A Body of Evidence

My son Christopher, a first-year medical student, has just begun his Anatomy course, marking with a pen the body landmarks and dissection lines on the skin of the female cadaver assigned to his dissection group.  Lines in place, the scalpel comes next.  He said it was his first experience in medical school that imparted such a visceral sensation, with no pun at all intended.  Unlike him, I remember needing to lean lightly on humor on my first day in the very same Anatomy class, when the four of us students first met our cadaver in the fall of 1976, that of a skinny man in his nineties:  it was surely a solemn, awe-inspiring moment, but also made us (I had just turned 21) a bit nervous and anxious– and in such circumstances, we often resort to humor to ease our discomfort.  With all respect, we voted to name our cadaver Slim.

In the year 2196, organs are grown in situ by injecting specialized stem cells intravenously, but there have been notable mishaps.  Here’s an excerpt form my first novel, Fourth World, in which Dr. Nestor Neelin demonstrates on a cadaver, whose name is Bob.  The course he teaches is Recombinant Anatomy:

Neelin dived in quickly:  “Now if you’ll observe:  here in Bob’s brain, there sit not one, not two, but look– three temporal lobes!  Bob, you see, suffered a devastating stroke in his sixties, and in those early days of therapeutic stem cell infusions, an effort was made to replace the lost brain tissue.  This effort marked a step forward in stem cell technology, prior to which most tissue types, such as brain, liver, eyes and so on, required engineering in vitro, then transplantation of the developed tissue to the patient.  The new targeted stem cells, in contrast, could be infused intravenously, and would find their way to their appropriate location, guided by seeker molecules implanted in their membranes.  There they would differentiate to the desired organ, thus obviating the need for a transplant procedure.  In Bob’s case, the infused stem cells did develop into a temporal lobe as planned, but unfortunately, growth stimulators infused at the same time caused the partially necrotic lobe to regenerate within his already-crowded skull– leaving him, quite literally, with not enough room to change his mind!”

Many in the audience, confused by this last phrase- was it meant to be funny?– consulted their data-discs only to find their screens blank.  Only one laugh could be heard, a loud “HA!” coming from the opposite side of the hall, some twenty rows below Lora.  “Ha-HAH!” the same voice persisted.  And that was how Lora finally located Benn.


Neelin held his right hand up.  “I have one more example of quackery to show you.  Bob, you see, was a victim not only of technical incompetence, but of outright fraud.  Late in his life, he fell out of a Banyan tree while bird-watching in the district then known as Australia.  He sustained a pelvic fracture and had to enlist the help of a migrant clinic in the back country, in order to regenerate the broken bone.  They infused him with an unidentified stem cell, his diary shows, but the end result was only discovered at Bob’s post-mortem.”  Neelin appeared to be rummaging around in Bob’s intestines.  He finally pushed them toward the back with outstretched fingers, exposing two thin bony structures pointing upward from the pelvis.  Puzzled interns frantically interrogated their data-discs, again without success.

“Their treatment provided Bob, bless his original heart, with these two extraneous bones, which you see protruding here.  These bones did nothing to help Bob with his pelvic fracture, but he would have found them useful– very useful indeed– had he… been… born… a…”  Neelin paused expectantly.

“A kangaroo!” shouted Benn triumphantly.

Neelin released Bob’s intestines with a loud flop and whirled around to face Benn.  “A kangaroo or any marsupial– excellent!  Young man, you are the first intern in over two decades to recognize these as epipubic bones:  their function is to support a marsupial’s pouch.  Excellent!  Your name, please?”



Hope Marches On II

It took me a few days of wrestling with my own ambiguity, to digest the meaning of the Women’s March this past weekend.  Because of the crush at the San Francisco Civic Center last year, I decided to join the march in Oakland’s Lake Merritt Amphitheater.  With the change in setting, it’s hard to make an accurate comparison, but the women’s movement has clearly evolved, probably as a result of all the trauma following Trump’s inauguration.

Last year the focus was on women’s rights and equality, with other intersecting issues on the periphery:  immigration, racism, LGBT and sexual freedom, and so on.  This year, the signs looked different, more extreme:  “Feminism without intersectionality is simply racism!” and “Destroy white feminism!”  Large, diverse groups of men and women (none of them wearing pink hats) formed drum circles in support of undocumented immigrants, Dreamers, Black Lives Matter, universal healthcare, and against ICE, the Wall, Harvey Weinstein, nuclear buttons and of course Donald Trump.  From the stage, women spoke and recited poems on sexual harassment and assault; #MeToo has definitely changed the movement’s trajectory.  There were more commercial sponsors, more pleas for money and voter registration than last year, but also a stronger sense of activism and long term personal commitment, as opposed to donning pink hats and marching on any given day.  Hats show solidarity, but solidarity, although necessary, is not sufficient for true empowerment.  Some signs this year read, “Marching is important, but running is more important.”

Last year, with a new march, a movement more fluid in nature, I wished for greater focus on the central issues (e.g. equal pay for equal work).  But this year the movement has grown and solidified to the extent that intersection with other causes, such as racial oppression and immigration– rather than what the Women’s March has been accused of, namely appealing only to white middle-class women in an effort to get more votes for the Democratic party– has now become crucial.  The pain and anger felt by women is multi-faceted; these different facets, after the divisive year we’ve just gone through, have a brighter light than ever shining upon them.  The different causes and effects of pain are more clearly distinguishable than ever, and the movement should engage all of them.

Maybe lose the pink hats next time, the sense of victimization which the hats symbolize.  Instead, roll up your sleeves in true empowerment, ready to work, write, organize, run for office.  In my struggle to understand the movement’s new face, it helped to read this morning’s news, in which Judge Rosemarie Aquilina sentenced Dr. Larry Nassar to 40-175 years in prison for sexual assault.  In giving all the victims a voice and her personal support, she urged them to “Leave your pain here” and to go forth and live their magnificent lives.  Be a former victim, and do great things.  For me, that sums up the crossroads where the women’s movement now finds itself.

This Is Not A Drill

Alert:  a policy missile of the Trump Administration is heading your way.  Seek shelter immediately.  This is not a drill.

Within the next few weeks, ICE officials will conduct a massive sweep of neighborhoods and workplaces in San Francisco and other Northern California cities to strike against sanctuary laws that aim to protect undocumented immigrants.  They plan to arrest and deport more than 1500  people, which will unavoidably destroy families, disrupt essential services such as healthcare, and instill fear in communities of color.

The federal government faces a shutdown this weekend if our Chaos President and Congress can’t resolve the DACA issue, which is entangled with the Great Wall of Mexico, and now funding for children’s healthcare as well.  The GOP’s holding CHIP hostage in order to get money for the Wall truly demonstrates the cynical nature of political football:  option plays, end runs, mis-directions, flea-flickers, razzle-dazzle.  Just win, baby.

On a different battlefront, the Trump Administration has unveiled a sweeping proposal to open nearly all US waters, including the long-protected California coast, to offshore drilling for oil and gas.  Florida, which has a Republican governor and Mar-a-Lago (not necessarily in that order), has been exempted from a proposed policy which would endanger coastal economies and the environment.  Not to mention ruining the view from Trump’s golf course, hence the Florida exemption.  California has been ravaged by a series of devastating fires and floods, natural disasters which can be linked to global climate change, while Trump shuns the Paris Accord and blithely (or perhaps corruptly) continues to promote fossil fuels. To me, the image of millions of acres and a thousand homes going up in flames, then many others swept away by the ensuing mudslides, is as alarming as an incoming nuclear warhead.

Trump continues daily to launch missiles of misogyny and rockets of racism; it seems almost an intentional distraction, when he flashes xenophobia, support for white nationalists, vulgar references to Haiti and Africa, attacks on the press, threats to the nation’s health coverage, and on and on.  The delayed-action bomb of tax “reform” has already hit its target.  While our attention is drawn to yet another outrage, he pushes the allegedly big nuclear button, risking the lives and well-being of millions of immigrants, Dreamers, sick children, coastal dwellers and, in the case of global warming, merely all future generations of humankind!

In Hawaii and Japan recently, nuclear alerts turned out to be false alarms.  This is not a false alarm; for many, it is a matter of life and death.  It’s hugely ironic to me that, when Trump passed his physical last week and was declared not to be (officially) demented or insane, I actually took that as bad news:  in other words, he is doing all of this on purpose, with intentional malice.  If Trump is “like, really smart” and a “stable genius,” he is also an evil one.

So seek shelter.  Or better yet:  on Saturday January 20th, the first anniversary of Trump’s inauguration, seek the protest nearest you.  Protest for racial equality, demonstrate for women’s rights, march for science and the environment, protect the Dreamers and other immigrants, reach out to one another and, as I’ve been urging all year, VOTE in this year’s midterm elections.

Sanity Clause II

Remember when the truth was important?  In a previous post (11/8/17), I bemoaned the fact that the country has been sliding into a collective delusional state, where there is a “new normal” and alternative facts can turn everything upside-down.  The truth becomes fluid (or is simply dismissed as inconsequential, as Sarah Huckabee Sanders has done); anything becomes possible; and history can be rewritten before it has even happened.  I had hoped that the Sanity Clause in our social contract would set things straight, but that appears increasingly to be a big pie in the sky.

Michelle Goldberg writes in her Opinion column today, “There is a debate over whether Trump is unaware of reality or merely indifferent to it.  He might be delusional, or he might simply be asserting the power to blithely override truth, which is the ultimate privilege of a despot.”  Hmm– delusional or overriding truth:  which is worse?

Arguing for the former, Dr. Bandy Lee, a forensic psychiatrist at Yale Medical School, represents thousands of mental health professionals when he writes:  “We are currently witnessing more than his usual state of instability– in fact a pattern of decompensation:  increasing loss of touch with reality, marked signs of volatility and unpredictable behavior, and an attraction to violence as a means of coping.  These characteristics place our country and the world at extreme risk of danger.”

Timothy Egan, in the NY Times, points out that our Chaos President still questions Barrack Obama’s birth certificate; does not believe his own words on the infamous “Access Hollywood” sexual assault videotape; still thinks (without any evidence) that three million fraudulent votes caused him to lose the popular vote; endorsed a website that says the Pope uses magic to mastermind world events; and “gave a thumbs up to a media outlet that claims NASA runs a child labor colony on Mars.”

No kidding.  For those unfamiliar with Alex Jones’s Infowars channel, he’s the apoplectic guy who claims that the Sandy Hook massacre of schoolchildren and teachers was a staged hoax.  A guest on his show claimed that NASA has secretly kidnapped children and is keeping them as sex slaves on Mars, forcing a NASA spokesperson to deny the existence of such a colony.  It’s just incredible, the kind of insanity that passes for conspiracy theory (already a very low bar)!

Here’s some Fake News from my sci-fi novel Fourth World:

“When had Tharsis One and Two dropped off the map?  Shortly after the Great War of Unification.  Mr. Otis Walker, Benn’s second-grade teacher, had explained it many times- often in heatedly emotional terms- to his young, impressionable students.  From the Martian (that is, Tharsis) viewpoint, the centralization of Earth’s government in 2096 marked the beginning of the end:  birth of the Pan-World Electorate.  What was it like, his teacher wondered, receiving the news that your home government no longer existed; that your country had been all but destroyed in a cataclysmic global war?  That NASA, an agency of the former United States of America and your lifeline to Earth, had suddenly vanished?”

What, no NASA?  It must have been brutal, hearing that there would no longer be any kidnapped sex slaves…





Trickle-down Ecology

On the same day that the House passed their version of tax “reform,” it was announced that the Trump administration is lifting an Obama-era ban on the  importation of ivory and other elephant body parts from Zimbabwe and Zambia.  The ban was meant to eliminate demand and thereby help to protect this threatened species.  Who wouldn’t want that, right?  The rationale for declaring hunting season for elephants open again, according to US Fish & Wildlife, is that allowing wealthy trophy hunters to pay for killing elephants will raise more money for conservation programs.  So killing more elephants will generate money to protect elephants (assuming those hunting fees actually end up in conservation efforts and not the pockets of corrupt officials)!  I’m sure all the dead elephants will appreciate that their sacrifice was not in vain.

This way of thinking is a metaphor, although imperfect, for the GOP tax plan.  Higher taxes for working families and ultimately for the middle class (after a temporary modest reduction) in order to benefit the wealthy— including huge permanent tax cuts for corporations— is supposed to generate more growth for the economy.  According to an already-disproven theory, the accumulation of wealth in the top 1% will trickle down to help everyone else.   It hasn’t happened before, and even prospectively, corporations are not planning on spending more capital to “grow the economy.”  These tax cuts will not pay for themselves, as the GOP claims.  The plan also explodes the federal debt, placing entitlement programs such as Medicare in danger, along with tax breaks for having children, for tuition, for mortgage interest, for state and local taxes, university endowments— all for a plan which will “pay for itself.”  And while the Senate is at it, why not launch yet another torpedo at the Affordable Care Act?  The zombie rises again (see my previous “Kill Bill” posts), and when they tacked elimination of the individual health coverage mandate onto the bill (which would remove health coverage from 13 million people and raise premiums for everyone else), I thought that would be the death knell for this tax proposal; after all, Repeal and Replace in its various guises had failed so many times before.  But now, because of shrewd maneuvering in Congress, I’m not so sure.

In my mind is the image of a vast elephant graveyard, abandoned by wealthy conservation programs.   More money, it turns out, does not help the dead elephants.  Nor does it help those who will bear the tax burden and feel the pain under this GOP bill, in order to make the rich even richer.  The elephant graveyard, in that case, might well be Congress, in the aftermath of the 2018 midterm elections.

Ready Or Not

Ever have that dream– you know, the one where you’re in a classroom, it’s the day of the final exam, and you suddenly realize you haven’t attended a single class all year long?  Or maybe the worse dream, where you find yourself naked at noon in the middle of the town square?

Both of these, in my experience, tend to come at challenging times (like the last day of medical school), when we feel insecure about being exposed as unprepared or incompetent.  Here’s an excerpt from the prologue to Fourth World, a dream sequence in which Benn Marr argues with the little voice of his subconscious mind:

“… there’s a clear impression that he’s acting a role, passively following a script in some holo-play.  In that context, the director, after yelling “Emote, Benn, emote!” has suddenly disappeared on his lunch break, leaving Benn completely unprepared.  You should have studied, Benn, the small voice scolds.  Should have been paying closer attention, it piles on needlessly.”

These are certainly challenging times; how prepared are the President and Congress?  Are they standing naked in the Mall (sorry for the image)?  When efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act came up, it turned out that they were totally unprepared and had no feasible alternative plan ready– despite seven years of yelling and posturing.  The only way to repeal Obamacare would be to deprive millions of their constituents of health coverage.  And, if not for a few brave Senators, they would have done just that, in order to pay for…

… their tax reform!  Republicans have been agitating about this for years too; cutting taxes for big business and the wealthy has always been the GOP’s top priority.  So when the time came, were they ready?  Well, Repeal and Replace failed, so paying for tax cuts required raising the nation’s debt by $1.5 trillion dollars, which I thought would go deeply against the grain, for Republicans– but apparently not.  Even after ballooning the federal deficit, they still have to cast about for other ways to save money:  including, you guessed it, safety-net and entitlement programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid, which are now threatened, along with child tax credits and other targets.   Bypassing public hearings and scrambling to pass their tax bill ASAP, the GOP wants the “win” that eluded them with healthcare.  Who says we lack the ability to compromise in such partisan times?  Between our Chaos President and a GOP majority lacking the courage to displease his voter base, the government has managed to severely compromise our collective vision of America, let alone our standing in the world and the well-being of future generations.

Speaking of compromise, Chief of Staff John Kelley has blamed the Civil War on the lack of compromise between North and South, whereas historians tell us precisely the opposite:  that it was decades of compromise over the treatment of slaves that led to the Civil War.  Middle-school students are taught this!  As Benn’s subconscious would say:  You should have studied, John Kelley.  Should have been paying closer attention.  His ignorance of history parallels the Administration’s willful ignorance– in fact, denial– of science.  When it comes to protecting human rights, the environment, and world peace, it is perilous to govern by individual, subjective beliefs about the truth rather than documented, demonstrable facts.

However, beliefs do seem to rule right now, rather than knowledge of the historical, scientific and geopolitical facts.  In that case, I wonder, how prepared are our leaders to face an immensely complex world?  The 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration brings to mind the enlarging crisis in the Middle East– connecting, at one end, Israel and the Palestinians to Iran, Syria and ISIS at the other end.  The belief that sending more military to kill terrorists will solve the problem is simplistic and dangerously naive.  It’s a bit like fighting global warming by turning up your air conditioner.  Is Trump ready for China’s One Belt, One Road expansion?  The re-emergence of Russia as a world power?  Brexit?  Population migration driven by climate change in central Africa?  Corrupt elections in South America?  We know by his Tweets that Trump doesn’t have a clue how to contain the nuclear threat from North Korea.  In fact:  Name the issue, and I doubt anyone in this Administration would be ready to deal with it effectively.

We’ll need to take better care of our own welfare, our own futures, and each other.  Heed the little voice:  study the issues.  Pay closer attention.  And above all, vote!


Now Is The Time

Much is made of freedom of speech, but equally important– and largely unmentioned– is freedom of dialogue, of conversation.  On the NYT Opinion Page this morning, David Brooks said, “You can’t have a civil conversation with people who are intent on destroying the rules that govern conversation itself.”*

In this ever more divided nation, you are free to make a statement, but good luck getting a meaningful response, an exchange of ideas from which both sides may come away a bit wiser.  His editorial got me thinking about several recent examples of the decline in conversation.  When Texas and Florida were inundated by hurricanes and rising sea levels, those who wondered whether global warming had worsened the storms’ effects were roundly scolded by Scott Pruitt and the Administration:  “How can you be so insensitive?” they were admonished.  Now is not the time to talk about climate change, not while people are still recovering!

After the mass shooting at a music festival in Las Vegas, some (probably the same insensitive miscreants as above) brought up the subject of sensible restrictions on firearms, only to be scolded again, this time by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who acted disgusted by the concept and righteously repeated the gun control mantra (the one chanted after Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, Orlando and many other mass shootings):  This is a terrible tragedy!  Now is not the time to talk about…

Likewise, the playing of the national anthem at a sporting event is not the time to call attention to racial inequality and police brutality toward African-Americans by sitting down or taking a knee.  It’s not the time, even if you emphatically explain that you are not disrespecting the country, the flag or the military.  That explanation will not begin a conversation; it will only draw derision and threats of boycott, as though you had said nothing at all.

When we are standing at the edge of nuclear war because two national leaders with oversize egos are calling each other names, that is not the time to have a conversation about impeachment, when we must bravely face death by nuclear holocaust with national unity and patriotism.

When the Chaos President, fuming and frustrated at the repeated failure of Repeal and Replace, launched a couple of gratuitous torpedoes at the Affordable Care Act, aiming to sabotage his nation’s healthcare, very few in Congress spoke up.  Now is not the time to speak up against Trump– not when they still have to pass big tax cuts for the rich, not to mention having to appease Trump’s unshakeable, fearsome voter “base,” which might hurt shaking, fearful incumbents in next year’s midterm elections.

Only in times of national emergency do former presidents speak out against the sitting POTUS, so it’s not a good sign when both George W. Bush and Barrack Obama make speeches in the same week to denounce reneging on national commitments, white supremacy, nativism and divisive politics– unfortunately without naming the Great White Nativist, the Divider-in-Chief they obviously have in mind.  Nor does John McCain mention Trump, although his speech about the poorest Americans serving in Vietnam while the wealthy were able to get deferments for such reasons as bone spurs clearly points an accusing finger at the Donald.

Why not name him?  Steve Bannon has been running amok for years, saying anything he likes (even trumpeting the fact that he intends to destroy the careers of all Republican senators except for Ted Cruz– which actually makes Lyin’ Ted look bad)!  So why shouldn’t Republicans in Congress, who are known to hate Bannonism and Trump, pull off the gloves?  Now is the time!

Kudos to Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, and John McCain:  you waited until there was nothing more to lose, but you did finally voice what most Congressmen have been thinking.  Maybe more of them will be emboldened to speak up now, before we all have nothing more to lose.


* This is taken out of context; he goes on to advocate for the argument Yale Law professor Stephen Carter made in his book “Civility”– that one has to confront fanaticism with compassion.