I Know You’re Out There

I’d been wanting a telescope for a while. I had one when I was a kid. Later, my parents bought one for me and my brother, a reflector. It was small, but we were able to see the rings of Saturn and some of Jupiter’s moons. It was so cool to be able to see such things with my own eyes, that is, not in photographs, but looking at the actual planets and nebulae. We spent many hours in the back yard, late at night, looking to the skies.

I’ve read a lot of science fiction, and I’ve seen every episode of Star Trek TNG and Voyager. So, I’ve given the idea of extraterrestrial intelligence a lot of thought. I suppose most people don’t think about this much, and many don’t believe E.T. even exists. That might be true, but the universe is huge, and there’s bound to be at least one more world like ours out there. And scientists are discovering new planets every day. It’s a very exciting time to be alive. Within my lifetime, I believe we will send humans to Mars and further. I’m certain there is no limit to what we can accomplish.

If there are intelligent forms of life elsewhere in the universe, I wonder what they must think of us. We as a species make a lot of noise. We have been sending out radio and television transmissions for decades, now, and anyone with the most basic radio equipment could surely have picked up something by now. But do we really want Jerry Springer or Honey Boo-boo representing us to the galaxy. When some alien race does intercept our signals, they will see that we worship money, are highly fixated on the ideal human body; and we say we want to eat healthier food, and yet we continue to fill our bodies with poison.

If I were watching, I would seriously question the wisdom of visiting earth. The Arthur C. Clarke novel, Childhood’s End, portrayed this notion. Extra-terrestrial visitors were justifiably cautious about showing themselves (for good reason, as you will learn about halfway in). And human beings are, even to this day, decidedly superstitious and xenophobic. We hardly trust someone who doesn’t speak our language. In my country I am an outcast for promoting the metric system. Why do we believe we would not demonstrate our worst behaviour the moment first contact is initiated? Some of us will probably launch missiles. Others will panic and destroy themselves. Actually, we’re on our way to self-destruction without anyone’s help.

Well, this got depressing very quickly. My apologies. But while I appear to have absolutely no faith in humanity at this point in time, it should be noted that there is a lot of good in this world. Just listen to the works of Thomas Tallis, or contemplate the paintings of Van Gogh. I like to people watch. It’s a strange little game I play. I did it the other day, watching humans coming and going in a busy shopping area. It was fascinating to see people of all types, different shapes and sizes, clothing and hairstyle choices, the distinguished and the ludicrous, the ostentatious and the mundane. Oh, the humanity! But there were all are. We’re not easily dismissed, and you can’t put anyone into a single classification. Some of us are joyful, while others are contemplative and melancholy. Some are left-handed. Some of us are more creative than others. Some cannot discern red or green. Some of us are anxious. All of us are mortal.

If you are out there, here we are. We’re special, but we’re not remarkable, just like the stars in the sky. Some of them really shine. But there are so many that don’t even get a name. They have a number. But they’re all unique, like every human being. But I hope someday we will make contact. I hope we will be worthy of it. I hope that whoever represents the human race will not be a total embarrassment.

 

Is it Safe?

I was in a restaurant the other day when I caught a whiff of ammonia as one of the employees was spraying Windex liberally on tables and other surfaces to clean them after diners left. The whole place smelled of ammonia, and the fumes irritated my eyes and my throat. I mentioned it to a friend who told me it wasn’t such a big deal, and they needed to disinfect the tables after people ate there. I reminded my friend that you can disinfect using distilled vinegar. He said he didn’t like the smell. Okay, but the “smell” is not a toxic compound produced the chemical giants like P&G or Dow. White or distilled vinegar, among other varieties, are not only nontoxic, but you can actually ingest them in small quantities without any harmful reaction. The fact is, I make glass cleaner from an ingredient I could use in salad dressing. And it has been shown to be an effective disinfectant. Plus, it’s cheaper.

Chlorine is also widely used in restaurants as a cheap disinfectant. I admit it is quite effective in preventing the spread of bacteria like salmonella. For the kitchen and restrooms this is perfectly acceptable in protecting the public from harmful pathogens, and restaurant staff should take such measures after the establishment is closed for the night. Exposing patrons to ammonia or chlorine is potentially problematic, but if these chemicals are combined, the results can be quite toxic, and the combination should be avoided in all circumstances. I think it’s fine to mop the kitchen and dining room with a bleach water solution after closing time. A little chlorine goes a long way. Ammonia as a glass cleaner is not absolutely necessary. See this California Childcare Health Program article for more information.

I routinely clean my house with non-toxic solutions. I make a glass and surface cleaner from a mixture of distilled vinegar, water, and a drop or two of mild dish soap. This is surprisingly effective in cleaning dirt and residue from surfaces. I use other less-toxic solutions for disinfecting, and I use chlorine-based cleaners for sanitizing the bathroom fixtures and the kitchen sink. I’m kind of a stickler about what can be called “clean”. I eat off dishes that I consider clean, and I generally do not use bleach to get to that level of cleanliness. But if I were to eat mac & cheese off my kitchen floor, you’d better believe I’m going to scrub that son of a bitch down. Is it largely psychological, the fact that my dishes are not nearly as clean as my floor, and yet I find it repugnant to eat off the floor? Yes, I’m sure of it. I will not be dining dal pavimento anytime soon.

In the meantime, I’m comfortable cleaning with my vinegar solution. Ammonia is overkill, and it makes my eyes and throat sting. Oh, did I mention that my wife has multiple chemical sensitivity? Some people don’t believe this is real, but besides any doubt many people have, there is no denying that chemicals are used in increasing quantities and concentrations. The unfortunate side effect to the public is becoming desensitized to these harmful agents, except for the growing number who for unexplained reasons become more sensitive to them. Living in a toxin-free environment (or as close to one as I can be in the 21st century) has made me more aware of the onslaught of chemicals encountered in the supermarket. I think I was not aware how noxious the detergent aisle was until recently. Meanwhile, vinegar doesn’t bother me at all.

Some of my ancestors lived beyond 105 years. And that was before anyone knew about microorganisms. They did not have modern cleaning products in the 18th century, and yet they lived ostensibly healthy lives. Of course this is not to say that people in the 18th century didn’t contract illnesses due to bacterial infections. But maybe people had higher resistance to germs because they didn’t use hand sanitizer every fifteen minutes. I think we are so afraid of getting sick, we are in danger of making ourselves more guarded against the bug. Perhaps we can embrace it. Just don’t get too complacent.

So for the time-being, I hope restaurants would at least stop exposing people who are trying to eat to harmful chemicals. You can still douse the tables and booths with super-concentrated Clorox after everyone has left. Just use the buddy system in case you get a little too much of a good thing. Or better yet, think of alternative cleaning methods.

 

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

 

Going International

If you ever wish to feel completely isolated and shunned by society, try promoting the Metric System in the USA. It is an exercise in frustration, and you will be astounded by how much resistance there is to something that makes so much sense. The truth is that we already use metric units in a lot of areas of our lives, and it is standard in science and medicine, for the most part. On my recent doctor visit, as I stepped on the scale, the nurse interviewing me asked if I knew my height. I responded, “170 centimeters”. After some silence, I looked at her and rephrased, “1.7 meters, then.” Ultimately I acquiesced and said I was around five feet seven inches.

This moment notwithstanding, many of us are already using metric units, as I mentioned, whether we realize it or not. For instance, most Americans know how far five kilometers is. Many of us have actually managed to run that distance in under an hour. We can all recognize a 2-liter bottle, and we know how much 500 mg of Tylenol look like, and we know a little about Celsius. So, I think we can handle it. We underestimate our own capacity for adaptation. I think we should see converting to the metric system as a challenge worthy of accepting.

But I often feel utterly alone, inasmuch as I have most of the rest of the world on my side. You see, the United States is one of only three nations that have failed to adopt the metric system formally. The other two, Liberia and Myanmar, may have a pretty good excuse, having been locked in civil war and oppressive military rule, respectively, for more than a decade. What’s our excuse? But as I said earlier, we have already started the process, so a few more steps shouldn’t be to difficult to make.

First, it is not uncommon for street and highway signs to be replaced, and yes it costs taxpayers to replace them, but these costs are always part of state and county budgets, and that’s what taxes are for! Therefore, when speed limit signs are replaced, why not print miles per hour and kilometers per hour (km-h is preferred to kph). The result would be that next time we’re driving on the highway, we might see a sign that reads both “70 mph” and “113 km-h”. After some time, the mph can be removed entirely. That way, when you see a sign that reads “50 km-h” you know you will need to slow down because you’re in a residential zone. A school zone should be about 32 kilometers per hour. It’s a simple matter of learning the new scale. No calculation is necessary.

The same may be said for learning Celsius. In Fahrenheit, we know that water freezes at 32 degrees and it boils at 212º. Celsius is a bit easier to manage with freezing at zero and boiling occurring at 100º. Americans get very confused about where our comfort zone is within this scale. I tell people it’s really pretty easy. We know that zero is the freezing point, so we’ll say you need a coat and gloves, that is we in Texas would agree with this because, well, this is Texas. Anything between zero and 10º is still pretty cold (again, this is Texas), but once you get up to 20º C, you might be okay with no jacket at all. When the temperature hits 30º, it’s warm enough to go swimming (my friends in Norway would go swimming at 14º, but okay). Between 30º and 36º is about where we live in Texas, and it gets above 37º at the peak of summer. 40 degrees is very hot, about Jacuzzi temperature. After that, you’re in some serious heat. Then there’s 50º, which is about the highest temperature in Death Valley or the Iraqi desert. (Actually, I think the world record is nearly 60º.)

Death Valley
Death Valley

I tend to lose people here. But today when I offered to go for a walk with a co-worker, she asked if she needed a jacket. I told her is was 16º and no jacket was needed. After a couple laps around the campus, it was clear that it was warm enough, especially in the sun. I hope she remembers that reference point, and she might be inspired to think metric in the future. But even my wife resists learning the metric system, even though I have a compelling argument, about how it’s based on tens, and a cubic centimeter of water is one mililiter, and it is very close to one gram in mass, depending on temperature. That’s the simplicity of it all. You can divide a meter or a kilogram or a liter by any multiple of ten. Meanwhile, in the States, a foot is one third of a yard, and it is divided into twelve inches. A mile is – whatever! Just use the metric system!

So, I continue on my quixotic mission to get the US on the metric system. One way to immerse yourself is to tell your smartphone to use metric units. At first it will be challenging when your phone tells you, “in 800 meters, turn right…” or when you ask what the temperature is and Siri responds, “it’s 28 degrees C…hot!”. (Okay, Siri. Remember? I live in Texas.)

Eventually we will be on the International System, as it’s called. The internet has exposed Americans to the metric system better and faster than our 4th grade teachers ever could. (I sometimes forget how old I am, and that most of you don’t remember when President Carter tried converting the US back in the 1970’s). Well, we’re ready now, and I think we can switch at long last. Like I said, it’s already started. And I smile as I look at the label on the plastic water bottle next to me, as it reads “500 ml”.

Your Honor, I rest my case.

 

Married to a Medium

My wife is, for lack of a better term, a psychic.

Unlike Allison Dubois, the main character in the long-running CBS television series “Medium“, she does not solve crimes. And she also can’t pick next week’s winning Lotto numbers. But, like Ms. Dubois, she receives signs. Some are obvious; others somewhat obscure and ambiguous. But she has learned to recognize these signs, and she’s getting more accurate about interpreting them. At first, about 25 years ago, I was very skeptical. But over time, I began to see how real this ability was.

Oh how I wish she could pick those numbers, though! But it has now dawned on me that there’s a difference to being a psychic medium and a prognosticator, which may also be a thing, it turns out. The particular and peculiar ability of my wife is that she seems to be able to “hear” from what I can only logically describe as another quantum reality – another dimension, or an alternate universe, if you will.

In physics, the principle of quantum superposition suggests that particles can be in two places at once. Many people may scoff at this notion, and certainly there are many skeptics. But we need only look back a few generations to find a time when the idea of microorganisms seemed just as mysterious and preposterous. A century before the Civil War, people still may have blamed certain maladies on witchcraft. Indeed, things we take for granted in the 21st century would definitely have been attributed to sorcery, like listening to music from a mobile device, or traveling to outer space.

I’m confident that it’s just a matter of time before we reach a greater understanding of the universe(s). Quantum physics is still a relatively new field, and scientists are making new discoveries often. Someday, I predict, we will be able to explain psychic phenomena just as confidently we can explain a thunderstorm. What used to frighten people, making them think they had angered the gods, is now a quantifiable, measureable, even predictable event.

Psychic ability, ESP, telepathy, whatever you wish to call it, could be just an acute sensitivity to energy waves or loose electrons, just as hay fever is caused by a heightened sensitivity to one or more types of pollen. When I start sneezing and my eyes water, I look up the pollen count – something invisible to the naked eye, but is indeed there – to verify what I am reacting to. Granted, subatomic particles are much, much smaller. (Check out Scale of the Universe to see how different objects and organisms compare in size.) My point is, just because something can’t be seen or detected by our modern-day instruments doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

So now I am a believer. And I trust my wife’s ability to interpret the information she receives. As for me, I can’t tell you what my reaction to ragweed means, if anything. But if it’s possible that our electrons are traveling to the other side of the universe, or to other universes, and mingling with other protons there, who knows what is possible? Perhaps there are infinite parallel dimensions, copies of our own, or ones where weird and impossible things are commonplace, like dividing by zero. Maybe there is a universe where zero doesn’t exist. Just be careful that you don’t get burned as a witch if you should stumble into that existence.

 

 

Dogs and Climate Change

Dogs don’t believe in global warming. Of course they don’t, because they don’t give a shit. So why should we? About 27,000 years ago, domestic breeds of dogs began to emerge from ancient ancestors of modern wolves. It is thought that “gentler” wolves that were better adapted to human activity and were able to acclimate themselves to us were eventually domesticated and bred into the many breeds we know today. It’s hard to believe, but Pomeranians and Rottweilers have the same genome, and they are genetically more similar than the between six and 11 distinct giraffe species. I mean, I look at a giraffe and I think, “giraffe”. It’s a little hard to accept that a chihuahua can’t be a different species from a mastiff, but okay.

I have to admit to my anxiety over hearing increasingly grim news about how humans may be “the asteroid, not the dinosaurs” in the assertion that we are not just looking at – but may be part of the problem in the Sixth Mass Extinction in earth’s long history, according to the Daily Beast. Well, this isn’t such a new idea. Apparently, Charles Darwin entertained such an idea in The Origin of Species back in the 19th century. Yet this is just as hotly debated as it ever was, and Americans seem to be polarized over this issue. But to me, it’s a simple question of whether humans could possibly have ever made lasting changes to our environment. The argument against this position maintains that there are many factors, and man is not solely responsible for the apparent change in earth’s climate, if it is indeed changing. To wit: many scientists agree that the earth’s average temperature is rising, as are sea levels. Ice caps are shrinking, and habitats are dwindling. Opponents have argued that there is not sufficient data to prove any of this. I call bullshit, but we can agree to disagree, at least until the next ice age. Apparently, some are willing to hold their breath instead of listening to reason, and they will not be convinced.

But here’s something interesting: dogs. Dogs would not exist if not for human intervention. The same may be said for cattle, pigs, cats, and chickens. Sure, there are wild varieties of each of these animals. But my docile, domestic Siamese cat in no way resembles his erstwhile wild cousins. I saw one of them, while mountain biking one October day. Ahead on the trail I saw a large cat, probably a bobcat. It was hunched over something it had captured, perhaps a rabbit. I slowed, and when it saw me, it picked up its prey and ran off into the forest. My cat would hardly be able to catch a bunny. His instincts might lead him to kill it, perhaps even try to eat it. But I doubt it. What’s the difference between my kitty and that wild predator I encountered? Human intervention. Anyone who thinks humans have not made dramatic changes to our planet has perhaps not been paying attention.

With this knowledge, you might think the human race would start paying closer attention to our impact on this planet. It behooves us to take better care of our environment. Is it going to prevent extinction? Probably not. But we should start taking more responsibility for our actions. We were taught that in kindergarten. Tell the truth, clean up after yourself, and share with others. Later in my life, a teacher and pastor taught me about stewardship. He said we are called to be good stewards over everything we’ve been given: our health, our minds and bodies, our relationships, our finances, and our environment. It was a surprising message coming from the church. But I appreciated it. I took it to heart, and I try to live by this philosophy. It’s a concept I’ve heard from others: we were not given this world by our parents; instead, we are borrowing it from our children, or something to that effect.

I was reading an article about the Observer Effect. The principle can best be described as one’s inability to precisely measure something without changing the conditions. For example, let’s say I want to know the temperature of a cup of coffee. The coffee in the cup may be 50ºC, near scalding. So I dip a thermometer into the piping hot liquid, but the thermometer is not already the same temperature as the coffee; thus, the coffee loses heat, and we can’t know what the temperature was before I started my test. In the real world, this would hardly be noticeable. But there are many examples where observing a system changed the results. I bring this up because it’s important to realize that small changes make big differences down the line. You can really see this if you’ve ever tried shooting baskets from the free-throw line. You can have almost the same posture and movement each time you shoot, but the results can vary dramatically. Humans have been making small changes for tens of thousands of years. Actually, there have been huge changes, like the extinction of North American prehistoric horses, or massive deforestation. Humans have been altering this planet’s trajectory, ecologically speaking, all along. And the earth may not be able to recover quickly enough. It wasn’t too long ago that the city of London was shrouded in pollution from coal fires. Factories around the world continue to spew God-knows-what from huge smokestacks. And rivers and oceans are choked with medical waste and toxic runoff.

So, I recycle a lot of household waste. Otherwise, I like to compost things that are suitable. The rest is garbage. We produce a lot of trash. I think I’ve posted about this before, but at least I delivered a speech about it recently. I tend to get a little preachy with this subject, but we all have our passions, I suppose. Is it too much to ask that I should be able to breathe clean air and drink safe water? I don’t take these things for granted, because there are places like Beijing and Flint.

Hopefully, we will not be on the extinction list. I wish we could say that about other organisms. But we can do something, small though it may be. We’re already making positive changes, and perhaps the planet will recover this time.

So the next time someone says we’re not responsible for climate change, ask him if he believes in dog.

The Enemy Family

Sometimes I hate people.

I recently submitted DNA samples in a project to discover our human ancestry. There are several organizations out there that will, for a fee, analyze one’s DNA and provide the customer with information about his or her genetic past. The results will allow me to see into the distant past and possibly discover where my family came from and how we got here. Many people have paid for this analysis to be performed on their cheek swab material. Evidently, enough genetic material may be collected by scrubbing the inside of your mouth for 45 seconds to give scientists a detailed picture of what you’re made of. As it turns out, genetic researchers, along with historians and anthropologists and archaeologists, have traced human migration patterns to a precise spot in East Africa. Over a few hundred thousand years, Homo Sapiens moved from there to all points on the globe to where we find ourselves now.

It is clear to me that my ancestors came from Europe. One path will undoubtedly trace back to England, then further, to Central Europe and beyond. Another path will connect with the Iberian Peninsula, then to North Africa. Perhaps. But recent discoveries have identified a significant amount of Neanderthal DNA mixed in with some of us, the ones who descended from early Europeans. It will therefore come as no surprise to find 3-4% Homo Neanderthalensis in my sample, which is about average for people of European descent. It is much lower with Asians, and practically nonexistent among Africans.

Neanderthals have had a pretty negative reputation since first appearing in popular culture. They’re seen as ogre-like cave-dwellers with low intelligence and a knuckle-dragging posture. But a lot more is being learned about them and how it is they vanished. Well, they didn’t disappear entirely, it turns out. They are us (some of us, anyway.)

I don’t know anything about early humans, but I like to think part of who I am, my psyche, my physical attributes, I can trace back to those Neanderthal roots. Nevermind that I have a natural talent for music. I don’t know where that comes from, and I don’t know if it’s necessarily an inherited trait, but many members of my family have similar talents.

I was raised a certain way, and my family is not prone to violence or aberrant behavior (although there have been a few alcoholics). As a man, I am, however, fiercely protective, especially where my wife is concerned. When she feels threatened by someone, my instincts start working through my primitive components, and I become angry. No one causes my wife more harm more than her family.

My wife’s siblings are all very protective of her, especially her brothers, about whom I should refrain from drawing ancestral conclusions, but there are a lot of people who would be quite surprised to find that they have sub-Saharan African genetic roots. But the main problem we have with our families is not with siblings, but with in-laws. It is for this reason that I am a proponent of arranged marriages. Who better to pick your mate than the people who know you better than you know yourself? But I digress.

These in-laws, ex-in-laws, as it were, of my wife’s siblings, are not bad people, but they are hurtful and cruel. It is their upbringing, I suppose. Just as most people would find beating their children repugnant, they see it as part of life, a necessary affliction. Their parents abused them, therefore abuse begets abuse. But say anything disparaging about their family, no matter how horrible growing up was for them, and you will find yourself ostracized if not assaulted both physically and verbally.

It is enough for me to beckon my Neanderthal 3% and smite these people with the efficiency and thoroughness of the berserker. I feel a little like Bruce Banner, struggling to hold back this juggernaut within me. In reality I have nothing of substance to administer as a rebuke to the injury brought upon my family. And I consciously know that violence is not an answer. But there is rage, Neanderthal notwithstanding, inside me knowing how my wife is being punished for no reason.

People like to think that, above all else, family is the most important thing. Family trumps everything. Well, kind of. The Civil War rent families beyond reconciliation. Brothers fought brothers. The entire country was ripped apart. Family is not the strongest bond, it appears. It is my opinion that one’s family is made up of the people who care most for us, those who will stand by us, who will be with us no matter what we’re going through. These “relatives” of my wife are not family. They will not come to our aid if we are in need. They will not comfort, they will not defend us. They are the enemy.

I know how to treat enemies.

My Neanderthal ancestors probably had similar problems with in-laws. But their solution was probably a lot more gruesome. My solution is to cut them off entirely. Not so easy for my wife. And the struggle persists. But we do have family. Real family. Our friends who have always stood with us, who would travel halfway around the world just to see us. That’s family. Anthropologists like to remind us we are all one big family of humanity. Well, they haven’t met everyone, have they?