Crabby About Cancer

In last Sunday’s “Washington Post,” Elaine Schatter, a doctor, professor of medicine and cancer survivor, objected to the ubiquitous talk about John McCain and his glioblastoma diagnosis. Particularly the wearying notion that since he’s “a fighter” he will “beat” the disease.

Schatter provides useful evidence from several studies that the idea that one’s grit or tenacity, toughness or attitude has an influence on whether your cancer will “win” or be “defeated” is a myth, an old wive’s tale, a misguided fiction, and a hurtful way to discuss the subject.

There is no correlation between one’s psychology or mood or character and the chances for survival. Cancer is not a competitor, an enemy, or a villain, that you can beat by being a superhero, or allow to beat you if you are wimpy or neurotic. Frankly, if you are upbeat about being in a “fight” with cancer, you are out of touch with reality.

The fact that cancer is a disease, not a Rorschach test is not news. Forty years ago in “Illness as Metaphor,” Susan Sontag eviscerated the notion by looking at the long history of blaming the victim for his or her cancer. It was viewed as a disease of weak, repressed, melancholy, anxious people. It was so shameful and frightening it was whispered about.

Some of this false narrative was apparently imported from the notion that happy people did not get the plague. So, similarly, peppy extroverts were thought not to get cancer. And those who did were often seen as losers, eaten up inside by the disease as they had been in life by failure and regrets. So Napoleon, Grant (the loser president, not the winning general), Robert Taft and Hubert Humphrey all had their cancer attributed to their being political losers. But Ike and Lyndon Johnson didn’t have their character blamed for their heart attacks.

It is amazing we still think is such primitive ways. If we must make a martial metaphor out of cancer, it makes more sense to say that we are the territory over which cancer and our doctors are fighting. If cancer wins, it’s the doctors who have lost the battle.

Or perhaps cancer should be seen as an insane and sadistic serial killer who cruelly tortures its victims before they die. Unless, of course, Doctor Van Helsing arrives in time with a wooden stake or silver bullet or whatever it takes to kill the fiend and rescue the victim. Of course, all too often the doctor joins in the torture with chemo, radiation, or knives. The Hippocratic Oath now reads, first, do something billable.

Since both my parents died of cancer and I may be next, I take this judgmental poppycock seriously. We can all be faulted for bad choices such as smoking, drinking, a lousy diet or not using sunblock. But we can’t be faulted for living in an era when exposure to carcinogens in the environment or workplace is hard to avoid, and when cures for our disease, though promised since Nixon’s “War on Cancer” fifty years ago, have not yet materialized. And then there’s the genetic luck of the draw, and the fact that the longer we live, thanks to preventive medicine, public heath and vaccines, the more likely it becomes that cancer rather than some other disease will get us.

To some extent cancer is a crapshoot, and we aren’t the one’s throwing the snake eyes. Whether we are stoic or sniveling, sunny or sunk in the slough of despond, has no bearing on whether the disease will kill us or if we get it. So, supposing that our bad attitude is responsible for our getting cancer or will determine whether we recover from it is not just false, but cruel.

Cancer is bad enough without acting as if those who die of it deserve what they got because their character was weak. We all die, those of good character and those of bad, but those who die of strokes, aneurysms, Alzheimer’s, ALS or the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to don’t get shamed for not having enough fight in them.

If I were John McCain, I’d want to be treated with love, kindness and sympathy, not with high expectations by people behaving like drill instructors urging me to do better on the obstacle course. Life, and death, are hard enough without unrealistic demands for courage or psycho-babble about character flaws inviting cancer to come calling.

Cancer isn’t a person. It doesn’t have volition or motives or animus. It’s a disease, a bug in the code of life. We aren’t to blame. It’s not to blame. It’s just the way life works, until we figure out a way to debug it. Give the cancer sufferer a break. And donate a buck to research for a cure.

Presidential Apprentice

There’s only one thing more worrying than President Trump’s hourly eruptions of furious tweets, and his dumbfounding inability not just to grasp but to even locate the levers of power. It’s the news media’s shock and amazement at each fresh evidence of Trump’s far from hidden character flaws.

Oliver Sachs would have been fascinated with such an affliction, the inability to remember the true nature of the president twenty seconds after witnessing some new outrage. So each time Trump comes chugging ‘round the bend with a fresh trainload of manure the pundits experience fresh astonishment and confusion. How can this be happening?

They keep expecting him to learn from experience, to modify his behavior to match his changed circumstances, to discover the rules, norms and mores that govern life in Washington and international affairs. Not an unreasonable notion. But Trump is clearly incapable of adaptation. He doesn’t even realize he’s not in Kansas anymore.

Trump is simply the geriatric version of the spoiled rich boy that used to do his pussy grabbing at Studio 54 to a disco beat. Then, at least, he was presumably able to concentrate sufficiently to deal with architects, contractors, bankers, politicians, unions, undocumented aliens and the mob to get gaudy, city-blighting buildings erected.

But was he? He learned the real estate racket from his father Fred who was still alive until 1999, and he had a highly regarded construction manager in Barbara Res. They may have done the heavy lifting. And when Trump strayed from the family comfort zone of real estate, he invariably came a cropper.

Almost everything else he has touched has failed, especially his casino catastrophe. And his divorce from Ivana in 1990 may have been the turning point. She seems to have been a tough business partner with an eye on the numbers. In her absence, the bankruptcies came fast and furious — four or six, depending on who’s counting, between 1991 and 2004.

By the end he was no longer able or willing to concentrate on something as complex as managing a large organization or construction project. Instead, he was a brand, licensing his name which symbolized “class” to rubes. But he found his greatest fame as a caricature on TV. Emily Nussbaum offers a look at his tenure on “The Apprentice” and “Celebrity Apprentice” between 2004 to 2015 in “Guilty Pleasure,” (“New Yorker,” July 31).

Her summary, for those of us lucky enough to have ignored most of Trump’s televised buffoonery, explains why the gig appealed to him and his audience. Trump got to bully contestants, pretend to be a business genius, and listen while praise was lavished on him by supplicants. Clearly this evolution from landlord to sideshow barker offers a key to the Trump presidency that has proven so baffling to the news media, the Washington establishment and much of the country.

Trump is as incapable of managing the country as he was of managing his business. He was consistently selling snake oil, but would unwisely diversify into businesses he didn’t understand, over-extend his empire with reckless borrowing and find himself in one catastrophe after another. He was ultimately all sizzle and no steak. No wonder his first six months as president have been marked by big promises, little follow-though and no results. It’s his M.O.

He is our Reality TV Host president. And he learned in that venue that success is defined by acting important, pushing people around, engineering needless conflict and giving the audience a new shiny object to fixate on with every episode. The key to TV was sound and fury, a larger than life persona, melodramatic surprise, and breaking news.

So, in the last few days, he hasn’t sought results, he’s sought attention. He threatened to fire Bob Mueller, denigrated Jeff Sessions, blamed Republican Senators for failing to fix healthcare, banned trans people from the military, hired another outer borough bozo to manage communications, and spoke to Boy Scouts to whom he imparted life lessons in self-regard, nursing grudges, and measuring a man by his net worth. None of that crap about morality, helping others or doing one’s duty to God and Country.

Since he’s the hero of his own show, he must have enemies and they are not just in his own party, but in his White House, leaking. And anyone who criticizes his behavior or notices he does’t know how to do his job is a purveyor of fake news. Since Trump is just a performer and writing scripts is hard, he cribs his daily rants from unhinged media outlets like FOX, Breitbart, and Infowars. Retweeting their imagined conspiracies is easier than crafting legislation or managing the executive branch.

Many people regard this presidential regime of bread and circuses an even more dire sign of terminal decadence than “Celebrity Apprentice” or Trump Tower, but Trump fans who ate up his shows and mistook reality TV for reality are just as enthralled by his crude presidential style.

Many are the same white men over 40 who completed two years of college or less, have middling income, come from small cities, rural states or those with a carbon-based economy who jammed his rallies and gave him his electoral edge.

They are angry and don’t think America is great anymore, but they still think that Trump is. He may be no Washington, Lincoln or FDR, but he’s a hell of a lot better president than panty-waists like Ryan Seacrest, Jeff Probst, or Simon Cowell would have been.

And if he doesn’t get them jobs, healthcare, a tax cut or a better future for their kids, it won’t be because Trump’s a fraud but because his enemies are real — the dark state, minorities, wily Democrats, turncoat Republicans. Stay tuned for the next episode.

Places My People Left Behind

I am an American mongrel of the northern European sort, genealogically speaking,. My ancestors were Scottish, French, German, English and Welsh. I have visited most of the places they came to when they arrived in this country.

In fact, when I began to investigate my family history, I was surprised to discover that all but one ancestor arrived here before this was a country. They came to the colonies. The one was Howell Williams, and on a recent visit to England, I took a little swerve to see a couple places from which the people of my maternal grandmother came.

She was Nelle Williams, and Howell (1828-1900) was the immigrant in that line. He was her grandfather and came from Swansea, Wales sometime in the 1860s. According to family lore he served in the Crimean War for Queen Victoria and to his obituary for the Union in the Civil War. I have yet to turn up documentary proof for either of these claims. I do know that he was a puddler in steel mills around Niles, Ohio in the gilded age, a union man and a backer of Ohio native son William McKinley.

I know far less about his life in Wales, other than a marriage certificate from 1858 which describes him as a mariner, names his already deceased father as Daniel, and gives the addresses at which both he and his bride, Elizabeth (Bessie) Owens resided at the time of their marriage.

The Swansea archival service didn’t offer much hope of filling in the blanks, other than parish records. They might contain their birthdates and the names of their parents. I may pursue that in the future. I also didn’t get to see the places they lived. Swansea is still there, by an attractive bay, but the city that marches up the hills from the sea is almost entirely new. The buildings at the addresses where Howell and Bessie lived date from after 1940 when the Nazis bombed to rubble what was then an important port. And the fishing, mining and smelting economy of Howell’s day is also a distant memory.

Lesson one: The past is fragile. Surprisingly little often remains of a world that seemed so permanent to our ancestors when they inhabited it, only a few durable works of man, shards, and scraps of paper. One of these is an 1860s photo of a woman in a long black dress that I inherited. The back tells me it came from Swansea’s M. Gorman and Sons photographic studio. Was this Bessie, or Howell’s mother or sister who posed so he’d have a picture to take to America? We’ll never know.

My grandmother’s mother, who married Howell’s son, was Ada Rumsey. She died of tuberculosis when my grandmother was seven, in 1897. The Rumseys were farmers and grocers in the Western Reserve portion of Ohio from around 1800 when Daniel Rumsey arrived, but the first of their line came to the New World much earlier.

The immigrant was Robert Rumsey of Collingbourne, England – a dot on the map about 20 miles north of Salisbury in Wiltshire. He married Matilda Sherfield in March of 1630 in the neighboring town of Idmiston. We visited there and were thrilled to discover that All Saint’s, the church in which they were almost certainly wed still stands. Its oldest parts are Norman, the nave with its pointed arches dates from the 14th century. A shingled steeple, that they never saw, was added by the Victorians.

By `1640 the couple and their children were living in their new home of Fairfield, Connecticut. Why did they leave the deliriously beautiful Wiltshire countryside, between the Salisbury Plain and the North Wessex Downs with their roiling hills and swift flowing trout streams? Why risk a long, perilous ocean voyage to reach an unknown land? The reasons were probably the same as today – economic opportunity, religious persecution, political upheaval, or a combination of the above.

The market town of Romsey, whose name is a variant of Rumsey indicating a significant presence by my tribe thereabouts, is just a few miles away, and here’s what was happened there shortly after Robert and Matilda sailed away. “Romsey changed hands several times during the English Civil War (1642-1651). Both Royalist and Parliamentary or Roundhead troops occupied and plundered the town.”

This conflict didn’t just pit king against parliament but the Church of England establishment against dissenting sects, especially the Puritans. In the twenty years prior to the outbreak of hostilities, the so-called Great Migration populated New England with these people, including Quakers and Baptists, who were subject to discrimination at home.

Fairfield was one of the towns established by people who thought religious reform in the Massachusetts Bay Colony was occurring too slowly, and a couple generations later some of the Rumseys relocated to southern New Jersey which was an early Quaker toehold in the New World. Religious practice there was not restricted.

It seems clear that the Rumseys were part of this wave of immigrants seeking freedom of conscience. I’m here because of these people. Yours may have come here for similar reasons. It’s worth remembering this history when today’s news is filled with a contemporary version of the same story.