Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Being Ill

For most people, getting sick is no big deal, a minor inconvenience.  But when you get to my age, every sniffle, wheeze, intestinal pain or unexpected ache is interrogated like tea leaves for signs of the end times.

My father was famous in our family for refusing to admit it when he was sick.  Nothing put him in bed, neither cold nor flu, or even a bad hangover.  Then in his 70's he had two heart attacks in quick succession.  Thereafter, the word of the doctor was law.  He surrounded himself with medication and measured the doses religiously.  Late onset asthma and emphysema required oxygen tanks in the house, but he was too embarrassed to resume his daily walks at the mall with his buddies carrying his tank behind him.  He lived until he was 83, a grand old age, but his final years were lived in a medicalized haze.

Life, of course, is terminal; there are no guarantees.  When all goes well under the sheltering tree of good health, we can ignore this simple truth.  The obliviousness of the young to their impending doom, however, is a red flag to elders who are obsessed with vital signs, insurance claims and doctor appointments. The generation gap is never so large as when it divides those youth who are more obsessed with body image than with the body's pains from the geriatric set on the banks of the River Styx awaiting their demise.

Nan has had a cough for weeks and refused all offers of medication. When we flew back home from our trip to Korea, my head filled up like a balloon with mucous and I could barely breathe.  So I immediately sought remedies in the bags of pills we keep in a bathroom drawer.  My sinuses were screaming and pain spread under one cheekbone.  A trip to the emergency room at the hospital up the street confirmed my diagnosis and I got an antibiotic for the infection along with a decongestant, and medicine I've only found in Thailand, Mucosolvan, to clean out the airways.

My worst fear is not being able to breathe.  I recall bending over in our North Carolina home when I was seven, struggling for every breath.  The asthma attacks began when we moved south from Ohio. They took me to the hospital where I was put in an oxygen tent and given a shot of adrenaline to kickstart the faulty fight-or-flight response back into normal action. I was given a back scratch test to determine allergies and found I was sensitive to everything, particularly milk, tobacco and cat hair.  At Duke Hospital in Durham I was a guinea pig for a new treatment that never worked.  Eventually various prescribed epinephrine sprays kept the attacks in check.

My brother is a canary in the mine of disease and fatal conditions.  He has undergone a multitude of tests, at considerable expense, for all of the recently discovered illnesses, and learned he has not a few of them.  The internet has opened up a treasure trove for those ailing mysteriously and has enabled many to find symptoms that fit and a diagnosis that brings comfort in a world out to kill its population off.  My son, not yet fifty, considers my medical problems as early warning signs delivered by bad genes and imagines the dire consequences of not falling far from the tree.

When I came to Thailand five years ago, I abandoned the Statin drugs that presumably had kept my cholesterol in check and stopped using the corticosteroid spray I was told to inhale daily to prevent asthma attacks.  And I resolved to no longer monitor my PSA level to see if the prostrate cancer I'd lived with for six years was spreading.  With the image of my father's declining years in mind, I did not want to constantly watch for signs of decay.  Old people discussing their illnesses are exceedingly boring.

My reluctance to get periodic checkups was mystifying to friends.  One of my closest, who has had several heart attacks and a pacemaker installed, shook his head at my stubbornness.  Medical care in Thailand is approximately half that back in the states, but it is something I consider a needless luxury on my limited retirement income.  Aging skin is prone to all manner of strange growths, but I no longer get a regular skin scan to detect horrors like melanoma, which killed my friend Corb.  My hearing sucks, my eyesight is failing, a degenerative knee hurts when I walk, and I need a tooth pulled, but most of me works just fine so I put off all possible bodily renovations and reconstructions.  If life is ultimately fatal, why try to postpone the inevitable?

Illness comes in many flavors.  On the one hand, my head feels as if it's filled with cotton, raspy throat cords have lowered my voice an octave, and my coughing resembles the crackling roar of an avalanche.  On the other, my muscle tone has diminished considerably, stairs are a constant challenge, getting up in the morning requires unimaginable fortitude, and I spend much meditative time at the toilet because of an enlarged prostate.  Germs and viruses, along with accidental injuries, can make life miserable for everyone, but the debilitation of aging solely troubles those of us who have survived for at lease sixty years.  Only the former can be called "sick."  They're categorically distinct conditions.

When I drove my car drunk into a candy store at the age of 18 and broke my femur, the hospital was my refuge.  I loved the care and attention I received during the two months I lay in traction.  Even the instructors on their rounds with nurse trainees gave me pleasure.  First the girls practiced with a hypodermic needle on a defenseless orange and then they experimented on my butt.  Years later I looked upon that time with nostalgia and thought of doctors and hospitals positively as sources of healing.  What bothered me most was to seek medical help for some ailment only to be told it was nothing to worry about.  Being diagnosed with cancer put that to rest.

Some signals cannot be ignored.  A year ago Christmas, when Nan was away, I felt bad enough to go -- twice -- to the hospital.  The second time I was admitted with pneumonia after a neat device that fits on a finger detected the oxygen level in my blood dangerous low.  I stayed for three days until my vital signs normalized.  And I was convinced that a daily corticosteroid spray was necessary to avoid a repeat performance. Now, after two weeks, my sinus infection is cured but the cold lingers; another fact of aging is that recovery takes longer.

Illness and injury are transient and aging is a permanent, and rapidly escalating, decline of the physique.   Somewhere in the middle are the multifarious malfunctions of the body, like heart disease and cancer, which one day may be confirmed as the result of poor lifestyle choices, or the consequences of pernicious changes in the environment determined by corporate greed.  Total health is an illusive and short-lived goal.

My prescription for life is Deuteronomic and Nitzschean.  In the Biblical book of Deuteronomy, God told the Israelites: "I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live." Constantly watching the body, its health and  its prospects of longevity, is for me to choose death.  Our task is to live here now, as fully as we are capable.  Nietzsche was plagued with migraines and eventually died from syphllis, but a joy for life shines through his most pessimistic philosophy. In his strange yet central idea of eternal return, he advised that we should live our life in such a way that we could relive it forever, a "Groundhog Day" of the will.  I'm damned if I want to relive my life in a doctor's office or a hospital emergency room.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Love Hurts: Korea Style

Love hurts, love scars, love wounds and mars
Any heart not tough nor strong enough
To take a lot of pain, take a lot of pain,
Love is like a cloud, holds a lot of rain
Love hurts, oooh, love hurts. 
 "Love Hurts," written by Boudleaux Bryant and recorded by many 

I did not fully understand Nan's desire to see snow in Korea until we'd returned home and I settled down to watch the 20 episodes of "Winter Sonata," a much celebrated TV drama series that was filmed in part at one of the locations we visited, Nami Island.  By the time it ended, several days and a box of tissues later, I was a blubbering mess, but a dedicated fan of director director Yoon Suk-ho's masterpiece of romantic love.  Ten years ago, the popularity of this story helped set off the "Korean Wave" (also dubbed hallyu) that spread K-pop, K-drama, film and fashions across Asia.  I also came to accept my fondness for tearjerkers and the cleansing of the emotions that these stylized stories of love, innocence, tragedy and redemption can provide.

Nami Island contains plaques, posters and statues referring to scenes in "Winter Sonata," a epic drama of first love, lost love and love regained, against a setting of Korea covered in winter snow.   There was just enough snow on Nami for us to appreciate the connection.  The success of the TV series has dramatically insreased tourism to the island.  After decades of tension between Korea and Japan because of the early 20th century occupation and mid-century war, Japan has embraced Korea's cultural exports and its tourists account for much of the current boom. Bae Yong-Joon, who plays the male half of the star-crossed lovers, is a superstar there. In 2004 the then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi remarked that "Bae Yong-joon is more popular than I am in Japan."

In "Winter Sonata," Bae and actress Choi Ji-woo meet as high school students and experience first love and first winter snow at the same time.  An apparently fatal accident cuts short their time together.  Ten years later, Choi is engaged and working as an interior designer when she meets an architect newly arrived from America who looks strangely familiar.  Is he her first love, perhaps suffering from amnesia?  The plot thickens, revolving around issues of identity, memory, family and friendship, secrets and lies.  There is no sex (and only two short kisses).  It's the second installment of the director's "Endless Love" series of TV dramas which he has described as "non-violent, non-erotic and non-political."  Despite this claim, he flirts with intimations of illegitimacy and incest.  "Winter Sonata," the most successful of the four, has been turned into an anime series in Japan and also adapted as a musical for the stage in Korea.

There is something old-fashion and probably distinctly Korean about the air of innocence maintained throughout.  Terrible things are done, not the least by parents, and the various characters frequently say "I'm sorry" (although with few audible responses of forgiveness).  Tears flow copiously. Missing fathers are sought.  There are numerous meetings over tea sitting on the floor around a table.  Although the women seem quite capable, men are always promising to protect and stand by them.  Since it's winter, people are mostly dressed in heavy coats with colorful mufflers (which reportedly sparked a fad for them).  The twists and turns of plot are tied together beautifully by a musical score featuring several songs, partly in English, played by pianist Yiruma and sung by Ryu Si-won, with titles like "First Time," "My Memory," "Only You" and, yes, "Love Hurts."  I believe director Yoon must have been influenced by the film scores written by composer Francis Lai, for the infamous "Love Story" and also  for French director Claude Lelouch's "A Man and a Woman," but I can find no proof.

Korean TV dramas are very popular among Thais and their own episodic programs, called lakorn, show the influence.  Music is very prominent and each series has a memorable theme that is repeated with many variations.  While I can't understand much of the dialogue, I do appreciate the music and the strong emotions of the characters that move along with it.  Thai lakorns favor ghosts, gangsters and comedy, but there always seems to be a love angle, or more often a love triangle, to engage the audience.  In California I used to watched Mexican telenovelas in an attempt to learn Spanish and they seemed very similar to their Asian counterparts.  Unlike the popular soap operas on American daytime TV, these are miniseries with a limited run.  Even Brazil has its own romantic TV drama tradition.  All episodes of "Winter Sonata" are available on YouTube with English subtitles, and there are even episodes subtitled in Arabic (the anime version is also online).  Europe and the U.S., however, have not yet succumbed to the magic of Asian drama.  

Crying in films has required an adjustment to my sense of masculinity.  Nan always examines my eyes when I sniffle during movies or television.  It's not just bravery in war films or victory in sports films that set me off.  I used to weep during Hallmark card commercials on TV in the U.S..  Little kids lost that are found and the heroic pets that save them are sure triggers for my tears.  Death, certainly, and father-son relationships.  Men are taught to fear being seen as too emotional and I've always tried to man up when the women around me are sobbing over one thing or another with mixed success.  In real life over serious matters I rarely cry, even when my parents died.  The heartache I've felt in love has more often led to angry frustration rather than the cleansing of tears, and I acknowledge this as an Achilles heel.  I've had to resist the temptation of cynicism which wants to label love films and chick flicks as so much schmaltz.  I'll never forget the look on Cary Grant's face when he realized that Deborah Kerr had missed their appointment because of an accident that had made her a cripple.  Director Leo McCarey used music to great advantage in his film.  I was moved by the love stories in "A Summer Place," "Love is a Many Splendored Thing," as well as "Sleepless in Seattle" and "Titanic," among many, many others (and all had notable music to carry their romantic themes).

My real life does not have a soundtrack (except for music borrowed from others) and the plot of it rarely seems to move by my design.  I have blundered by pure chance into the most satisfying love affair of my life, one so improbable than a book about it would be dismissed as a fabrication.  Despite enormous differences, we complete each other. In the past I was a foolish lover, treating the women in my life with selfish abandon, seeing them through the fog of my imagination (fueled, it must be said, by cinematic romances).  I have often hurt others despite good intentions, and, like the characters in "Winter Sonata," I am truly and deeply sorry for the damage I have done.  Hurting them hurt me; the pain of love is a rolling stone.  Now, like the lovers in the best of films, I have a chance to redeem myself.

Why does love hurt?  Probably for the same reasons given by the Buddha's analysis.  As humans, we all suffer from sickness, old age and death, and make it worse by resisting change.  We cling together and pine away for health, eternal youth and immortality.  Our human habits of ignorance, anger and envy compound the problems of life.  In the shelter of love for a little while we can avoid the inevitable.  That we cannot stay there forever, hurts.