Monday, February 21, 2005

Twelve Strokes of the Clock

The "Red Death" had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous.

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But the Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious. When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends...and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys.

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A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. ...With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to the contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think.

E. A. Poe, The Masque of the Red Death, 1842


Those of you who are familiar with Poe's magnificent gothic tale know how the Prince's elaborate masque ends as the "gigantic clock of ebony" in the last apartment strikes midnight. The ghastly fate the revelers meet is appalling, yet after the initial frisson of the massacre, some readers might conclude that the selfish Prince and his frivolous friends got what they deserved for trying to cheat the Grim Reaper. They found out the hard way that one cannot wall out death; it is a part of all living things, and cannot be escaped.

Given the gruesome nature of the Red Death, however, who can blame them for trying? Who among us would refuse the invitation to leave the foul, decaying countryside for the safety of the barricaded abbey?

Modern consumers of health care in some ways are like the arabesque figures imprisoned within Poe's story. They learn about good health from the moment they can read and then are bombarded with helpful information about how to prevent one affliction or another. By the time they reach adulthood many of their actions are influenced by their impact on health. They feel guilty if they do not take every precaution to keep themselves safe from the plagues that punish in this age, such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

We all therefore devote much of our time trying to wall out illness. We toil at building a fortress to deny the invader who in the tale "dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel". The stones we cut to construct our walls are plentiful and easy to quarry: exercise, healthy diet, screening tests, abstention from tobacco, moderation in alcohol use, medications and supplements. With reasonable alterations in lifestyle choices we can someday stand in the tower of a massive citadel, protected from the "Darkness and Decay" of the epidemics around us.

This is an admirable goal. I follow it faithfully, as do millions of conscientious men and women around the world. Our commitment to preventing illness will allows the gala called our healthy life to continue. We shall dance on - or as Poe would describe it:

And now again the music swells, and the dreams live, and writhe to and fro more merrily than ever...

I commend all those who have made the often difficult choice to embrace the habits that strengthen our bodies and eschew those that expose it to the dismaying and monstrous withering of preventable disease. May those who struggle to build this wall find the insight and courage to persevere.

Lest we forget though, remember that good health can be defined as dying at the slowest possible rate. The wisest person in the world is the one who enjoys the delights of the soiree while keeping an eye on the clock, for whether one is blessed with good health or poor, when "the last echoes of the last chime" sound, the masked spectre will "come like a thief in the night". Even the strongest walls cannot deny his entry. Let us stand tall before him at the hour of his arrival, and as he takes our hand, smile and look backward upon our life with pride.

12 Comments:

At 10:34 PM, Blogger Joan said...

Your thoughts today resonated strongly with me. Of all my siblings, I'm the one who never smoked, I'm the one who has kept my weight stable, I'm the one with the ideal cholesterol profile. I'm the "Nutrition Nazi" who compulsively reads labels, and I'm the one with the doctor-and-nutritionist approved slate of supplements.

I'm also the only one with cancer... and I'm the youngest.

Still, though, I'm hanging onto that idea of dying as slowly as possible. I like that.

 
At 8:03 PM, Blogger poopie said...

I think I *read somewhere that control freaks have a 50% higher death rate from all illnesses.

Life is short....dance naked.

 
At 11:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was a registered dietitian and am now a nurse practitioner. We used to joke that the Heart Association Diet was carcinogenic. Because, if you were successful in averting cardiovascular disease, then you would die (most likely) from cancer. Recent statistics re: cause of death in people under 85 seem to bear this out. If I could assure myself that if I had an MI or CVA and it would be fatal, then I would eat what ever I wanted. Unfortunately with medical advances, most MIs and CVAs are not fatal. Having watched both my mother and my maternal grandmother suffer prior to death from malignancies, I am not sure that avoiding cardiovascular disease is such a wonderful thing. My paternal grandmother is currently 94 and has developed dementia +/-delerium - perhaps in part related to thrombocytopenia and intracranial bleeding (no sense in imaging her brain at this point, no aggressive care being given). While she had a long life, before she lost her ability to communicate she clearly indicated that she "was ready", she had outlived all of her family and peers. What she feared the most was becoming a burden and being dependent on others. It is disheartening that her health has declined to the point that she so much wanted to avoid. She would have preferred dying in her sleep like her father did at the age of 101. Short of using Hunter Thompson's mode of exit, it is unfortunate that we cannot control the end of our lives.

 
At 2:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, I'm another fit, vegetarian, in perfect health if you just don't count that incurable lymphoma. All of those lifestyle choices only control risk, not actual experience for an individual. Still, it's not just about choosing one's illness and I can certainly understand wanting a quick death from a heart attack over what could lay ahead of me, it is also about keeping my body in shape to withstand the rigors of treatments ahead.

Plus, eating well and exercising keeps me healthy enough to fully enjoy the world around me. It's not about how we choose to die, it's about how we choose to live.

Andy

 
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At 9:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many of our modern drugs have harsh side-affects and cost the “earth”, so the next time you come down with a cold or the flu or social anxiety, why not try a gentle alternative that costs next to nothing?

Instead of immediately forking over large amounts of money for over-the-counter drugs, go to the kitchen cupboard and see what you can find to relieve your symptoms including social anxiety.

Here are some helpful hints for social anxiety …

A simple hot compress applied to the face is very soothing to those throbbing aches and pains of a blocked sinus, while a few drops of eucalyptus oil on a handkerchief can provide welcome relief for similar conditions. While supplements of vitamin C, D and zinc will shorten the lifespan of a common cold, a hot lemon drink is also extremely good. And be sure to cuddle-up in bed when you have a cold, as it will make the body sweat out the germs.

Cool lemon juice and honey are a great soother for a sore throat and gives the body much-needed vitamin C at the same time The juice of one lemon in a glass of water is sufficient. Melt the honey in a little hot water for ease of mixing.

A smear of Vaseline or petroleum jelly will do wonders for those sore lips and nose that often accompany a cold.

A 'streaming cold' where the nose and eyes water profusely, can respond to drinking onion water. Simply dip a slice of onion into a glass of hot water for two seconds, then sip the cooled water throughout the day. Half an onion on the bedside table also alleviates cold symptoms because its odor is inhaled while you sleep.

People prone to catarrh may find that chewing the buds from a pine or larch throughout the day will clear up their condition in just a few days.

Do you suffer from sore eyes? If your eyes are sore from lengthy exposure to the sun, try beating the white of an egg and then spread it over a cloth and bandage the eyes with it. Leave the preparation on overnight. Soft cheese (quark) is also a good remedy for this condition.

For those unpleasant times when you suffer from diarrhea, two tablespoons of brown vinegar will usually fix the problem. Vinegar can be rather horrible to take, but who cares! The problem is more horrible. Vinegar can usually be found in most people's cupboards, so you don't need to worry about finding someone to run to the shop for you in an emergency.

Sleepless? Instead of reaching for sleeping pills, which can quickly become addictive, try this: Drink only caffeine free tea or coffee starting late in the afternoon.. Go to bed earlier rather than later, as being overtired tends to keep people awake. Make sure the bedroom is dark and quiet. Use only pure wool or cotton sheets and blankets. Polyester materials can cause sweat and make you thirsty (if your child constantly asks for water throughout the night, this could be the reason).

And don't watch those scary movies just before retiring! If you still can't sleep, make a tea of lemongrass or drink a nightcap of herbal tea containing chamomile. It's easy to grow lemongrass in your garden or start a flower pot on the balcony for ease of picking. Simply steep a handful in boiling water for five minutes. Honey may be added for a sweetener.

Of course there will be times when you do need modern drugs, so if these simple remedies don't have the required affect, be sure to see a health care professional.


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