An Arm and a Leg

A report published by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine this week has received less attention than perhaps it deserves. The report, titled “Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance” explores the emerging reality of the not-so-distant future of addressing certain human diseases by editing specific genes in human embryos, egg and sperm cells. This level of medicine has heretofore been left to the imaginations of science fiction writers. But now, it looks like we are peering over the edge of that boundary between imagination and what looks to be a stark reality, and our notions of what is ethical and “right” might get shaken up just a bit.

What’s truly significant here is not only the ethical consideration, but more so the vision we procure from our daydreams and projections of our own future, like the distorted albeit detailed view through the peephole in the front door. Predictions may or may not come to fruition but will surely fuel the debate about humanity’s path, if not solely for the benefit of fleshing out our nightmares. The first thing one might conjure up is basically the plot of the 1997 film Gattaca, in which we see a future where designer babies can be ordered like you would a pizza, customizing your offspring to be taller, smarter, and stronger. This is the primary concern of some who believe we are looking in the face of pure eugenics, a pseudo-scientific study intent on reshaping the human race, or segments of it, into an ideal species, one not only disease-free, but perhaps also free of any tendencies toward obesity or depression. A “perfect” human, if you will.

If scientists were to, say, focus their energy on eliminating AIDS and malaria, populations in Africa would be the first to benefit. But something tells me altruism will lose out to economics, and companies will work to attract the rich, who will be more than willing to pay any amount to “build” a new generation of super-humans. With the rich now being relatively free of diseases like cancer and Parkinson’s – which used to be more of an equalizer – now only the poor will get sick. Optimists among you might see possibilities, but this new world where you can guarantee your children and their children will never suffer from devastating diseases is sure to render a class society, where now you can identify the second-class by their raspy cough or their hair loss due to chemotherapy.

Because, you see, if only poor people are the ones to suffer from human frailty, then where is the incentive for drug companies to do anything about their plight? Indeed today even the wealthy can suffer from schizophrenia or rheumatoid arthritis. But pharma can make a pill for what ails you, and people like Martin Skreli can capitalize on the remedy, marking up the price for a life-saving drug by 5000%. Not only are the poor going to be further marginalized, but even non-GMO humans who are not sick could still be discriminated against. Since nearsightedness could be eliminated, the world might become harder to navigate for the normal-sighted as text becomes smaller, and sight requirements become more stringent. Could we design a dynasty of athletes? Is tweaking some genes that control memory like cheating on a test?

The gene or gene-cluster that is responsible for addictive tendencies might be switched off in a family with a history of alcoholism. That is not to say that no one would develop a drinking habit, but we don’t know enough at this stage. The medical ethics community strongly emphasized that genetic manipulation would only be okay for preventing devastating and untreatable illness, as a quality of life issue, or for humanitarian interests. The ability to pick and choose the attributes of future generations is strongly frowned upon, but who polices the world of genetic research?

I fear for a future where someone like me, myopic with a slight attention problem, would be shunned by society, now having to exist in this Island of Misfit Toys we call “normal”. But if you were to eliminate aberrations in the future gene pool, the Stephen Hawkingses and Franklin Roosevelts of the world might never materialize. Some of the greatest examples of humanity have been flawed, frail individuals. Should we abandon that possibility for the hope of eliminating those frailties? Doesn’t my nearsightedness and my ADHD make me a better person because of those flaws? What sort of character would I possess if I never had to struggle?

Editing genes might look very attractive when you are faced with the seemingly insurmountable hurdle of finding a cure for cancer. Don’t get me wrong; I would be the first to congratulate the scientist who announces that he or she has accomplished that. Get rid of heart disease and diabetes, by all means. But take it one step at a time. Once we have “cured” something, let us take stock of it and all its ramifications. Maybe start with AIDS. Then cancer, followed by heart disease. (Some would argue that heart disease kills more people, but it is preventable in most cases.) It worries me that gene editing to prevent something might make a super-infectious pathogen possible. I expect there have been many lab trials, and any human trials might be quarantined just to be safe. In any case, it’s scary as hell, but people are dying. And this is not so far in our future. I predict within the next ten years a child will be born who possesses altered genes. This person will look like any one of us, maybe a little closer to perfect. Then it begins.

Read the NPR story for more



The Bitter Pill

I don’t have very many health-related issues. In fact, it is rare for me to suffer in a physical way. I don’t get headaches; I don’t have joint pain. And my regular check-ups are pretty good for a guy my age. However, I do have an acute allergic response when it comes to pollen, specifically ragweed. Over the years, my reaction has become predictable; you could set your watch by the way my eyes water, the sneezing becomes uncontrollable, and my face gets puffy and begins to itch.

I had an appointment with my new doctor already scheduled, so I talked with him about my seasonal allergies. I was worried I might be developing a sinus infection, and my whole head was stuffy, and I couldn’t hear very well through my left ear. He recommended a steroid injection. I’ve had them in the past, and I was willing to put up with the mild side-effects, such as they were in the past.

But this time was different. I was given a commonly-used steroidal treatment, like prednisone, combined with a longer-acting version, which may be in my system for weeks. The fast-acting form, as some may be aware, has certain undesirable side-effects, like heartburn and difficulty sleeping. In addition to these, I also experienced some depression, and for me, unusual cravings (which may have been a sign of changes in blood sugar levels). Specifically, I had an intense craving for soft-baked chocolate-chocolate chip cookies, like Pepperidge Farms Captiva. I had a couple with some Earl Grey, and it was extremely satisfying. Strangely and immediately, the craving vanished.

The depression was more intense – if you can use that word to describe an overall numbing sensation and complete loss of interest in the world around you – than times past, so I suspect that this was a stronger dose, or I am becoming more sensitive to the effects of the drug. Whichever the case may be, I know I need to be better prepared for the next time I may require such treatment. That said, it is entirely up to me whether I submit myself to steroids in the future, but given the alternative, I definitely must consider it, even knowing the consequences.

Since the Wednesday evening injection, I experienced wild swings in energy levels, both physical and emotional. I slept 3 1/2 hours on Wednesday night, followed by little sleep and acid reflux on Thursday night. Friday night, I dreamed I was throwing up, and I woke up with stomach acid churning up – not a pleasant experience. And Saturday, I felt like staying in bed for a few years. People often characterize depression as feeling sad or “blue.” Anyone who has experienced it will tell you that it’s more about not feeling than feeling. Instead of wanting to curl up and listen to George Michael, you actually don’t want anything. You don’t want to go anywhere, and you don’t want to stay where you are. You just don’t want anything. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve been there, but I strongly encourage anyone to avoid getting that low.

Now that I can recognize the signs, I am better off because I can warn others, mainly my wife (who, by the way, is verifiably psychic, so she already knew.) Others may not appreciate the forewarning. Besides, I stay clear of people when I get this way, so it’s a win-win, if you can call it that. I’ll be back at work tomorrow – actually, I am working as I compose this. I hope things will get back to “normal” soon, and I start seeing through unclouded lenses again. The allergy symptoms have completely disappeared, and I am able to sleep without being woken up half-way through the night with terrible heartburn. I’ve considered moving to another part of the world, one where I am not allergic to the earth’s atmosphere. I honestly don’t know where this place is, or if it even exists.

An Evening with T. S. Eliot – Warning: Profanities Ahead

We have two cats, and as anyone who has cats will tell you, dogs have masters; cats have staff. As subordinates, we exist only to do their bidding, which mainly consists of petting them – only when it suits them – and feeding them. That latter part is where things get interesting, for you see, cats are picky little shits.

The big Siamese specimen, weighing in at a whopping 9.5 kilos (think a large sack of potatoes), is well fed. He’s actually somewhat nonchalant about regular feedings, and as I remind him often, he could skip a meal. The other one is the boss, and she announces her demands with a certain nagging overtone. It’s like music. Death metal music. I imagine when she’s yelling at the top of her tiny lungs to get our attention and get the fuck off our butts and feed her, she’s really losing her mind like a meth addict.

On any given night in our otherwise quiet home, around the time we have dinner, our landlords start with the meowing and crying and knocking over furniture ( in the case of the gigantic one). The cacophony is jarring and really gets under your skin. I imagine the Boss is in the kitchen yelling, “for the love of God, people! Come over here and FEED ME! YOU MOTHERFUCKERS!!”

Something like that. She’s really sweet otherwise. It’s like living with someone who has a mild to moderate degree of psychosis, coupled with acute anxiety and a drug problem. I plan on taking on these characteristics when I get really old. I’m probably going to say wildly inappropriate things to Jamaican nurses, and I’ll shit my pants and smile. I’m entitled to this.

Well, the cat-monsters are fed now, and they’re uncharacteristically silent, aside from the sounds of lapping up the remnants of the good soft food from their bowls. They like the dry food well enough, but they FUCKING LOVE THE SOFT FOOD! HOLY SHIT!!

It’s cool. I’m the same way with cheese fries.

To Your Health

Humans need four basic things: food, water, protection from the elements, and sleep. Ironically, these are the things we frequently deny ourselves in various combinations or completely. I, for one, frequently do not get enough sleep; instead, I sit here in front of my computer, writing well into the night. Some people have told me they never drink just water. Many people do not eat food, strictly speaking. And many of us fail to protect ourselves from the sun’s rays. We know the risks, and still the negligence persists.

So we’re told we should wear sunscreen, or stay out of direct sunlight, and yet Americans are vitamin D deficient. It seems you can’t win. The fact is, oxygen, which animals cannot live without, is inherently toxic. Yes, the very air you breathe is bad for you. And don’t get me started on carbon monoxide and methane emissions.

You can’t expect to live hundreds of years, or can you? Some are trying, but even if your mind could live on, our bodies are just not built to last. Until science can improve upon that design, we’ll have to just accept the fact that we have only so many years given to us. For myself, I am taking steps to maintain my health: I have never smoked, I don’t use drugs (aside from the garbage big pharma says is safe), I even gave up soda a year ago. However, I still drink alcohol, and I love chips (French fries). Oh, and I still eat meat.

Yes, meat. Truly one of the worst things for the planet: agro-industry. Pro-veg activists will tell you that eating a vegetarian diet will save the planet. However, others disagree. But the occasional ribeye isn’t going to kill me. I know plenty of people who smoke, drink, eat garbage, and never exercise, and they’re still with us. Well, that’s anecdotal at best, and who knows what health problems they have.

I’m kind of a rarity: I’m a man who gets regular checkups. Now, my doctor, who seems to have studied with Theodoric of York, would like me to lose weight and kindly bend over. I’m sure doctors have our health in their best interest, but I can’t help but feel they are in cahoots with the pharmaceutical industry. It seems they want to experiment on me a little too often, as well. But what do I care? At least someone’s got my back, as it were.

So I carry on. It’s good that I’m abstaining from sweets. But I’ll keep enjoying wine. Yeah, I know. Did you read my post about bacon? It’s a compromise, as with most things. I don’t have the energy to be idealistic. My doctor is fortunate that I don’t eat Belgian waffles and chorizo for breakfast daily. Actually, that sounds kind of gross. My point is, there are far more important things that getting everything right. The human psyche is hard-wired to consume what’s in front of us. It’s not our fault that our nation over-produces. It’s very hard to abstain.

Humans need four basic things: we need to feel we’re in control when we never are, we need to feel that someone is listening, we need to know that we matter, and we need to voice our displeasure about everything. I’m not sure about that last one, but I know I am not the only one with the gripe feature enabled.

Save Our Souls

I was pretty depressed last week. We recently lost a family friend, and even though no one wanted to talk about it, we knew she had suffered a lot with substance abuse and its complications. It was a tragic end to a life of pain and grief. My wife had been one of the last people to contact her, and she had always been there to support her and comfort her. Her death came as a shock, but not unexpected. Still, it hurt a lot of people.

I started my week feeling like there was no point to anything, because we all die, and we all leave a trail of grief in our wakes. I had recalled a passage in the Bible where Jesus was preaching to a crowd of people about how we should treat one another. I’ve always felt that this was important, but now I saw the futility of our existence. What was it all for, I pondered. It was hard to see the point of anything.

Jesus stood on that hilltop and said, basically, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison. Other passages instruct us to treat others the way we would want to be treated. But I thought, “why should we bother?” People were going to die anyway. If I fed someone, it’s not going to save them, but merely extend their existence for another day. I imagined that I might have a conversation with Jesus on that hilltop. I would say, “I can feed someone, but that’s not going to help them get out of poverty. And I can clothe someone, but am I really helping that person?” What is our one drop of compassion in the ocean of suffering going to amount to?

I considered how he might reply. It was simple, really. The point in bringing light to a world of darkness, to be that one small voice in the mob, where it seems no one cares, and everyone works against you, is to ease the suffering of an individual in order that your act of mercy translates into that person being just that much more compassionate. The ripple effect would change the world for the better. If we do nothing, we add to the suffering. We are either part of the solution, or we are part of the problem.

This is not to say that I think people who do nothing or who do evil are damned to go to hell. I don’t think there is such a place. And I don’t know what happens to us when we die. All I know is that we live in a world of immense suffering and pain. Easing that suffering may not save a life, and it might not save you, but it echoes beyond the moment and carries on to the next encounter, be it tomorrow or a generation beyond. In a way, we are all changing the world, one atom at a time. We waste our lives arguing over who is right or how to make more money or what people should think. I find that there is value in being kind to people. I have visited people in dark places in their lives, and even though I may question what good I am doing, I know that I will always remember when someone has paid a kindness to me. And the point? I will have less suffering as a result, and I will pay it forward. Hopefully so will the next person.

Is this going to save us? I don’t know. But while we are all in this thing together, why not make the ride a little less bumpy. Recently, someone caused a lot of suffering in South Carolina. Some of the family members of the victims came forward to express forgiveness for the alleged shooter. I am surprised when I see something like this. I don’t mean that I don’t expect people are capable of forgiveness. I just find it surprising in comparison to the way most people behave without having been injured. Sometimes I am completely disgusted with my species, and I lose my confidence in our right to survive.

We place ourselves above other creatures by claiming we possess a soul. (I’m not convinced we’re the only ones.) Perhaps the trajectory of our lot is a point where we will become an enlightened race, not burdened by pettiness and jealousy and greed and all the other characteristics that are attached the dossier of our beings. Once we can shed those and live up to our potential, who knows how we will evolve. We seem to be somewhat spiritual, so it seems our development will progress that way. Or we’ll become purely intellectual beings. Who knows. We can only get where we’re going by discarding the unwanted baggage. I suggest we start by not being colossal assholes to one another. I’m a work in progress.

None of us is perfect. And I’m as far from it as the next person. Well, good luck out there. Don’t be a prick. Take care of the needy. Show mercy. Send a Thank You card when you receive a gift. (That last one’s Emily Post, not Jesus Christ, but you probably knew that).

Do Not Be Afraid to Tell the Truth

I just listened to a radio piece about a young woman who died from a heroin overdose. In the story, her father was explaining why he went public with her cause of death, posting on Facebook and listing that information in her obituary. The father, Tom, told Melissa Block from NPR that he could not understand why anyone would not want to help by telling the truth, letting the world know that people are dying from drug addiction.

I have lost a family member to drug addiction. We’ve seen relatives and friends die from cancer and heart disease, and no one raises an eyebrow when that information is shared. “Oh, I had an aunt who died of cancer,” they will say. But tell them about a 24-year-old who died of a heroin overdose. Suddenly they see that person as a criminal. That’s the problem with the War on Drugs. Since 1971, more money has been spent on criminal enforcement than on treatment. With so many “drug offenders” crowding prisons, it is obvious that tactic hasn’t worked.

Drugs, including legal ones like alcohol and tobacco, when abused have the potential to destroy you and your family. I have seen what happens to families where someone has an addiction. Its effects last for generations and beyond. Naturally, many people can control their use of drugs. That’s not to say that you could spot an addict. Many addicts easily hide their addiction. An alcoholic doesn’t have to be a drunken fool lying in the gutter. He or she could be sitting next to you in church. They just happen to have a disease, like diabetes or cancer. But like any disease, going untreated can result in death. I’m not kidding here.

Tobacco-related deaths far outnumber deaths due to alcohol abuse, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. But there are still too many drug-related deaths, most of which could be prevented with proper treatment. The girl in the radio story went to rehab repeatedly. But it wasn’t enough. The lesson to be learned here is to avoid drugs as much as possible. If you decide to drink, recognize when you’ve had too much. If you find yourself getting drunk every time you drink, seek help. As for heroin and other hard drugs, just do your best to stay away. If your friends try to get you to use them, find new friends. You know what they do to people. And anyone who does not care about you is not your friend.

I know some people who abuse drugs. I wish they would stop. I know that nothing I say will change their desire for that high, and they have to get themselves some help. Tom, the father in the story, talked about everything he tried to help his daughter, and he tried everything. That girl was blessed but unfortunate. She had a family who cared about her, but also a dealer wanting to make a buck. I suggest you listen to the story, and if you know someone struggling with addiction, tell them to get some help. I am through with holding my tongue. If people don’t want to hear what I have to say, they can walk away. I don’t care whom I offend. Your life is precious, and you are throwing it away. Someone ought to make you feel really, really uncomfortable about this.