A snowball’s chance in hell? or How a (19-year-old) old soul “plays with and is fed by” a horrific accident
Featured image: Adoration of the Magi by Giotto di Bondone (1267–1337). The Star of Bethlehem is shown as a comet above the christ child. Giotto witnessed an appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1301. Halley is visible from Earth every 74.7 years, or, more simply, every 75-79 years. Halley would orbit another 9 times—between Earth and the comet’s turning point beyond Pluto—before the European spacecraft, named Giotto, would in 1986 confirm that it was in essence a “dirty snowball.”
Once upon a time, about a quarter century ago on the day before Thanksgiving—Wednesday November 22, 1990—I had my first experience of a bone fracture. Or fractures. My heel bone was shattered into multiple irregular fragments during a car accident. Peter later told me that when the orthopedic surgeon first saw my foot, he warned him that it might have to be amputated. Fortunately (how inadequate a word for the physical and psychological pain it saved us!) it was not a disaster: during surgery my heel bone was pegged with screws and my foot and lower leg placed in a heavy 1990’s cast; after a day in the hospital I was given crutches and sent home; Peter returned to his weekly commute to Nevada; it was my right foot, I could not drive. Eighteen-year-old U of U freshman Newton drove me to work at the U of U and back for 3 months, to my job as a writer at the Computer Science Department, where—before my cast even came off—my boss rewarded me for my work ethic and loyalty by saying “I just can’t work with your slow hobbling around the halls” and firing me; by the time my bone had knitted, I had a new job as a writer at a company that did work-life efficiency training. (Take that! you awful boss that I won’t name…) Given that the word “disaster” hails from the astrological notion that calamity is caused by the non-alignment of planets, the fact that I averted serious harm must be thanks to Nov 22, 1990 having been “a day for balancing the expansive energy of the moon entering Aquarius balanced with the disciplined influence of Saturn, guiding us to grow and explore while staying grounded in reality.” Okay!
From the series of color chalk drawings Que tu Carne es el cielo recién nacido/That your Flesh is the newborn sky , (1983), by Peruvian artist Sergio Zevallos, who is a cult figure in Latin American art. He was one of the three central members of a queer collective, Grupo Chaclacayo (active 1982-1994 in Lima), who “used their bodies as a site to critique issues within Catholicism, military violence, the mistreatment of indigenous communities, and homophobia.” Focusing on “the importance of practices that connect body and society,” Zevallos engaged “with political contexts, confronting the violence of sexist, misogynist, homophobic, racist, and bellicose societies.”
Fast forward to the November 24, 2023, snowball from nowhere
Doña Quixote emotes: On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Doña Quixote stands up from her Lazy Girl half of the couch, wobbles just a little bit, and steadies herself by placing her right hand on the padded armrest. She just touches it, feels the stuffing give a little bit under her hand, but does not come close to supporting her body weight. Nevertheless, a connect-the-dots pain jolts from her wrist to elbow to shoulder, she hears/feels the chalkboard-scraping wrongness of bone grinding on bone somewhere in her wrist. The pain spreads from bone to flesh like an after-image. She holds still, touches nothing. In a while her left hand gingerly feels the area between the wrist and elbow, finds a spot where she can clasp the injured arm without worsening the pain. She steers the ache-sparking limb away from her body, away from anything. Finding Peter in his study, she tells him she broke something. In the moment of turning his head from the computer screen, he thinks of the “metal” wind spinner that turned ceramic when she dropped it, the stickiness of glass shards glued to the floor with marmelade, the shatter-blast of the flower vase landing on the kitchen counter. He gets up, looks at the swollen wrist and the bruises that had immediately formed.
Physician and assistants set bone in arm, by German engraver and painter Jonas Arnold. From the book Armamentarium Chirurgicum by Johanni Scultetus, German surgeon. Published 1655, 10 years after author’s death, by his nephew, a surgeon in his own right. The book is revolutionary for the details and meticulousness in which accurate information on 17th century instrumentation and surgical procedures has been compiled. Many of these tools and treatments were pioneered by Scultetus himself.
Snowball from nowhere? NOT, Doña Q. Ever heard of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon?
Suddenly seeing examples of something one is newly aware of is called the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. After my hand injury, things-that-can-go-wrong-in-our-extremities crossed my path everywhere: people hobbling along with casts or crutches, on an article about a wrist fracture sustained by a baseball player for which the treatment was also watch and wait, a novel titled Slow Man about which I did not know it would be about a fictional 60-year-old former photographer, Paul Rayment, who lost a leg in a bicycling accident. (The book’s sight-unseen attraction was the author, the South African/Australian Nobel Prize (2003) winning writer JM Coetzee.)
The Dismembered, from the series Los teules (la conquista de México), or Roof Tiles (The Conquest of Mexico), 1947, by Mexican cartoonist, print maker, painter, and muralist José Clemente Orozco.
A few pages into Slow Man, my hand injury was no longer the reason for my identification with the main character. My injury was a mere molehill to Paul Rayment’s physical Everest. My fellow-feeling had instead glommed on to Rayment’s emotional/psychic loss of identity. Doña Quixote has schooled me in the bottomless gloom of that pit: how does one find a new “self,” an individuality that can somewhat stand in for the lost former one? Whatever new self we find, is guaranteed to sublimate rather than snowball. In Paul Rayment’s case because he is 60 years old and already in the phase of aging where one starts feeling the physical failure of body parts; in my case, because my dementia is ever worsening, the pace faster and faster as the months go by. Whatever new self we find, is guaranteed to sublimate rather than snowball.
From a cosmic perspective, baader-meinhof becomes a verb
I started this post based on my hand injury as well as research I’d done before into paintings that interest me and astronomical phenomena that I like. I knew instinctively that the items noted above had a connection, but what thought/philosopy connects them? Only today, over a month after started, did I write the first paragraph of this post: a memory of my heel bone fractures of 24 years ago. Why did I not think of it while contemplating “things-that-can-go-wrong-in-our-extremities” since the day after Thanksgiving? How come I did not notice that my hand injury happened in the same month and almost on the same date as my foot injury? Why did I think of it now? After puzzling about it all morning, I think it was the ever-returning comets that made me think of my small human woes in a cosmic perspective. One person’s personal fate, however much it upends—or ends—one’s life, is not even a blip on the timeline of the universe. That does not mean it is not important. Our lives unfold on a psycho-sociological timescale. What makes them important is, for me, is the existentialist idea—courtesy of Jean Paul Sartre— “that ‘existence precedes essence’ , which means we are thrust into the world without meaning; to exist as a human being, your must utilize your circumstances, society, and own acquired truth to create your meaning. There is no ultimate cosmic reason for us to be here. TWhile I was embedded in these ideas this morning, the thought came to me that from a cosmic perspective, baader-meinhof becomes a verb. I baader-meinhofed my way into the memory of my foot injury as one of the circumstances that retroactively (and subconsciously?) recognized that “things-that-can-go-wrong-in-our-extremities” have happened to me before.
Halley’s comet’s baader-meinhofing through time and space
The photo above dates from comet Halley‘s most recent visit (1986) to the inner Solar System as observed by the European spacecraft, Giotto, which came as close as 370 miles (596 kilometers) from the icy body outgassing [blowing out] a lopsided, nebulous envelope consisting of water vapor, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and traces of methane and ammonia. Giotto‘s data brought scientific information about a comet nucleus and the mechanism of coma and tail formation. False-color digital enhancement permitted measurement of brightness differences between Halley’s parts. These observations supported Fred Whipple’s “dirty snowball” model, which correctly predicted that Halley would be composed of dusty, non-volatile materials, and only a small portion of mixed-component ice. Far from the sun, which is where Halley spends most of its time, its temperature is near Kelvin (- 269° C), just 4 degrees above absolute zero. Accordingly, its ice would be a solid. As it approaches the sun, the nucleus heats up to a temperature of 300-400 K (27-127 C) and the gases inside the core sublimate (change from a solid to a vapor) and outgas, together with the dust, to form a spectacular coma and long tail.
The comet of 1531-2, later recognized by Edmond Halley as a previous return of the comet that would be named after him. As the astronomer realized about the comet named for him, it has a short period cthat makes it visible from Earth every 75–79 years. It is the only known short-period comet that is regularly visible to the naked eye from Earth, and thus the only naked-eye comet that can appear twice in a human lifetime.
Eat your heart out, Baader-Meinhof
On a much grander scale, English astronomer Edmond Halley in 1704 used Isaac Newton’s theories of gravitation and planetary motions to compute the orbits of comets reported in 1531, 1607, and 1682, thereby baader-meinhofing to the insight that the appearances were those of a single comet making return trips. He correctly predicted the comet would return in 1758. Unfortunately he did not live long enough to see his theory confirmed. In 1759, French astronomer Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille named history’s first known “periodic” comet was later named in Halley’s honor.
The 1066 comet depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry was observed in England and southern Europe. The “tapestry” is in fact not woven, but consists of a narrative embroidery, approx 224 feet long x approx 20 inches wide. Pictures and text inscription beautify the nine joined-together panels of embroidered linen. One of the scenes depicts a comet seen over England and Southern Europe and which was, after Edmond Halley’s discovery, been identified as an early illustration of the comet named after him. To the Anglo-Saxon kingdom ruled by King Harold II it portends disaster, while to William the Bastard of Normandy it was seen as an auspicious sign.William prevailed, killing Harold on October 14, 1066, in the Battle of Hastings.
One way to get high blood pressure is to go mountain climbing over molehills, Earl Wilson
When our daughter Marissa’s arm broke during a visit from South Africa where she studied at the U of Pretoria, we’d waited in the U of Utah’s emergency room for several hours while she kept on fainting in her chair. We sat on either side of her, holding her torso upright. We got it that the people with heart attacks or bones poking through their flesh had to be attended to first, but what about a place for her to lie down? Despite the pain and visible signs of my ihand-wrist injury, once I had gathered myself neither Peter nor I had any guts for the emergency room on a holiday weekend. With this memory in mind, the mental strain of a long wait, seemed harder than Peter finagling a brace for my arm, me hitting the ibuprofen, and lying down a lot. The choice was made easier by the fact that I had an existing appointment with our family physician on the coming Monday. I had set the appointment to discuss my recurring depression. I contacted Dr. McAdam and asked her to add my injury as a second “please help me” item.
Peter made me a brace that he helped me waterproof before I took a bath, during which I hung my right arm outside the bathtub so as not to bump or wet it.
The more I understand, the less I know
One month, one family physician, two sets of X-rays, two radiologists, a fracture clinic hand/wrist fundi, three home-made or over-the counter hand braces later, an in-process custom-made-molded brace-by Peter later, it turns out that:
1), neither of the two radiologists could definitively determine whether a mystery line on the thumbside sticky-out part of my radius [the styloid, see the pink part of the image below] was actually a fracture or maybe just an artifact of the way my wrist and hand were positioned for the image. We would learn that a styloid fracture is notorious for being “radiographically occult,” that is, located in a position where the X-rays cannot see it “head on.”
Peter photoshopped an online image to illustrate the position of my X-ray’s mystery mark on my styloid: In the pinkish area of the diagram, the bone on the lower right is the radius; in the pink area, you’ll see the styloid: it is the out-jutting end of the radius. The small mystery mark is visible toward the right of the styloid.
2), The difference between the two possibilities of what was going on with my arm: a), a strain (an injury to muscles or tendons) and b), a bone fracture can only be determined after a certain amount of healing will have taken place: when a fracture knits, the new bone at the fracture site changes color (on an X-ray), which can be used to diagnose a bone break. For that, though, we had to wait another two weeks. The good news, the fundi said, was that the treatment of a strain and a fracture is the same during this waiting phase: she provided me with a better brace than my hitherto over-the-counter one and told me not to use the arm. (Ha!) This “velcro” brace does not have the loops- and hooks-style fasteners of my over-the-counter brace before it. Instead, it has the gluey stick-on type.
3), Apparently my wait-and-see “diagnosis” and “treatment plan” is quite common: my daughter-in-law Cheryl had recently been given the same instructions. Fortunately it turned out that hers was not a break—no surgery needed. Just more brace-wearing and keeping the hand quiet. When my “wait and see” two weeks were up, I was as lucky as Cheryl—no break, just a bad strain. More being careful. So grateful I won’t have another surgery this year.
4), From the hand fundi’s treatment room, I was escorted to the Hand Clinic, a few doors away. A therapist made me a nice red molded plastic brace to replace the large and clumsy velcro one. Unfortunately it does not fit well and hurts my arm. Peter took me for an adjustment last week, but it is still not comfortable. I will go for another fitting after our family’s christmas fest this Sunday. In the meantime, I’m again using my old black brace. By now—4 weeks after my injury—the glue on the brace fasteners has corrupted and only half of each stays on, the other half flapping loose. While the glue won’t stick where it’s supposed to, it manages to latch on to anything in its reach like the tendrils of a pole bean: my sweatshirt or sweater, my blanket, the couch. After the flaps yesterday latched on to a fluffy christmas gift I was wrapping, I took action: I cut the foot off a sock and use the resulting tube as a cover to teach those sticky tentacles some manners.
5), At the hand clinic a therapist who’s story we heard—she started at the clinic as a cleaner-upper, found favor with the therapists working there, was given the opportunity to take the hand-therapy and mold-making training—was delighted in Peter’s careful observation of and questions about the manufacturing process. When I told her that he is an inventor who is always making little mechanic-electronic marvels to amuse himself and our family and friends, she gave him some left-over plastic sheets of the mold-making substance. When the hand clinic’s second adjustment of my brace still did not fit properly and hurt after about half-hour of wearing it, Peter stepped in and is making me a new version based on a plan he drew to correct the previous one’s faults. He is still waiting for the stick-on finishing tape and the velcro fasteners to complete it, but after a test drive I can attest that it so far seems to be an improvement on all the previous guards.
In the middle of January, I have another appointment with the Fracture Clinic to evaluate my healing. To me it seems that I am making good progress. I’m even writing without my wrist guard at the moment.
Dreary winds foreboding call/ the darkness down again, Emily Bronte
Another retroactive Baader-Meinhof event took place on christmas morning this year—the day before I injured my hand. Peter told me about a YouTube video he’d seen the previous night after my bedtime. It was a TED Talk by a hospice palliative physician—Dr. BJ Miller who has long been an inspirational figure in my pantheon of people who are true heroes. But somehow I had not yet seen his 11-million-plus watched TED Talk. I brought my breakfast over to the TV and we watched. It was one of those videos you watch and then have to sit still for a while to absorb it.
- Valley of Aosta: Snowstorm, Avalanche, and Thunderstorm, by perhaps the best-loved English Romantic artist, Joseph Mallard William Turner (1775-1851), who became known as ‘the painter of light’, because of his increasing interest in brilliant colors in his land-and seascapes.
The snowball from hell
In 199o, BJ Miller was a sophomore at Princeton University. He was academically sharp, a crew member on the rowing team. “One night,” he recounts in the video, “a few of my friends and I were horsing around, and we decided to climb atop a parked commuter train. It was just sitting there, with the wires that run overhead. Somehow, that seemed like a great idea at the time. We’d certainly done stupider things.” What began as a diversion took a tragic turn when 11,000 volts of electricity suddenly surged through his body. “There was a big explosion, a big flash of light, and I was thrown…quite some distance. My body was literally smoking.” Miller survived that 1990 accident but lost both legs below the knee and half of one arm. He was 19 years old.
Der Maler im Mantel, (The painter in his coat), 1966, by German painter, sculptor, and graphic artist Georg Baselitz. In 1969 he began painting his subjects upside down in an effort to overcome the representational, content-driven character of his earlier work and stress the artifice of painting. In an 2022 interview Baselitz said, “I was born into a destroyed order, a destroyed landscape, a destroyed people, a destroyed society. And I didn’t want to reestablish an order: I had seen enough of so-called order. I was forced to question everything, to be ‘naive’, to start again.”
Below, I let Miller introduce himself
From Miller’ 2015 TED Talk:
How did you, when still only 19, come to the decision “not to try to ‘overcome’ my situation, but rather to play with it and be fed by it”?
“I spent a few months in a burn unit at St. Barnabas Hospital in Livingston, New Jersey, where I got really great care at every turn, including good palliative care for my pain.. And one night, it began to snow outside. I remember my nurses complaining about driving through it. And there was no window in my room, but it was great to just imagine it coming down all sticky. Next day, one of my nurses smuggled in a snowball for me. She brought it in to the unit. I cannot tell you the rapture I felt holding that in my hand, and the coldness dripping onto my burning skin; the miracle of it all, the fascination as I watched it melt and turn into water. In that moment, just being any part of this planet in this universe mattered more to me than whether I lived or died. That little snowball packed all the inspiration I needed to both try to live and be OK if I did not. In a hospital, that’s a stolen moment.”
How long did recovery from your injury take?
This from GQ magazine:
I was in a burn unit in New Jersey at Saint Barnabas Hospital for a couple of months, and then in a step-down unit, and then in a rehab hospital back home in Chicago, where my family was from at the time, and then outpatient rehab. That was November, and then I went back to school the following fall. I had accommodated the accident by the fifth year, so it was a long, slow process. But in the early days, it was touch and go, like ‘could die tonight’ kind of thing. So that was very intense. All sorts of crazy pains. We could talk for hours about all the thoughts that came up. Went back to school 1 1/2 years after accident….He changed his major from Chinese and Asian studies to art history, because he found art took him ‘to another plane and onto questions of human existence….In my first art history class, I was sitting there looking at statues in the slideshow, these old beautiful statues that were missing limbs. They weren’t designed that way. They were just statues that got broken over the years, and here we are in this class studying these things and loving them and talking about how beautiful they were. I was like, ‘Oh, I look like that statue on some level. We like that statue. Maybe I can like this.’ It was that kind of simple and direct and concrete.”
Were there factors in your background that facilitated your decision to embrace your post-amputation life?
I had a mother who had polio and had used a wheelchair much of my life, so I had a running start on what it meant to be disabled and the forces at work on you there. Early on, you’re really trying to keep self-pity at bay. I learned from my mom that self-pity is such a seduction. People are going to pity you. You’re going to pity yourself. On some level, it gets a sweetness from people….There’s an upshot to it, but it’s like a sugar high. It doesn’t last, and it’s a trap. Those early days were hard, because you’d be doing something that you knew you were not going to be good at, but you knew you had to do it.
Shelley Niro (Six Nations Reserve, Bay of Quinte Mohawk, Turtle Clan) “Ancestors” from M (“Memory”) : Stories of Women series (2011; 2022 reprint), color inkjet print, 53 x 33 inches (image courtesy the National Museum of the American Indian). Niro grew up near Brandtford, Ontario, on the Six Nations of the Grand River territory. Reviewer Lakshmi Rivera Amin said, “Stepping into this exhibition felt like walking into a starry sky. A veritable constellation of photography, sculpture, painting, and more greeted me with the wit and tenderness characteristic of artist Shelley Niro (Kanien’kehaka). Especially etched into my memory are her photographs of herself and loved ones mounted on matte boards adorned with drill holes resembling star clusters.”
What did you do after graduating from Princeton?
This is from the Princeton Alumni Weekly, 34 years after the accident: “[When] it came time to graduate, [Miller] decided to pursue a career in medicine, earning a medical degree from the University of California, San Francisco. ‘UCSF took a chance on me, seeing that my time as a patient had value,’ says Miller.”
Doña Quixote’s cousin comes back from extinction
In 1983, a rocky object that orbits the sun was identified as an asteroid by Swiss astronomer Paul Wild. It was named after the eponymous hero of Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote (1605). It has a highly inclined comet-like orbit of 31 degrees that leads to frequent perturbations by Jupiter. It was therefore Don Quixote suspected to be an extinct comet. During its return in 2009, however, infrared observations with the Spitzer Space Telescope revealed a faint coma and tail around the object. At its March 2018 return, a tail was observed at visible wavelengths for the first time. The observed cometary features during two apparitions suggests that cometary activity is recurrent and Don Quixote is most likely a weakly active comet.
The left image shows Don Quixote’s coma and tail as revealed in infrared light by Spitzer. The coma appears as a faint glow around the center of the body, caused by dust and gas. The tail, which appears more clearly in the right image, points towards the right-hand side of Don Quixote, into the direction opposite of the sun. The right image represents a more elaborate image processing step, in which the glow of the coma has been removed based on a model comet coma. Bright speckles around Don Quixote are background stars; the horizontal bar covers image artifacts caused by the image processing.
At last, BJ Miller—who under observation—manifests no artifacts