didn’t move the chair, it by definition cannot be a question, unless the speaker is genuinely amnesiac or seriously believes that a third party has sneaked into the house or apartment and moved the chair for the sake of mischief.

Other examples of this kind of faux-interrogatory:
1. Why isn’t there any orange juice left?
2. Who forgot to water the plants?
3. Why do we have to go to the McGillicuddys for dinner tonight?
4. When is Obama going to fight back?
5. Who on earth thought “The Green Lantern” was a good movie?
6. Am I supposed to be impressed?
7. Are we there yet?
8. Will you please turn that down?
9. Have you said quite enough?
10. What’s the point?

Needless to say, these are rhetorical questions, most of them, but the (real) question is, why do we use such devices as a way of actually making statements, often (but not always: “Is this the best thing you’ve ever tasted?”) negative? And the answer is: we employ this kind of non-inquiry inquiry as a kind of wishful way of avoiding direct confrontation. It’s a form of politeness or indirection, of an extremely weird kind, particularly when only two people are involved and the issue is a domestic one: not only furniture rearrangement but issues of temperature, chores, bedtime, noise, dishes, etc. It’s weird because, I think, it eventually makes whatever is the matter worse, more antagonistic, instead of better. The chair question: wouldn’t it have been more direct and honest to have said, “I wish you wouldn’t move furniture around without talking it over first.”

OK, OK–this whole issue may seem trivial, but instead of the courtesy it appears to be intended to foster, it can create distance between two people and grow into something far larger and more harmful than the sum of its trivial and annoying parts.

Can’t it?

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Onconversations VII

Monday, August 01, 2011

FRIEND (during visit to my apartment shortly after chemotherapy treatment ten days earlier): So, how has this all changed the way you look at things?
ME: It has made me care less about money. You can’t take it with you, and all that.
FRIEND: So, what have you bought?
ME: After the first treatment, when I was still on steroids, I bought a new computer. I just went and bought it and then I found out it didn’t have Microsoft Word on it when I got home. I didn’t even listen to what the salesperson said. I just bought it. It looked good.
FRIEND: Did you have a decent computer?
ME: That’s the point; I had a perfectly decent laptop for myself and a good, big one on permanent loan from ________ [a company for which I serve as a consultant].
FRIEND: So why did you buy a new one?
ME: Time’s winged chariot has just suddenly accelerated, with this diagnosis. You asked how things have changed for me. Plus the steroids. Probably mainly the steroids. I know someone who was on steroids for a week and tried to buy an apartment. At least my spendthriftiness didn’t go that far. But that’s not the point, really.
FRIEND: As usual with you, I have to ask what the point is.
ME: The point has to do with what I said about Microsoft Word.
ME: The point is that when I got home I wrote something and saved it on some program called Pages. Yes, I know that everyone but me knows what that is. But I didn’t. I tried to send it to a friend, and she couldn’t open it. Can you send it in Word, she said? I scouted around and couldn’t find Word on my new computer. I had to go online and buy it and install it.
ME: Well, the thing is it cost something like a hundred and fifty dollars. And ordinarily, I’d have been upset at myself and at the store where I bought the computer for not finding this out before I bought it. But I wasn’t at all upset. I felt doomed just enough not to care and yet at the same time I was very lucky to be able just to buy it and download it without worrying about money.
FRIEND: You should have—
ME: See? Just fewer “shoulds” in general. Let me finish.
FRIEND (under his breath): Never happen.
ME: So I was buying Word or however you say that kind of transaction and suddenly there were more fees—sales taxes or service charges or some other levies to fund the drones in Libya or something. And these add-ons, like on phone bills, used to drive me somewhat crazy, but in this case and now in general I find them welcome, and almost funny. Just the world being true to its own ways and telling me I haven’t instantly attained some different status just because I have this diagnosis. And again, very lucky just to be able to pay the money and get on with it. Like maybe at most one or two per cent of the world.
FRIEND: It probably doesn’t hurt that frame of mind that you have good insurance, as I would think you must.
ME: I’ll say. One of the infusions I got—it took ten minutes from an IV bag—cost nine thousand dollars!
FRIEND: I love that word—“infusions.” Makes it sound like green tea or rose hips.

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