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“Livery Stable Blues” and cytokines

November 9, 2011

This very first jazz record was recorded the the Original Dixieland Jass Band in 1917, back when there were still livery stables in cities, and you can hear the neighs of the horses and the mules (and smell them) from your walk-up flat.

This played while “our boys” were signing up to go kick the Kaiser’s ass, 4.3 million of them. Death tolls are put between 116,000 and 126,000. 51% from them of disease such as dysentery and the Spanish Influenza. (The influenza pandemic in the United States started in a military camp in Haskell, Kansas, and then spread across the United States, killing between half- to a quarter-million people.)

This song was recorded the year our house was built. Houses were built with the expectation that they would endure one hundred years – or longer. They had frames of solid, often old-growth wood, and interiors of lathe and triple-coat plaster, a modernization of the wattle-and-daub technique that had been used for 6,000 years. Did you know that the terms “housebreaker” and “breaking and entering” are used because thieves would actually break holes in the walls of medieval wattle-and-daub residences in order to enter them? Imagine coming home from a hot day’s work cutting hay in the manor’s fields in the summer sun, and finding robbers had actually broken down a wall in your home to burgle your few possessions? Luckily, you’d be able to fix it yourself.  It very rarely that your hear of housebreakers actually *breaking* the walls to get into houses.

This song has led me on a far digression from the subject of this post, which is inflammation. Shades of James Burke’s Connections, where medieval underwear led to Luther’s 95 Theses, and the Reformation.I mention Livery Stable Blues because it is the first jazz record. Think about how much music and culture grew out of that first relaese! The whole genre of American popu;ar dance music itself, which was propelled by the 20-year-old (at the time) technology of the Edison phonograph, dominated the soundtrack of the 1920s and beyond. Jazz itself eveolved into Swing, Be-Bop, free-form, rock-and-roll,, and more.

This one record had unintended and unforeseen, even unimaginable consequences, not all of them musical, and most of them wonderful. (I am not a fan or free-form jazz myself.) But I thought of the chains of unforeseen unimaginable consequences after reading Andrew Weil’s essay on depression, inflammation, and cytokines today. It made me wonder if my spinal fusion, and Harrington Rod implantation, back in 1972 was my “Livery Stable Blues.”. It was a surgery that was necessary at the time to treat a fast-growing curvature of my spine that had gotten so extreme that it was threatening my heart and lungs.Did that surgery, and thee implantation of a foreign object (the Harrington rod) set up a response of reactive autoimmune cytokines – that in turn  lead to a depressive reaction, my treatments with talk therapy and anti-depressant drugs, to more inflammation, autoimmune reactions to Mixed Connective Tissue Disorder, to high blood pressure, to circulatory problems, periodontal disease, my stroke, spasticity, Central Pain Syndrome, and to ten prescriptions, some of them taken four times a day? Right now, how could I tell? It makes for an interesting case history, to say the least.

Weil advises an anti-inflammatory diet (food as medicine again), a moderate exercise program (something I always intend to start tomorrow, when I don’t hurt so much) and anti-stress relaxation techniques (yes, meditation again). Of course, his actual plan is all laid out in another book he is selling. Authors do have to make a living, which I do not begrudge. It’s just that it means finding yet more space on my growing  brain-hacking bookshelf. I will just get rid of Listening to Prozac. It was a landmark book when published in 1993, launching into the public imagination the whole idea of personality as a creation of neurotransmitters. But its breathless admiration of the miracle of drugs that remake you into a more pleasant, successful person – poof! – is very dates now, and almost frightening. How could we have ever thought it was that easy to be cured?

Well, that was the 20th Century history of understanding the psyche. Thirty years ago, when I first was sidelined by unmanageable depression, the main symptom that forced me into the doctor’s office was my inability to write. Writing had always been as easy as breathing for me before, and in 1979, I was in the graduate program at Eagleton Institute and my old reliable scriptorial powers collapsed. I sat  in front of my typewriter ( a beautiful Olivetti portable) completely unable to put a sentence onto paper. My internal editor would kick in, cruelly mocking whatever I proposed committing to paper. all I could think about was my family and my failures, as opposed to topics in public policy. The only treatment  that was available at that time was talk therapy My psychotherapist had me talk for 50 minutes about my family, my upbringing, my fears – and wanted me to come to see him five days a week. Only that way, he told me, could we make progress. Our conflict over what he called my “resistaance” was a source of constant contention for the next three years, until I quit by simply not showing up anymore. (That turns out to be allmost my standard way of leaving something, it appears.) I ytalked, and talked, and reviewieng it continually just made it much worse, until I became so depressed I was practically cataonic.

Reviewing all that we have learned about the process of learning and memory, of the creation of brain pathways through visualization and imagination, it makes perfect sense that dwelling on the worst parts of your life will only create the effect of eliciting even *worse* depressive reactions. But at the time, talk therapy was the prominent, accepted treatment for depression. I believe in it, because I had nothing else to turn to, because doctors swore it worked, because specialists prescribed it to me. How did Freud’s “talking cure” ever become as powerful as it did during the mid-20th Century? His theory was that talking would reveal hidden and repressed sexual urges toward the parent, and that a cure came when that desire was transferred to the therapist – also the authority figure – and then safely dealt with.. (What a narcissist Freud was!) My therapist at the time was a Freudian himself, a shirt, tubby man, with a bowl haircut and a pop-eyed stare, who kept insisting to me that I was resisting getting better because I wouldn’t admit how attracted to him I was – something I would never do, because I found him repellant. So I recalled scary stories of family violence, of illness and abandonment, and reliving the pain of all these events impelled me to believe that pain was all I had lived through, and pain was all I could expect.

Nowadays, science supports the idea of telling oneself a happy story of one’s own life – a narrative of triumph and survival, even if the events themselves were sometimes horrible and painful. The happy versions of the primary events produce positive neurotransmitters, which in their turn will alter the brain. Since the brain is neuroplastically altered by the things that we actually think about, this system would actually effect a “cure” to depression, in that the brain itself would no longer be overwhelmed by the neurotransmitters of depression. The neurotransmitters of depression, after all, are the hormones that create and further physical illness. (Can it be that the Republican powers-that-be are hoping to kill most Americans by making sure they stay angry, scared, and hopeless?)

This would be the theory behind the study of gratitude and its positive effect on health. Gratitude produces the neurotransmitter hormones which lower blood pressure, fight infections and inflammation, and effect actually healing. Does gratitude fight the autoimmune effects of cytokines? That’s another line of research for someone, certainly.

Anyway, I will be adopting the three recommendations of Ocean Robbins

“1) Keep a daily journal of three things you are thankful for. This works well first thing in the morning, or just before you go to bed.

“2) Make it a practice to tell a spouse, partner or friend something you appreciate about them every day.

“3) Look in the mirror when you are brushing your teeth, and think about something you have done well recently or something you like about yourself.”

There is far more to be grateful for than there is to be fretful about.

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