Jun 27 • 9M

Another note to readers

Travails continue.

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Volts is a podcast about leaving fossil fuels behind. I've been reporting on and explaining clean-energy topics for almost 20 years, and I love talking to politicians, analysts, innovators, and activists about the latest progress in the world's most important fight. (Volts is entirely subscriber-supported. Sign up!)
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Readers, I am keenly aware that you subscribed to this newsletter to get articles and podcasts about clean energy, not to hear about my life and travails. And I’ve already sent you one life-and-travails message this year. So I debated with myself a long time about whether to send this one, especially given all the other horrible stuff happening in the world.

But, in the end, there is an unavoidable intimacy to this format and that is one of the things I like about it. I don’t have any bosses or advertisers or funders to report to — there’s just me, trying to create good content, and (some of) you, paying for it. Given that life events are currently affecting my ability to work, I feel I owe you some explanation.

Attentive readers may recall that I’m supposed to be in Italy right now, vacationing with my family to celebrate my oldest son’s high school graduation and impending departure to college.

As fate would have it, that vacation has been canceled. Why? Well, part of it is that, as followers of my tweets may already know, my entire family has Covid at the moment. But the other part, which I haven’t yet shared, is that I also have cancer.

Specifically, I have a relatively rare cancer called urothelial carcinoma — a 4.5-cm mass in my right kidney cavity. It was identified via a CT scan about a month ago. A few weeks ago, I had a procedure: a right ureteroscopy with biopsy and ureteral stent insertion. They also fired some lasers at the mass, which I found oddly gratifying.

The good news is that, somewhat to everyone’s surprise, the biopsy indicates that the cancer is low-grade. The bad news is that the mass is so big that it’s got to come out regardless; my surgical options are no different than if it were high-grade.

Because it has gotten so big, trying to laser it to pieces could take two, three, or even more full surgeries, followed by a lifetime of vigilance, since this type of cancer tends to recur in surrounding tissue via the “field effect.” Recurrence in my kidney or ureter would be bad; recurrence in my bladder (which I only have one of) would be worse.

The other option is just to have my right kidney taken out entirely, which is what I’m scheduled to do next month — what the official documentation refers to as a “nephroureterectomy, robot-assisted,” which I also find oddly gratifying. I like having robots and lasers on my side.

My medical team.

Having a kidney out is not a small thing — it’s a serious surgery — but there are very good chances of full recovery. People lose or donate kidneys all the time and go on to live long, healthy lives. My colleague at Vox, Dylan Matthews, donated one of his kidneys out of pure altruism and wrote a detailed account, which has been a great comfort to me.

To be clear: I’m in no pain. The cancer itself is causing me no symptoms outside of hematuria (bloody urine), which admittedly is no fun, but it was the only way this thing got caught. A tumor in your kidney lining (as opposed to the cavity, where mine is) can grow for a long time and cause no symptoms at all. It’s a good thing my tumor made a ruckus.

Suffice it to say, in the vast hellscape of possible cancers, I could have done a lot worse. I am, in the grand scheme of things, quite lucky.

That said, losing the vacation is a real bummer. For one thing, it was all set up: the plane tickets were bought; the lodgings were booked; the train tickets were reserved; the cars were rented; the tours and outings were all lined up. It was going to be magic. But what really hurts my heart is not getting to send my son off with some indelible memories of his final summer with us. I wanted that time with him so badly.

As a sad, sweet gesture, Mrs. Volts made us reservations at an Italian restaurant in Seattle for last Monday night — the night we were supposed to leave for Italy — but then, over the weekend, the older boy tested positive for Covid. He isolated immediately, but the next day I tested positive and the day after that, Mrs. Volts and the younger boy.

To summarize: rather than nibbling gelato and sipping espresso at a street-side cafe in Florence, we are at the end of a week spent slumping around our house, coughing and snorting and unable to do much but watch TV. (The Old Man is really good.)

One additional downer: remember a while back I told you about my aching wrists and elbows? Yeah, that’s worse than ever. I can type for short bursts, but holding my hands steady in any position for more than about 30 seconds brings sharp pain. This means I can’t really sustain concentrated work on longer writing. I can basically … tweet. And given that tweeting is already what I do when I’m anxious, I’ve been tweeting a lot lately. It’s not great.

I tried some voice control and transcription programs, but I found them weirdly enervating. It is exhausting to talk all the time! But I’m going to have another go at them, since this doesn’t seem to be going away and I still can’t think of a practical way to take six months away from a keyboard to let them rest.

Anyway. I have lived, on balance, an extraordinarily fortunate and privileged life, and I’m still living one, but I tell you — when it rains, it pours.

I will get my kidney out; Covid will pass; I will figure out how to deal with the tendonitis. Some day soon this will all be behind me and I will get back to full productivity, including writing the long explanatory articles that I desperately miss writing. I want to bring in more guest pieces, do more deep dives, and set up some regular features and themes.

But in the meantime, while I am navigating this crapstorm, there might be some slow weeks and months around here. I’m going to try to keep up the podcasting, but it may be a bit more sporadic.

As I said last time, if anyone feels like they’re not getting what they signed up for and wants to unsubscribe, I understand and do not begrudge. Subscriber growth slowed considerably when I shifted from writing to podcasting, as I suspected it might, but it hasn’t yet ever gone down. Y’all have stuck with me and I can not tell you how grateful and humbled I am to have you all here.

In the meantime, my prognosis is good. My health-care providers are good. My insurance is good. My wife is a superhero. I don’t need or want for anything. I just thought I should let y’all know where I’m at. Volts is one of the things that keeps me going, so thank you for reading and listening and just being out there.

In brighter news, Mabel’s mom bought her a sweater. (Photo: Jennifer Roberts)
In brighter news, Mabel’s mom bought her a sweater. (Photo: Jennifer Roberts)