If You Like Beer…

“I like beer,” Judge Brett Kavanaugh announced defiantly to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  “I liked beer in high school.  I still like beer.”

I wonder how Kavanaugh reacted to the news earlier this week that global warming is adversely affecting barley, a drought- and temperature-sensitive crop.  As the world heats up, harvests of barley worldwide will steadily diminish, and one of its most popular products, beer, is projected to skyrocket in price as its availability plummets.

Sharon Lerner wrote in the NY Times this morning that now-lifetime-Supreme-Court-Justice Kavanaugh, when he was an appeals court judge, had a history of striking down environmental regulations– for example, the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2015 rule restricting the emission of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) from air conditioners and refrigerators.  HFCs are the fastest-growing type of heat-trapping greenhouse gas on the planet, trapping 1,300 times more heat than CO2 does.

This reminds me of a seemingly innocuous question that my 7th-grade science teacher asked his class in 1967, in the early days of ecologic awareness:  “On a hot day, why not cool off your house by leaving the refrigerator door open?”  We stared at him dumbly.  “Yes, it feels cooler right in front of the fridge, but the cooling process generates more heat than it removes, and that heat comes out the back of the fridge!” was the answer.  We rushed home to our kitchens to check it out, and you know, he was right!  In 7th grade, I learned that leaving the fridge door open would heat up, not cool off, the entire house.

That’s entirely different from the question of HFC emissions, but since 1967, I have pictured all the air conditioners in all of the houses, apartment buildings, shopping malls and corporate skyscrapers, pumping heat out of buildings and into the air outside, as a sort of massive global refrigerator with its door kept wide open.  So the answer to global warming is not to turn up the AC during a heat wave– a classic example of short vs. long term thinking.  The answer is to stop trapping heat with greenhouse gases.

According to Lerner, alternatives exist, but replacing HFCs with ammonia, propane or iso-butane has been blocked, not by science, but by politics.  And politics threaten to encroach ever more on the rulings of the right-leaning Supreme Court.  More government regulations, environmental or otherwise, are likely to fail.  Imagine the irony, when Brett Kavanaugh one day reaches into the mini-fridge in his chambers for a cold beer– only to discover that there is no more beer!

Personally, my adult beverage of choice is wine.  But my concerns, at least in that particular area, parallel those of beer-lovers:  global warming is already affecting grape harvests.  Not long ago, I stood on a terrace in the Rheingau, in northern Germany, looking out at a hillside vineyard with the owner.  His family had been in the wine business for centuries, producing fine riesling at the northernmost latitude still hospitable to grapes of the original European type, vitis vinifera.  Because of steady temperature rises over the past two decades, he told me, riesling will now grow much farther to the north.  “German winegrowers will have to move to the North Pole,” he half-joked.  The land we were looking at will one day be more suitable for grapes grown in southern France!

Here’s an excerpt from Fourth World, the first novel in my science fiction trilogy.  The third book, Child of the Fourth World, is now complete, and I will post on this blog when it becomes available on Amazon.  In this excerpt, I have taken out a paragraph, so as not to spoil the plot for new readers.


Professor Neelin added a generous pinch of salt to the lovely stew of root vegetables simmering on his stove.  The dignified sweetness of parsnips, carrots, and onions: three-part harmony, in parallel with the strains of a Bach Cantata drifting in from his living room.  Add textural overtones: the pillowy comfort of soft-cooked potatoes contrasting with the mild firmness of beets. Ah, nuances! Earthy, seductive perfumes of cumin, coriander and cardamom.  The challenge of cayenne and paprika. A distraction of lemon zest. Magnificent.

You really should watch the salt, he reminded himself- but the cautionary thought passed as quickly as a false alarm ringing in a distant corridor.  Hypertension, vascular disregulation, auto-inflammation, endocrine imbalance: what did those matter, in this context? The stew was a masterpiece, destined for an important dinner with the Senior Fellows of Mellon College- blood pressure was several levels of concern beneath that.  Now, what about the wine? Neelin glanced at the snow flurries outside his kitchen window, the heavily bundled students hurrying along High Street, a Campus Police car pulling over to the icy sidewalk. A red, certainly: full-bodied, warming, with peppery spice to highlight the stew, low in intellectual gravity, perhaps, but high in immediate gratification.  He smiled at the thought. Grenache would be perfect. Yes, a Garnacha from the Spanish District- algo muy especial, verdad? There were only a few old bottles of Garnacha remaining in his cellar three stories down, but why not- they probably should be drunk up, now that their youthful tannins had melted away.


He gave the stew a final stir, carefully turned off the stove, took a wicker wine basket from his pantry, and donned a comfortable pair of leather slippers kept by the front door.  Life as Most Senior Fellow was good, undeniably, and yet he held an image in his mind of a peaceful retirement in the wine country of far Northern California- if only it weren’t in the Quarantine Zone.  The classic vineyard a hundred and fifty years ago would have been on a mountaintop overlooking the Napa Valley, but over the past century that had become too hot and dry, thanks to global climate change; the southernmost latitude suitable for the cultivation of cabernet sauvignon- or any variety of vitis vinifera– lay on the upper slopes of Mt. Shasta.  Still, far-northern California was a beautiful area. Neelin hummed with contentment as he opened his front door.

A campus policeman, obviously in poor condition, was laboring heavily up the last few steps to his landing.  Neelin recognized the man as head of security, often seen stalking around the Old Campus- and hadn’t his picture been on a poster denouncing drug abuse in the YaleConn community?  His name was Haley, or Halsey, something like that. He waited patiently for the cop to pass by, but instead, Halsey stopped at his door.

“Dr. Neelin?” he asked in between gulps of air.  “I’m. Torch Halsey. Security. Have to ask you.  To come with me, sir. Routine questioning. Recent events on campus.”

Ah, thought Neelin, his wicker basket dropping to the floor.  Here at last: inevitable, really. He closed his eyes. Perhaps the dream of retiring to Northern California wasn’t that farfetched, after all.


Nobel Intentions

The yearly Nobel prizes are traditionally awarded for great accomplishments in various fields– either singular achievements or those accumulated over a lifetime– but more and more, the winners seem to be chosen with the intention of shining a light on issues of growing worldwide concern, if not alarm.

On the same day that the United Nations warned that new studies indicate climate change and its disastrous effects are coming much faster than previous calculations had shown, and that we are already seeing irreversible damage to the environment, the Nobel Prize in Economics  (one of two) was awarded to William D. Nordhaus, a professor of economics at Yale.  Nordhaus created a model for analyzing the costs of climate change and has promoted a global system of carbon taxes to combat problems caused by greenhouse gases.  Having read the Freakonomics books, I have a strong feeling that the solution to climate change will come from the field of economics.  For those interested (and all of us should be), among books by Nordhaus on the subject are The Climate Casino and A Question of Balance.

After a year of the #MeToo movement and its effects on society and culture worldwide, the degree to which the movement is limited and as yet unformed becomes painfully clear when someone like Brett Kavanaugh is elevated to the US Supreme Court.  Despite “greater awareness”, some things still don’t seem to matter:  the fact that women who have been sexually assaulted or harassed (leaving aside the particular allegations of Dr. Blasey-Ford) feel that men in power don’t sincerely listen, and don’t prioritize their reality over politics; the fact that many abused women will no longer speak out, fearing the destruction of “stepping in front of a train that will get where it’s going anyway”; and critically, the fact that many men will see no need to challenge themselves to become better people.  In the immediate wake of the Kavanaugh debacle, the Nobel Committee saw fit to recognize Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad with the Nobel Peace Prize, for their “efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.”  No doubt the winners were selected some time ago, but the message is a timely one.

This year the Committee has also chosen more women for the Nobel Prize:  Donna Strickland in physics and Frances Arnold in chemistry.  Aside from the outstanding merits of their work, these winners may encourage more girls at school age to head into the STEM disciplines.

I have to admit, as Friday and the announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize drew near, my greatest fear was that Donald Trump might win it (as a number of his supporters have chanted at rallies), along with the leaders of North and South Korea, for the negotiations over de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.  The Peace Prize is often awarded, not for a goal already reached, but in order to encourage a peace process to keep on going.  But consider this year’s winners.  How insulting would it be to them, to award the prize to a man who mocked Dr. Blasey-Ford at a political rally; who bragged about committing sexual assault; who denies science and is withdrawing the US from the Paris Agreement, working to undo measures that increase fuel efficiency, and who favors coal and oil over clean, sustainable energy sources like wind and solar?

The Nobel Prize Committee has shown sensitivity and good sense (and yes, that includes Bob Dylan!).  May the Nobel Prize continue not only to reward human accomplishment, but also to shape our view of the human condition.

On the lighter side, here is an excerpt from Fourth World, the first novel in my science fiction trilogy.  The pharmaceutical researcher Walther Beame has one eye on the Chimera Project, and his other eye on the Nobel Prize:

Dr. Walther Beame, recently-appointed Project Director at Eunigen.  Scion of a distinguished medical family, graduate of a prestigious internship and post-doctoral fellowship at MassMed.  Developer of numerous theraproteomic patents, holder of top industry awards. He was even listed, in a recent issue of Inner Circle Magazine, among New York Metropol’s most-eligible bachelors.  Ha! White-haired and balding on top, in his late fifties, still most eligible!

Yet never had he possessed the same gravitas as on this particular evening.  It was the culmination of years of work, and the potential for a major scientific advance could be compared to… well, there was simply no precedent!  Not the first multi-species gene created; not the first stem cell injected into a lab animal; not even the discovery, over two centuries ago, that DNA could be snipped apart and recombined.  But it wasn’t over yet- Beame glanced back at the two security men following him at a discreet distance, slowed his pace and forced himself to take a deep breath as he rounded the corner to enter the main lobby, where his guests were waiting.

Beame stopped abruptly and stared.  What he saw under the five-story-high ceiling looked distinctly like a religious tableau:  two women sat to the right side, heads bowed slightly in quiet conversation. By the entrance on the left, a third woman had the vigilant stance of a sentry.  And alone in the center of the dome-shaped lobby stood Benn Marr, looking so innocent and vulnerable (appearances certainly can be deceiving, thought Beame). Looming high in the air directly above Benn was a huge glowing holographic projection of Eunigen’s symbol, the caduceus entwined with a double-helix of nucleic acid sequences in lieu of snakes.  The caduceus rotated slowly on its axis, creating the effect of a giant drill pointing downward right at Benn Marr. It was one of those unplanned moments rich with symbolic meaning: He is the One. The message would hardly have been clearer if a golden halo borne by cherubs had suddenly been placed on top of Benn’s head.


A Warm Welcome to a Water-logged World

Kaiser Permanente, a major healthcare organization in which I proudly served as an internist and rheumatologist for three decades, has made me proud all over again.  Its CEO, Bernard Tyson, has just announced that Kaiser Permanente, which has 39 hospitals and 12 million members nationwide, will become carbon-neutral in 2020, thereby removing 600,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year from our atmosphere.  Doing so will mean new energy storage systems and switching its sources of electricity to wind and solar power.  Tyson is among the speakers at the Global Climate Action Summit taking place in San Francisco on Wednesday through Friday of this week (you can view it live at https://globalclimateactionsummit.org).

Speaking at the same summit will be House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who will no doubt draw attention to the ongoing efforts by the Trump Administration to undo measures designed to combat global warming, initiated under President Obama.  For example, President Trump, who withdrew from the Paris Accord and continues to deny climate change despite the overwhelming scientific evidence, is now trying to make it easier for the energy industry to leak heat-trapping methane into the air.

A key organizer of the summit is Governor Jerry Brown, who is setting ever more ambitious climate goals for California, such as reducing overall emissions to zero by 2045.  But why stop there?  By 2046, he wants California to pull more CO2 and other greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere than it puts in!  At a time when Trump wants to revive the obsolete coal industry, Brown wants 100% of electricity in California to come from carbon-free sources by 2045.  (We’ve always been contrary:  see the Jan. 4, 2018 post on this blog, Most Likely to Secede).

My third novel, Child of the Fourth World, is now complete, along with the Fourth World trilogy– but while doing the final editing, I wanted to share with you the first half of the Prologue as a preview:

The winter of 2204 had been cruel, indeed:  that was the jaundiced impression Arno Descombes had formed by early February.  An unusually heavy monsoon had swept down from the South China Sea, casting its warm, soggy blanket over the morass of lowland rice beds.  Fat globules of water splashed in king-sized sheets, usually for days at a time, onto the lugubrious padis and surrounding dense jungle where he was now confined in exile.  And as it had rained in January, so would it continue to rain in March.  Quite the local meteorologic expert after seven endless years in the Malaysian District, he had accepted by this point that there were no true winters to be found here— or springs, summers and autumns, for that matter!

But still, he could not help feeling a keen disappointment.  In many ways, Arno yearned for his childhood in Paris, which had been rudely truncated at the age of eight.  Having run helter-skelter through the Jardin du Luxembourg as a young boy, breathlessly excited amid the blooms of April or the snow flurries of December— a halcyon time followed by nearly two decades in the achingly monotonous, hermetically sealed environment of a metrosphere on Mars— Arno preferred (he was desperate, really) to think of the Northeast and Southwest Monsoons as two distinct seasons.  True, the oppressive heat and humidity never varied from one “season” to the next. Nor, on any given day in the entire year, would Arno be shocked to discover a muddy torrent flowing down the road in front of Building 822, his six-story Kenny Hill apartment complex. “So much for seasons,” the self-styled expert had muttered more than once to himself. And yet there was definitely a northerly wind at the moment…  Ah, winter in Kuala Lumpur, he sighed, hugging himself about the shoulders: this was definitely his favorite of the two monsoons!

But all sarcasm aside, the orange-brown river of mud had been flowing rather copiously that afternoon, Arno noted with increasing concern.  He inhaled its aroma sharply, like a sommelier detecting earthiness in a claret. There it was as usual, that pungent metallic tang of iodine and warm, sea-salty rain mixed with so many tons of liquefied clay, all pouring straight down the hill.  How was that possible, day after day? Wasn’t there a finite supply of soil uphill, and when that ran out, would the gentle slopes surrounding Kuala Lumpur end up flatter than a roti canai?

At least for now, the corrugated-tin canopy hanging over the entrance provided adequate shelter— but barely so.  From time to time, frenzied raindrops managed to find their way to Arno, who began to wonder if he might be slightly overdressed in his clean singlet, white long-sleeved shirt (buttoned at the cuffs) and pressed, full-length khaki trousers.  Soaked from the knees down, he sat perched precariously on a squat red plastic stool on the leeward side of the building. Splayed palm fronds and the broad leaves of a banana tree flapped frantically in the wind, obscuring an ancient, rusted street sign just up the road.  Intermittently he could make out the faded lettering: Jalan Kenny Utara.

He knew that “jalan” referred to the road, and it also meant “walk”; jalan-jalan meant “run.”  Otherwise, these words were gibberish to him, and he found himself unwilling to learn Malay and Nonya expressions, straightforward though they may seem.  He also refused to absorb more than minimal Cantonese, or Hokkien, or that strange Singapore-style English known as Singlish! The lack of motivation to adapt, Arno liked to think, resulted from a stout denial of his current predicament.  It was almost a matter of principle (likewise, he had previously rejected the patois of the younger generation in Highland City, even though he was one of them— at least in a demographic sense). If his first decade as a stranger on Mars had felt like an unfair banishment, his actual banishment to the Southeast Asia Quarantine Zone— his imprisonment, to call it what it was— felt vastly more unfair.

It had been a difficult, and still woefully incomplete, adjustment for him.  Most obviously, on Earth he had lost his professional status, and his living conditions had shrunken in dramatic fashion; belatedly, Arno Descombes had discovered the importance of those two factors to his sense of worth and well-being.  On top of that, global warming, although slowing in recent decades, had created an environment even more alien to Arno than the desiccated surface of Mars— almost its exact opposite, in fact.

“It was not always like this, lah!” Ah Wing, the oldest person in his building at age 109, had recounted nostalgically over dinner the previous evening, assuring Arno that monsoonal rainfall was not nearly as torrential a century ago.  In those days, nighttime temperatures sometimes dipped below 37 degrees Celsius, making a good night’s sleep possible. Malacca, Ah Wing’s childhood home, and Penang, the city where he had taught as a professor at George Town University— both historic seaports on the West Coast— had not yet been rendered uninhabitable by constant flooding.  Also, when the PWE arrested Ah Wing in Shanghai (he had been spying for the Resistance while attending an academic conference) and exiled him to the Quarantine Zone fifty years ago, the jungle was not nearly so overgrown, so densely populated with deadly reptiles, amphibians, spiders and insects.

As if on cue, in the corner of his eye, Arno caught sight of a pair of shiny black antennae slowly emerging from a gap in the wall nearby.  Not an unusual sight at all, so close to the jungle— except that these antennae, waving inquisitively from side to side as if sniffing for prey, continued to emerge for quite some time.  Their visible length was proportional to the height of Arno’s anxiety; what’s coming out of that gap, he wondered: a lobster?  Could the local cockroaches (known to survive extreme radiation) have mutated to such a monstrous size after the North Korean nuclear strike in the twenty-first century?  That had been one of the key triggers for the Great War of Unification, he recalled, but there were many unintended consequences: among them, launching those missiles may also have launched a whole new branch of the animal kingdom.

“But no, lah— it wasn’t radiation-induced mutation.  Already big before the war,” his elderly cohabitant had once reassured him with the singularly discomfiting observation that cockroaches in Kuala Lumpur (KL, he called it) had always been gigantic.

On a Friend’s Retirement


A dear friend, with whom I worked closely for three decades, is celebrating his retirement at a lakeside party this weekend.  His practice of medicine was what I would consider ideal; my friend so embodied the mythical Good Doctor that I wanted to raise a glass of Champagne (that most festive of beverages) and share my admiration on this blog.  For privacy’s sake, names have been omitted or subtly altered (for example, I call my friend Chappy, because I actually once met someone with that memorable name).

I remember:  It was a Monday morning, July 6th, 1987.  Just out of Rheumatology fellowship, I entered my new office at Station One and met Chappy for the first time.  It was clear right then—and has become even clearer as I look back from beyond the Great Divide– that I was a very lucky man.

We either shared an office or worked next door for many years.   Almost never, at work or anywhere else, can you hope to meet someone so open, sincere and forthright as Chappy, so utterly devoid of pretension.  In a work environment that was always competitive (for better or worse), he never jockeyed for position, despite his obvious talent; he was so ambitiously dedicated to his patients and loved by them, so respected by the doctors and staff– and yet never felt tempted to turn this to his own advantage.  For young doctors coming up in our profession, whose eyes are often more focused on the administrative ladder than on patient care, Chappy’s total indifference to self-promotion is a great role model for the practice of medicine:  patients always come first.  As Station Leader, he was like the coxswain on a crew team:  gently keeping the beat and ensuring that the rowers pulled at the oars all together.   His constancy was truly impressive.  He didn’t zig and zag as personal opportunities arose, but steered a true and steady course every single day, for the three decades that we worked together.

(By the way, I will remind everyone at the celebration that, at the conclusion of any successful crew race, it’s traditional for the team to throw their coxswain into the lake!)

Going back to that first day in 1987, Chappy suggested we go out to lunch, so we grabbed a couple sandwiches and walked down to St. Leo’s School, where we sat on the grass and talked.  On my final day of work, in 2015, we again brought sandwiches to St. Leo’s.  Although the topics and the sandwiches were different, the heart of our conversation was the same—honest, optimistic, pragmatic and philosophical.   These conversations were like two bookends to my career.  In between the bookends, Chappy’s openness to sharing and his positive nature informed  the many discussions we had.  And when we talk now, it’s just remarkable:  except for a few gray hairs, he is essentially the same today as when I first met him.

My great fortune in working with Chappy, who was born in Okinawa, has inspired a few modest poems, which I have written in the Japanese 5-7-5 syllable Haiku style:

Six Haiku For Chappy


An anxious Monday

Hi, I’m Charles—call me Chappy

Not bad after all


Anderson sits down

Lester comes in just to chat

It’s the coffee pot


Beef and broccoli

Scrambled eggs and shrimp on rice

Just don’t talk ‘bout work


Staying true to self

Uncontaminated by

The lure of power


Build trust, not status

Lead quietly among peers

Family comes first


You could read my mind

I could read your handwriting

We’ll miss you, old friend

The Faceless Base

In the wake of the astonishing Helsinki summit between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, a meeting at which Vlad impaled Donald in front of the entire world, the range of responses here in the United States has been only slightly less mind-boggling.  To a few, this was outright treason, or at least a debasement of America by our president, calling for immediate impeachment; to many Republicans in Congress, it was merely a “missed opportunity,” or an embarrassing mistake; to others, it was proof that Putin holds some compromising secret over Trump, whether of a financial or personal nature (also look closely for Putin’s bite marks on his throat).  And to many of those lumped together by political analysts and the media as Trump’s Base, the summit was actually a success.  They consider it only the visible tip of a giant, submerged iceberg of grand strategy and geopolitical philosophy.  The Base agrees that Russia is guilty of something, but Trump, like a canny chess player, must be striking a mega-deal somewhere.  He must have a hidden plan, a trump card, up his sleeve.  Not only will the Base never abandon our Chaos President, it seems they will cling ever harder to his agenda.  Aren’t these mad loyalists suffering from cognitive dissonance, we ask?  Aren’t they what Hillary Clinton mistakenly dismissed as the “deplorables?”  In my opinion, for Democrats to continue viewing Trump’s Base in this light would create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Trump’s agenda may be racist, misogynist, unethical, hypocritical, dangerous to worldwide stability, pro-dictator, anti-immigrant, pro-wealthy, anti-alliance, pro-global warming, anti-science and environment, and so on.  But individuals within the Base are unlikely to hold these values and beliefs, all at the same time.  A racist may not be a misogynist, and a coal producer may believe in free trade.  However, if continually encouraged to see itself as a homogeneous, faceless mass, the Base will stretch in that direction; individuals will adopt attitudes initially foreign to them.  The tolerant will become more racist, the devout will shrug at sin, the scientist will deny evidence.  It’s almost as though such behavior is expected of them, and so they comply.

Those who took Psych 101 in college will probably remember the Prisoner/Guard experiment:  subjects were randomly divided into two groups, to play the roles of prisoners or prison guards.  When their names and individuality were removed– when they were assigned numbers instead, and made to wear uniforms– and then placed on either side of prison barriers, the “guards” became increasingly harsh, sadistic and tolerant of brutality over time, whereas the “prisoners” became submissive and frightened, willing to turn on one another.  In anonymity, individuals lost their bearing, giving up their innate compassion, empathy, ethics, principles and willingness to stand up for what they had previously believed.

By thinking of Trump’s Base as some sort of anonymous mob, are we assigning them numbers and uniforms?  Many of them are probably spouting opinions about tax reform, immigrants, gays, minorities and victims of sexual harassment that they don’t truly believe (or so I would hope).  Cases in point:  those embracing economic policies which ultimately hurt them financially, or want to destroy the Affordable Care Act, when the ACA provides their only access to healthcare.  Women for Trump.  Mexican- and African-Americans for Trump!  The poor in rural areas, cheering tax cuts which benefit the top 1%, while waving baseball caps saying Make America Great Again!

In a dystopian fantasy, the faceless Base– repeatedly labeled as such, their resentment cynically fueled by a President who values his own “winning” over the good of the nation, and pushed into a corner by an equally intolerant political left– takes up arms:  the perfect setting for Trump to declare martial law and unfurl his true agenda.

In my dystopian novel Child of the Fourth World, nearing completion (and with it, the Fourth World trilogy), the rebel leader Sun Wu Kong contemplates the effect he has had on his followers in the China District.  Here’s an excerpt:

His staff had designed the shiny outfit to reinforce his role as an avatar of the Monkey King of legend.  Of course, Sun knew perfectly well that the entire concept was nothing more than mystical hogwash, but the rank-and-file had embraced and— judging by their incredible surge of energy— been swept into a frenzy by it.  Based on his previous work in the Ministry of Cultural Genetics, Sun suspected that the Han Chinese genome— in particular, the so-called Faith Gene, which 97% of his followers possessed— was in play, predisposing them to believe in the power of religious figures.  The Monkey King had revived the troops’ flagging courage, and they had fought like crazed zealots in his name, resulting in a series of near-impossible victories against the PWE.  His strategists and field commanders were baffled by their own success: the troops battled as fiercely as wild animals finding themselves trapped in a corner, one officer had suggested.  Sheer desperation leading to mass hysteria? That seemed a plausible motivator, others agreed— but perhaps augmented by wishful fantasy.

As a former PWE bureaucrat, Sun understood that post-war modernization of the China District and the alignment of literature and the arts with political thought under the PWE had not altered certain indelible traits lying at the heart of the 22nd-century Chinese mindset.  One such trait was the perception that China had always, in one form or another, been under attack by foreign forces:  not just the ancient Middle Kingdom or any subsequent form of government, but the people themselves were the target— and these ordinary people were China, even though the country itself no longer existed.  The attack on the traditional concept of China, the oppression of its people, came in various forms:  military might, economic exploitation, moral and cultural corruption. Against that assault, according to the popular fantasy, there would always come a hero, an underdog who would rise up from defeat and lead the masses to glorious victory.

Why not a divine Monkey King?


Gimme A Vowel II

This morning, for the second time, I woke up thinking of sentences missing the first vowel, which rhymes with Eh.  The first time I did this (see my 5/19/17 post on this blog), you remember, President Trump left on his worldwide religious tour, meeting with the Pope in Rome, etc.  This time he returns surrounded by rumors of the Nobel Prize.

It must be Trump’s trips (or trip-ups) which inspire me to deconstruct my writing, in the futile hope of selectively removing noxious elements.  From his journeys, he brings us more worries over money, old friends, old enemies, his/her/their sincerity vs hostility, thus worsening doubts re our security, or even our very lives.  He proudly crows and struts while synthesizing his own version of the truth, selling it like True News.

So there’s no more risk of some olive-green missile hitting New York City or DC, exploding with the power of hundreds of hydrogen bombs?  Did he truly utter, “Sleep well tonight?”  To die, to sleep no more… there’s the rub, eh, shuffling off this life-ending coil of ours?  Trump thinks he won over this new friend, this little rocket person:  to our not-so-innocent president, the vicious and cruel Kim Jong-Un is “funny,” loves his country (though not ours), supports the downtrodden, is beloved by his underfed people (he does resemble someone’s juicy dumpling).  But don’t forget, mister President, you might choose to lie, but your new friend Kim is sly.  Me, I prefer Seoul to the soulless.

Rude insults tweeted to our wonderful neighbors to the north?  Stubbornly refusing to sign the G7 document?  Simmering resentment from the otherwise serene Ms. Merkel, or her British friend Therese (nom de mon plume)?  In commerce, we lower punitive levies on steel/’luminum imports (supposedly to better the region’s security?), followed by the other sides’ vengeful counter-levies, before we pile on even more ruinous obstructions to sensible, profit-yielding business.  Of course the ensuing bitterness, the multi-directed finger pointing, is toxic to old friendships.

On our own shores:  school gun violence without some response from Congress?  The IG’s report on the FBI/ H. Clinton, now spun into obvious lies by the GOP, just to enfeeble Robert Mueller?  The grinning Betsy DeVos, just for being who she is?  Steve Pruitt’s endless petty grifting?  Bill Clinton’s defensive #MeToo moment?  Denying medicines to the uninsured with pre-existing conditions?  Young children torn, sobbing, from their mothers just within our pristine borders?  Jeff Sessions tells us the Bible instructs on this issue:  the very book supposedly forbidding dessert for two grooms-to-be!  Come on, hurry up, mid-term elections (don’t forget to vote)!

Pretty close to the words of the funniest of four Brothers, Groucho:

Gentlemen, your policy is quite impossible to me; whichever it is, I oppose it!  I’ve been yelling since you first proposed it; I oppose it!

The DOnald, schOOls,  rOcket men, bOmbs, COngress, #MeTOO, cOnflicts with friends, Oh-Oh!

Next time I might just expunge every word which shelters the evil letter O.

A Pirate in the Kitchen

The news of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide in France came as a shock this morning.  And yet, somehow, it wasn’t beyond belief– he lived so intensely, so close to the edge, that it seemed almost a matter of time before some event in his life, even a minor one, would tip the scales.  Honestly, I’m glad not to be like that, but his intensity and edginess did serve as an inspiration to me in what I chose to write.

In the late 1990s, I was a mid-career physician with my eye on writing science fiction in retirement.  The books I was reading then were by authors such as Georges Perec, John Irving, William Gass, Jim Harrison and Jonathan Safran Foer.  One day, because of my love of cooking, I picked up Kitchen Confidential out of curiosity, and was immediately struck by Bourdain’s lurid stories of drug abuse, dropping out of college, alcohol addiction, brutal relationships, and the corrupt realities of the restaurant business (all the more vivid now, in the broad wake of Mario Batali, Ken Friedman, Charlie Hallowell and the #MeToo movement).  I learned about the mob’s ties to NYC fish delivery; cringed at the image of a huge pirate-like sous-chef who calmly lifted searing-hot pans out of the broiler with his bare hands; and I learned the horrible truth about what goes into those Sunday brunch buffets.  Kitchen Confidential, much more than the cookbook I was hoping for, changed everything– for me in my world view, patronage of Sunday brunches, and ultimately my fiction writing; and for Bourdain, when its success launched him into the public eye.  CNN signed him to the popular television series Parts Unknown, now cut short in its 12th season.

When interviewed by the Associated Press about Parts Unknown, he said:  “If you think about who the audience is and what their expectations might be, I think that’s the road to badness and mediocrity.  You go out there and show the best story you can as best you can.  If it’s interesting to you, hopefully it’s interesting to others.  If you don’t make television like that, it’s pandering.”

That is exactly the argument that ran through my mind almost a decade later, when writing Fourth World, the first novel in my science fiction trilogy.  Reading it over, I noted the density of medical technology (for example, genetic engineering with multi-species recombinant DNA) and discussions of related ethical questions (debated in 2018, but settled by law in 2196).  In that book, I even invented a space engine– necessitating a new, fictitious subatomic particle– in order to allow Benn and Lora to fly from Mars to Earth in only four weeks!  Was I going too far, risking the alienation of my readers?  To me, that would be better than waving a hand and simply issuing the order, “Warp nine– engage!”  Wasn’t it preferable to stay true to my own vision of the novels– to be a pirate in my own kitchen?

But who was the audience?  Who were my readers, and what might their expectations be?  If I edited the novel to suit some hypothetical, “average” reader, Anthony Bourdain would call it pandering and a road to mediocrity.  And indeed it would be.  With the conviction that this was my one, best shot at writing, I decided that if the content was interesting to me, then hopefully it would be interesting to others as well.

A few weeks ago, I spoke to two sixth-grade classes about the Fourth World series and writing (see my blog post Kids These Days!).  I advised the potential writers among them to read as much as they could, in order to absorb some of the vocabulary and craft of writing.  Also, they should write about what they know– in my case, medicine, science, colonialism, geopolitics, food and wine.  What I omitted was the importance of being true to themselves, to write what came from within, and not for the sake of external acceptance and positive reviews.

(I know, I know:  marketing!  For all those professional writers in the blogosphere who are now groaning at my remarks, I apologize and readily acknowledge that it’s easier to ignore ratings when you’ve already had a career in medicine).

Should I, or shouldn’t I, have taken an axe to potentially challenging material?  You be the judge.  Here’s the passage from Fourth World with which I wrestled long and hard, before deciding to leave it in, completely intact:

After hanging around the engine room aimlessly for a couple of days, Benn finally asked a sympathetic engineer for a tour.

“All right, Benn, I’ll give you a simplified version.  To start with, let’s consider these subatomic particles as such, although we analyze them as waves.  Flowsorb takes a variety of hyped-up particles, by-products harvested from the fusion reactor (efficient, right?) and fires these particles from the central initiator, where they first enter the cyclic counter-current mechanism. Meanwhile, at the terminal emitter, each compatible, or what we call candidate, particle degrades to a capacitron:  you remember that’s a cousin of the anti-proton, capable of absorbing energy like a sponge, storing that energy until a specific threshold is exceeded, then discharging it. Following me so far?”

Benn nodded uncertainly.

“See, the Flowsorb mechanism exploits the power of the Almighty Exponential,” said the engineer, bowing his head only half in jest.  “Changes in particle direction are forced by plasma nano-platforms, which are folded by powerful magnetic fields. These folds are embedded in thousands of larger platforms which fold into larger convolutions, and they, in turn, fold upon themselves– and so it goes, over and over.

“The repeated folding forces streams of energized particles to pass streams of capacitrons traveling in the opposite direction, millions of times over, each time transferring a portion of energy back toward the center.  Finally, a new cycle begins– but with their energy multiplied in each cycle, these exponentially-accelerated particles asymptotically approach the speed of light. You see?”

The engineer, now multiplying his own energy level, waved his hands in the air.  “Particle velocities literally explode by orders of magnitude! Then we eject these particles into space, and the rest relies on Newton’s Third Law:  you know, action and equal-slash-opposite reaction. Major thrust is what I’m talking about!  And that enables us to reach Earth in only four weeks, a journey that used to take more than seven months!”