Cymbalta and fibromyalgia, my experience

Since being diagnosed in 1992 I’ve tried quite a few medications hoping they’d help the symptoms of fibromyalgia. Only two have made the cut; most of the others had no effect, or (like pregabalin and Lyrica) were too sedating to find out if higher doses would work.

Currently I take only two medications for fm: a very low dose of trazodone, an old (generic and cheap!) anti-depressant, to help me sleep, and a new anti-depressant, Cymbalta. The Cymbalta is actually for depression. I began it after the previous anti-depressant, Celexa, stopped working. I didn’t know it had stopped working, I thought I was just feeling how I felt. Dark horizons closed in on me and I saw that life really was merely a period of pointless suffering, so I told the doctor who prescribes for my depression that I thought I might as well quit taking anything and just experience reality. Afterwards I was embarrassed at my lack of insight into my own mental processes, but by its nature depression’s a condition that disables self-analysis and replaces it with the exquisite existential pain of being alive and aware. This is why depression thrives on the isolation it so effectively induces.

To be honest I must say I still feel there’s a strong intellectual case to be made that “life is merely a period of pointless suffering”… except that the medicated me retracts the word “merely”. And knows that the intellectual perspective is not the whole picture. Like an extremely protracted wait in an airport, life can be viewed as just something to endure, or you can notice what’s going on around you, help out some other travellers, go explore a different part of the airport, meet other people, and so on. Then, indeed, you die. But in the meantime, why not make the most of where you are? There are pleasures to be found, skills to master, a marvellous natural world of birds and bugs and clouds, and considerable satisfaction in doing something that lessens the overall quotient of crappiness and suffering. It’s even possible to find other people whose company you enjoy, people you love.

But without a functioning anti-depressant, I did not feel this way. So is it the “real me” speaking now, or just a chemical? Or was it a chemical imbalance that made me feel even worse than this guy (Joe Btfsplk, from Al Capp’s Li’l Abner)? Irrelevant hair-splitting. Unproductive line of investigation. Phooey on it.

Joe Btfsplk, Al Capp's character with a black cloud over his head always raining misfortune on him

Okay, so, Cymbalta works for me (for now) as an anti-depressant, but what about the fibromyalgia connexion? It’s touted as a drug that helps with fm pain, which is why my doc and I agreed on using it despite its expense. At first I noticed no difference. Pressure is still pain, it hurts to hold onto the steering wheel or lean against a wall or sit or stand. Then the doc asked me, after using it for the better part of a year, if it had helped the fm. Didn’t really think so. Later, I looked back over what has changed in that period and there’s one huge thing: I have been able to stick with an exercise plan of walking, to the point where I could walk 2 miles with the first mile being all uphill. And when I challenged myself after a while to walk the uphill mile without stopping I found I could. Always before, no matter how gradually I increased the exercise, within a couple of weeks (or less) my pain and exhaustion would spike so much I’d have to stop for 5 or 6 days. You never get any “training effect” that way. You’re always struggling and always being knocked back to the starting point. This fantastic feature of fibromyalgia (and of chronic fatigue syndrome) is called post-exertional malaise.

Unlike my previous anti-depressant, Cymbalta (Duloxetine) doesn’t just increase the amount of serotonin available in my system, it does the same thing for norepinephrine. What does this mean? Here’s a clue: norepinephrine is also called noradrenaline. It’s secreted by the adrenal glands and, along with adrenaline, it has actions throughout the body and also in the brain, mostly aimed at revving you up—increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar; raising the metabolism; in general, preparing the body “to take immediate and vigorous action”.

Since even the researchers aren’t sure exactly how anti-depressants “work”, I’m not going to delve into it any further here. Suffice it to say that some part of norepinephrine’s action enables my body to deal with exercise more normally, and adapt to it. My walking muscles have gotten stronger, my aerobic endurance has increased, and I’ve even gotten to where at the top of the hill when I branch off onto a level road to cool off before the descent, I feel really good! Like I could walk for hours! That’s something I never thought I’d experience again, the enjoyment of physical exercise and of getting a little fitter each time. It’s probably partly the oft-mentioned endorphins that those smug runners get, and partly personal satisfaction at achieving the goal once again.

Each time it gets a tiny bit easier. At first when I started doing the uphill half without stopping I was flogging my body onward, unconscious of anything around me, totally absorbed in persevering. I had to sit down at the top, out of breath and exhausted. Now, I walk on for another 15 or 20 minutes (not uphill—yet!) without difficulty and then head back. Sometimes I have minor muscle soreness that lasts a day or two, and one knee protests that it is too old for this, but I’m not in pain and drained of energy for days as I used to be (prior to Cymbalta) after doing short level walks.

The catch about Cymbalta is the expense. I take a high dose, 160 mg/day, and it costs about $10 a day. (Last quarter the manufacturer, Eli J. Lilly, made profits of $1.2 billion on total revenue of $6.25 billion; 20% profit, not bad.) My insurance, the Medicare Drug Plan, covers most of it and so do some regular health insurance plans. It’s prescribed for depression, fibromyalgia, neuropathy, and some forms of chronic pain. There will be no generic version until the patent expires in 2013. Online ads for generic cymbalta should be regarded as scams, as if someone wanted to sell you $20 bills for $5. It can’t be the real thing from the manufacturer, and you have no idea what it might be.

There is an organization, The Partnership for Prescription Assistance, which “helps qualifying patients without prescription drug coverage get the medicines they need through the program that is right for them. Many will get their medications free or nearly free.” This organization is sponsored by America’s pharmaceutical research companies. There is no charge for getting help from the PPA. You can find more information about them here. Your doctor may know about other ways to save money on prescriptions; ask! Also, inquire about free samples to get started and see if it helps you.

For the first time ever…

My blog has been dormant since early this year. During this period my husband went through four shoulder surgeries, and is now facing spine surgery. In a later post I’ll describe parts of all this which may be useful to others. But for now I am going to ease back into blogging with a short simple post.

As an older adult, I feel it’s not too often I do something for the first time ever. But Friday, while pursuing the sedentary pleasure of reading in the shade on our deck, I got to sit in the shade of trees I helped plant! And it felt good.

Over the years I have planted trees here and there, even sprouted acorns and popped them in the ground, knowing I would not be around to admire them when they got really big. I remember thinking once that I hoped someone somewhere was planting trees for me. Of course it’s true, “someone else” (including a host of squirrels, bluejays, and other animals which transport and hide seeds) has planted all the trees we gaze upon, eat the fruits of, and climb. But now, thanks to fast-growing seedlings from our two old birch trees, I sat in shade my husband and I had planted. It really did feel different, quite satisfying.

Birches make lots of little seeds which glide on the wind, sprouting wherever they encounter a moist spot. The slender trees now shading me started as little guys that I potted up to adorn the front deck; after a few years they outgrew their pots and were planted as a group. They’re prettier that way, and because the nature of birches, it takes several to make a sizable area of dappled shade.

Birches IMG 2160

We also have planted our own aspen grove, five that we bought in big pots, and they are doing well. Our hot dry summers and fast-draining soil (that’s a flattering term for it) aren’t ideal for either aspens or birch so I water them once or twice a week in the summer, and that seems to be enough.

Aspens IMG 2164

I always marvel when I see houses without any trees: no shade, no windbreak, no fruit, none of the other comforts that trees offer us.

If your surroundings are lacking in trees, don’t wait for Arbor Day next spring. Plant some this fall and they’ll be ready to grow in spring. Get some advice on what does well in your region (use natives as much as you can) and what fits your needs with regard to questions such as year-round shade or not, growth rate & eventual size, likes to be in a lawn or not, species that provide food for birds or butterflies, blooms or fall color, amount of leaves and seeds to be raked if that is an issue, and so on.

Look for nursery sales as they pare back their holdings before winter; you can get some good deals. Or, just start your own. Some trees are pretty easy to grow though you’ll wait longer to sit in their shade, of course. Willow cuttings will grow readily if they get water; acorns can just be pushed into the ground and some will grow. There’s an inspiring short tale (The Man Who Planted Trees, by Jean Giono) about a shepherd who over many years revivified a desolate area by planting acorns each day as he followed his sheep. It’s fiction, but full of truth. Tree roots help stop erosion, their leaves cause the rain to fall more gently promoting absorption by the soil, their shade cools streams for wildlife and shelters other seedlings, their flowers, leaves, and seeds are food for many animals, and their presence gives birds, insects, and mammals places to live, breed, and hunt.

Trees in fall color, surrounding Monticello

As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I never before knew the full value of trees. My house is entirely embossomed [embosomed] in high plane-trees, with good grass below; and under them I breakfast, dine, write, read, and receive my company. What would I not give that the trees planted nearest round the house at Monticello were full grown. “ (in a letter to Martha Jefferson Randolph, July 7, 1793).

Two months before his death, at the age of eighty-three, he designed an arboretum for the University of Virginia. Such an epilogue to years of planting at Monticello was perhaps inspired by Jefferson’s own adage: “Too old to plant trees for my own gratification I shall do it for posterity.” (This and more about Jefferson and his tree-planting here; the aerial photo is of Monticello.)

6 things you should know when planting a tree, from Arbor Day Foundation

To which I add: Leave the soil at the bottom (that will be beneath the root ball) undisturbed to avoid settling. If the tree is bare-root, gently spread out the roots over a cone of soil. Don’t stake unless really necessary, for instance when planting on a slope. Finally, water it in, and water regularly for the first couple of years or more depending on your weather. More tips here.

Not exactly a New Year’s resolution, but…

This is about the time when people start to revel or reveal, with regard to how they’re doing with their New Year’s resolutions. I haven’t made any for years but I did take on something for 2011 that is turning out to be rather similar.

Back in November I came across the concept of “365” groups, on flickr. Members commit to taking photos every single day, and posting one of them to the group, from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31. At the end of the year one has 365 photos, each taken on a different day of the year—it’s not permitted to take and post 2 pictures today to make up for none yesterday. On impulse I signed up for one of the groups; when late December rolled around I questioned, did I really need one more thing to do, but decided to stick with it and see what happened. I was pleased to see that my group, 365: the 2011 edition, had only 805 members, as compared to one 365 group with over 20,000. It’s conceivable I’ll get a look at some of the photos of each member in my group before we reach Day 365.

My impulsive choice has had significant results. I always carried my camera, a Canon PowerShot, with me in my bag or coat pocket wherever I went but most of the time it just went along for the ride. In case of something dramatic I was ready, but nearly all of my subjects were predictable: our dogs, forest, flowers, sky. Now the camera is increasingly in my hand either because I’m on the lookout for a good subject or because I’m using it. I’m more observant, looking up and around, and looking at things with conscious attention to light, composition, color, pattern.

Looking upward in a country store that sells everything, which I’ve gone into regularly for 15 years, I saw a high-up display of taxidermy specimens I had never noticed before. Never noticed before?

BlackBird taxidermy display 1.jpg

How could I have missed it? There’s a black bear behind the leaping bobcat, and on the other side of the display a dozen trophy heads including a moose. Actually I had noticed the moose head, behind a daunting display of rifles, but that’s all I’d been aware of until now. Obviously, I have been in the thrall of fixation on my immediate purpose and suffering tunnel vision as a result.

BlackBird taxidermy display, bobcat leaps for grouse.jpg

I think the bird is a Chukar Partridge (Alectoris chukar, an Asian species introduced in Oregon). Bobcat and lynx are pretty similar, but the cat making this one-footed leap for its dinner lacks the lynx’s black ear-tufts and furry snowshoe feet so I’ll go for the smaller and more common bobcat, Lynx rufus or Felis rufus.

My strengths as a photographer are patience and an attunement to pattern and composition. The latter is getting good exercise as I apply it more widely, beyond rocks and bark and such.

bottles at liquor store.jpg

plastic glasses.jpg

Taking photos of new subjects, and doing it every day, means lots more for me to look over and critique. What was I trying to do, how did it work, how could it work better, should my purpose have been different for this subject—these are some questions I’m asking every day now as I look at my day’s work. And then I look through other peoples’ photos with enjoyment and an eye to learning from them. I bookmark some individuals’ photostreams because of their skills, or because I find their places and subjects interesting.

Perhaps I can use the 365 project to help me conquer my shyness about asking people if I may include them in my photos. That would certainly open up a new world photographically, but it will not be easy. I noticed a post on the 365 forum by someone who has had a special business-type card made up for this purpose: it bears his name, email address, and flickr link, and he gives it to people as part of asking permission to photograph them. His 365 photos are all portraits—he’s working on lighting and composition as well as becoming more extroverted. Maybe I should try the card idea myself; props can be good, and this one is considerate and makes sense.

What I’ve learned about building a new skill or habit (of which New Year’s resolutions are a particular case) would not surprise any behaviorist:

Commit to a specific action, every day

Choose an action that’s not too difficult

Keep a record and/or tell others about your commitment

Whether it’s putting stars on a calendar for an exercise program, or posting a photo for each day, there’s a lot of power in getting the new habit out of the realm of intellect and intention and into a visible form. I had only about a dozen photos on flickr, and now I’ve added a 365 set that has all my “photos of the day” in it. It’s satisfying to see the set grow, and to notice how my repertoire is expanding. The group’s explicit purpose is improvement of one’s skills rather than posting masterpieces. Inclusive rather than exclusive.

I’m learning to pay more attention—and a different kind of attention—to what’s around me, and try new things with the camera and my eye; I’m into a daily discipline; and maybe I’ll even use the photo project as a means of building confidence about talking to others. Not bad for what I thought was an impulsive commitment!

Billboards for the Democrats

If you live in a state with hotly contested elections, your mail was full of wretchedly negative and misleading flyers last month. But, around here at least, we rarely see political billboards. When I did see one, it was this:

Billboard for conservatives.jpg

and it made me wonder why the Democrats hadn’t used billboards to get out simple positive messages about issues where there was great potential public support.

Here are some I made up, just quick mock-ups of a campaign for single-payer health care, but they give you the idea. If Obama had gotten people thinking along these lines, instead of ceding the issue to the Republicans, we might have a true universal health care system by now.

Health care for all means healthier kids billboard.jpg

“The United States provides health care to all senior citizens although children are the least expensive and most cost-effective group to cover.”

Single-payer health care for all means not losing your home to catastrophic health costs billboard.jpg

“Half of all respondents (49%) indicated that their foreclosure was caused in part by a medical problem, including illness or injuries (32%), unmanageable medical bills (23%), lost work due to a medical problem (27%), or caring for sick family members (14%). We also examined objective indicia of medical disruptions in the previous two years, including those respondents paying more than $2,000 of medical bills out of pocket (37%), those losing two or more weeks of work because of injury or illness (30%), those currently disabled and unable to work (8%), and those who used their home equity to pay medical bills (13%).

Altogether, seven in ten respondents (69%) reported at least one of these factors.” [from abstract of Christopher T. Robertson, Richard Egelhof, & Michael Hoke, “Get Sick, Get Out: The Medical Causes of Home Foreclosures” Health Matrix 18 (2008): 65-105.]

Billboardready to learn.jpg

Growing numbers of uninsured children have made it harder for educators to focus on classroom achievement without first addressing the medical needs of their students who lack health insurance or dental coverage. Instead of notifying parents when their children are ill, school officials increasingly must help find health care, arrange transportation for sick children and often advise beleaguered parents about the health consequences of their inaction. Schools that don’t accept the extra responsibility can lose those students to prolonged absences that jeopardize their academic advancement.“

And children who lack health insurance are unlikely to get help for conditions that interfere with learning, such as learning disabilities or vision and hearing problems.

Billboard “Single-payer health care for all…ask someone who already has it!”.jpg

An article about how people get happier as they get older, says it’s partly due to “resources that contribute to happiness, such as access to health care, Medicare and Medicaid”.

Billboard Single-payer health care for all…a healthier workforce”

Inadequately treated health problems result in lower productivity, greater absenteeism and turnover, and become more severe over time. Concern about losing job-related health insurance causes individuals to stay in jobs for which they are unsuited when they could be more productive and successful at other work (a situation called “job lock”).

Billboard, Universal Health Care means no more bake sales for kids with leukemia.jpg

It’s shameful to see contribution jars and raffles in local stores collecting for sick people who would otherwise be untreated. Mostly these are for kids, since we are all more sympathetic toward sick children, but there are also spaghetti feeds and various benefits put on for adults who have brain tumors or other acute and potentially fatal illnesses. And every year at this time brings those holiday campaigns in the newspaper, raising money for individuals or families, and often there’s a medical need there. One of the ones I remember was a local young man who’d lost a leg to bone cancer when he was 11; now he was working full time at a job (with no insurance) that was mostly standing, and since he was off his mother’s insurance he could not get a replacement for his outgrown prosthetic leg.

“It’s estimated that 9 million children are completely uninsured. But the new study says 11.5 million more kids end up without medical care for part of the year. And another 3 million can’t get a ride to the doctor. That’s more than 23 million children.” (2008 figures)

And finally,

Billboard Universal health care, it just amkes sense, and it’s the right thing to do

I don’t have a picture for this one. What I’d like it to be is not yet invented, some visual-mental device that reflects back to the viewer’s brain an image of him/herself, struck by a wasting disease well before the age of 65 when Medicare begins.

I do have a few more bits of information about the effects of not being insured. “Two large national studies of hospital admissions found that when the uninsured are admitted to a hospital, it is for a more serious mix of diseases and conditions, based on expected mortality, than the privately insured.…A study in California found that uninsured newborns with medical problems had significantly shorter stays (by 1.8-5.9 days) and received significantly less care (measured by total hospital charges) than privately insured newborns for several specific medical diagnoses. Another study found that the uninsured are at much greater risk of substandard hospital care due to negligence or poor quality: 40.3 percent of adverse events among the uninsured were due to negligence, compared to 20.3 percent for the privately insured who experienced adverse events.“ [source]

So the uninsured person, who is likely to be sicker when arriving at the hospital, is twice as likely to be the victim of negligent care during the stay. (Maybe it’s a mercy that the stay itself will be shorter than for the insured patient.) And the uninsured receive less treatment, whether for injury in a car accident, heart attack, or being born prematurely. More of them die, than insured people with the same conditions.

It’s a national disgrace and a drag on the economy; it’s contrary to our ideals and a terrible waste of the possibilities of human lives; it condemns many, from birth or before, to short and painful lives. It’s not open to compromise, Mr. President. You should have stood up for it and the issue should have been fully discussed before the people. If you think our attention spans are too short for extended discourse, you’re welcome to my billboard ideas.

More merry than other Christmas gifts

Each year friends give us a subscription to Funny Times for Christmas, and we get 12 months of laughs from it. And also sanity, I have to say, because when I read it I often think: only here (never in the newspaper) do I regularly find people puncturing the jumbo-sized blimps of jargon and pretense that take up so much space in news and politics. Reading the newspaper, I want to say “Are you all crazy?” Reading the cartoons and columns in Funny Times, I know someone else agrees with that.

But don’t think the humor is all political; the latest issue has a column about the new combo camera/Barbie Doll, by Lenore Skenazy; Dave Barry on severance gifts from Wal-Mart, Garrison Keillor on Christmas; and cartoons that skewer pretensions, make visual puns, and are just plain silly. Sylvia always makes an appearance, so do Tom the Dancing Bug, the always-askew Piraro, Shannon Wheeler (Too Much Coffee Man), the K Chronicles, Lynda Barry, and about 50 others .

As if all that—24 tabloid-size pages full—weren’t enough, there’s a whole page of what we all really want from our newspapers: News of the Weird. You know, the reports of actual events, too stupid or bizarre to believe, in categories such as “Bright Ideas” and “Least Competent Criminals”. If you hold your brain just right while you read these they can make you feel better about the level of idiocy in your own locale, a real morale-builder!

But wait, there’s more! Harper’s Index! Winokur’s Curmudgeon! And if you call now, well, then you won’t procrastinate, what else can I say.

I wanted to include a sample of cartoons but I’m too lazy to scan them from our issue so here are some by the same great cartoonists, that I just got off that internet thing. In Funny Times they are mostly in black and white but just as funny.

Oh, and a full year’s subscription is only $25 at http://www.funnytimes.com/ or 1-888-386-6984.

It’s the perfect gift for friends and family, anyone with a sense of humor. So I guess you just have to shop for your relatives now. Because why would you have friends who don’t have a sense of humor?

Bizarro cartoon, adult spelling bee.jpg

I like this one because whenever I see that a movie contains “adult themes” my mind always has a flicker of literalism, “Oh, a discussion of the limits of rationality, or what it means to lead a good life, or…”.
Dan Piraro, Bizarro.

Sylvia cartoon,  devil.jpg

Thanksgiving, Pilgrims and Santa Claus.jpg

rhymes with orange.jpg

The Palm PDA as pioneer e-book reader, and Ernest Shackleton, and war

Before the Kindle, Nook, and iPad, there was the Palm

I got my Palm some years ago, to help out my fibromyalgia-diminished memory. It was like a proto-tablet, on which I could take notes, write, outline, draw and paint well enough to illustrate notes, and keep a calendar and to-do list. There were all sorts of games for it, and apps to change the look of the interface. The one feature I thought I’d never use was the ability to read entire books on that tiny screen.

But it came loaded with a mystery by a popular author and, compulsive reader that I am, I took a look at it and found it quite easy to read. Fonts and font size were adjustable and later I got a third-party app that enabled me to change the background color to one my eyes found more comfortable. I’ve been reading on my Palm ever since.

It’s a small device, about the size of a pack of cards, and with an upgraded memory card it can easily hold 50 or 75 books in addition to all the other stuff. iSiloX, companion app to one of the readers, would convert text files to Palm format (.pdb), so all of Project Gutenberg was mine.

Like most people, I don’t find it pleasant to read text continuously on the computer screen for an hour, and I would never have printed out these copyright-free books, but to have them available to read any time I wanted on the Palm—that worked for me. Is it easier to concentrate my visual attention on the small screen than on the large one? I don’t know what the reason is, but reading the Palm is more comfortable for long periods whether by daylight or in a dark room.

Shackleton Palm.jpg

Some of what I’ve been reading in the wee hours

Although I’ve bought a few e-books and issues of sf magazines for the Palm, mostly I have read my way through free downloads, 19th and early 20th C. works from Jack London’s social fiction and reflections on his own alcoholism, to Virginia Woolf’s Common Reader essays. I’ve found several good reads among women writers including novels like Wives and Daughters (1865), and North and South (1854), by Elizabeth Gaskell, and excellent short stories by Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Mary Austin, and Katherine Mansfield. The Woman Who Did (1895) by Grant Allen, is about a “New Woman” who dared to live her life as she wished, having an affair but refusing to marry the man, raising the child, with tragic results. Then there’s the wide range of popular adventure fiction, of which I’ve enjoyed works by such out-of-fashion writers as H. Rider Haggard, P. C. Wren, and Ouida, with titles like The Snake and the Sword, and Under Two Flags (both stories of the French Foreign Legion). All these have been enjoyable to read in themselves, and of course provide fascinating windows into life and attitudes, with the same sort of caveats that attach to judging our times by our popular fiction.

I’ve got some familiar big-C Classics on the Palm too, like Fagles’s recent translation of the Odyssey (a purchased e-book, I have it in print as well), Northanger Abbey and Tom Jones (haven’t been able to finish either one of these), a couple of Anthony Trollope novels (more readable, enjoyed The Warden), and a bunch of poetry. There’s a goodly selection of older sf to be found online as text files, and even some new sf books that have been made freely available by authors such as Cory Doctorow.

Views of Antarctic heroism, and of the world before ours

Just now my 2 am reading is Sir Ernest Shackleton’s South, his account of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914–17)—often known as the “ill-fated” Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Their sturdy ship was trapped in pack ice for nearly a year, then crushed by the movement of the ice; the men lived on ice floes for some time since the current was taking them closer to land, but when the floes broke up under their feet, they took to 3 small open boats…and on it goes. The privation endured, the courage and resourcefulness shown, are astonishing. One aspect of human beings at their best.

Shackleton replica boat in pack ice.jpg

Replica of one of the expedition’s open boats, among pack ice.

And here too, are found glimpses of how differently some things were perceived.

Shackleton’s ship the Endurance left England just after the outbreak of what was to become World War I; at the time many thought it would be over by Christmas. I just read the part where Shackleton and a few companions reach South Georgia Island, having left the rest of the company slowly starving on Elephant Island, while they cross 800 miles of ocean in a small boat in order to send back a rescue ship. They are forced to land on the opposite side of the island from Stromness Whaling Station, and Shackleton takes the two fittest men on a 36-hour trek over glaciers and rocky peaks, without a map, to reach “civilization”.

The first thing Shackleton says to the whaling station manager, after introducing himself, is “Tell me, when was the war over?” It is May, 1916, and he cannot conceive that the war might still continue. The manager replies, “The war is not over. Millions are being killed. Europe is mad. The world is mad.” Later, after arranging for the other two men on South Georgia to be picked up, Shackleton and a companion hear details of the war. “We were like men arisen from the dead to a world gone mad,” he says.

I’ve often read of how shocked and demoralized people of the time were by this unprecedented industrialized war that dragged on and on, by the use of poison gas, machine guns, long-range artillery, and planes, and by battles such as the Somme, in which over one million men (on both sides) were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner, over a 4 and 1/2 month period. British casualties on the Somme (in these same three categories) were 80% during that time; by November, 80% of the original men in a division were gone save for those lightly wounded who returned. The total advance of the Allied lines was 8 miles.

But this scene, in which men in such an isolated and inhospitable place learn all at once of the war, has a different imaginative impact. After all, the late 20th-century reader may be appalled by the Somme, but knows already of things as bad or worse: the Holocaust, Rwanda, visions of nuclear war. To imagine Shackleton learning about his time’s Great War suddenly, in one conversation, is to experience a little of how it was for those of his time.

Many well-educated young men with literary leanings joined up in 1914, and some of them wrote poetry while in camps and trenches. The early World War I poetry is of a high idealistic tenor probably not equalled by any war poetry since, because that war changed reality for everyone then and since. Never again, I hope, can anyone write something like this, about dead soldiers:

Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!
There’s none of these so lonely and poor of old,
But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold.
These laid the world away; poured out the red
Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be
Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene,
That men call age; and those who would have been,
Their sons, they gave, their immortality.

First stanza of 1914 III: The Dead by Rupert Brooke.

As I recall, Brooke died just as his attitude toward the war began to shift from public-school “play the game” patriotism to something more hopeless and grim. But many another British war-poet showed this change of reality that took place for his generation and those to come, including us. Things were never the same. Though it is long, I’ll reprint here one such poem:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime. —
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The poem is Dulce et Decorum est, by Wilfred Owen, written in 1915.

Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori (Latin) means “It’s sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”. This famous quotation from Horace would have been extremely familiar to public-school boys, in that time when education always included the Latin language and literature as well as some indoctrination about the Empire. In 1913, the first line, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, was inscribed on the wall of the chapel of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (Wikipedia), and the text and the sentiment were used to encourage enlistment and support of the war.

Indeed, Ernest Shackleton and his men (not one perished, incredibly) did emerge from the ice-bound wilderness “like men arisen from the dead” into a world forever changed.

John Singer Sargent, Gassed (1918).jpg

Detail from John Singer Sargent, Gassed (1918). This painting hangs in the Imperial War Museum in London; the canvas is over seven feet high and twenty feet long. It depicts soldiers blinded by gas being led in lines back to the hospital tents and the dressing stations; the men lie on the ground all about the tents waiting for treatment. (Source)

The brightest beetle we’ve seen, and help identifying bugs

As long as I was on the topic of beetles, I thought I’d include this one which my husband photographed on Mt. Ashland in August during one of our wildflower walks.

Desmocerus aureipennis, male Elderberry Longhorn Beetle

The best resource I have found for identifying insects, if they are not among those illustrated in our insect field guides, is by using BugGuide.net. If you can narrow your search down, you may be able to identify it yourself by looking through the extensive pages of thumbnail photos for each group, genus, and species. That is how I figured out what this was,

Cyclosa conica CR0780.jpg

a spider named Cyclosa conica, for an earlier post—but I had to scan through dozens of pages of thumbnails to find this particular individual.

There’s another way: submit at least one good photo of the insect or arachnid in question to bugguide.net, with relevant details such as geographic location, time of year you saw it, and where (in your attic? under a log? on a rose bush?). Then a group of people who know lots more about bugs than you or I, will take a look, there will be perhaps some back and forth, and you’ll probably get a consensus. Before posting your photos you need to register an account with username and password, then after that you can log in and look at your photos and see what has been said about them.

BugGuide.net is hosted by Iowa State University Entomology, and a lot of the responders are extremely knowledgeable. Also, it is a collegial effort—they check each other’s work, in effect. But of course if the answer is really important to you: if this spider just bit you and your arm is swelling, or you have an orchard infestation of some bug, you want to talk to a real live person like a doctor or an ag extension agent. Try to get the bug into a little jar and take it with you.

This is a fun and educational site to browse through. There are pages of many-legged creatures awaiting identification (the better your photo, the better your chances, but send the photos you have), and of course a structure of pages organized by taxonomy, order/family/genus. Even better, on the left of each page is a visual key, a clickable guide composed of bugs by shape, to help you get close to the creature you are interested in.

The big red bug was not in our guides so I submitted it and got a precise ID. It is a Desmocerus aureipennis/auripennis, male. The females don’t have the bright red elytra, or wing covers. It’s one of a group called Elderberry Longhorn Beetles, and our photo showed it on that tree. I looked up other photos of this insect and yes, that’s what it is.

[Etymological note: desmocerus from the Greek desmos (banded or fettered) + keros (a horn) and aureipennis from the Latin aureus (golden) + penna (feather, wing).]