There was a short story someone once wrote which began with a yearly checkup at a doctors office for a 20-something girl.  In it, the doctor states that she will grow three inches and only fall in love once.  I have no idea what happened to, or in,  this story.  I encountered it as part of a writer’s workshop and the writer had not yet finished it at the time we read the first sections.  Still, the idea was intriguing – not only that a woman would grow at such an astounding rate in her later years, but that both her height and her heart were things predictable, were outcomes to be expected rather than hidden and unknowable futures.

I doubt that it is really possible for us to tell how much someone will grow.  I’m sure there are tests that can be done – on the growing spaces of our young bones, or in our calcium intake – and some reliable predictions might be made about our eventual height based on our family histories and statistical modeling.  But to truly anticipate a rapid spurt of growth seems somewhat fantastical and odd.  Still, it is possibly knowable within the realm of science.

At times I wish the other was.  At times, i would like to be able to say, based on my condition in life, my natural inclinations, my personality and my appearance, I will fall in love X number of times and then be done with the whole mess.  Whether that mess would end on a positive note or not would, of course, be entirely up to fate, but the idea of accurate predictions in such situations is reassuring.  But then, that takes something away as well.  Some of the magic of certain moments, the vitality of two people interacting in unknown proportions, would be drain away by reliable individual statistics.  Sure, there are numbers that say X many relationships or marriages fail, but that’s not quite the same as saying an individual or a certain group is more likely to fall in love a certain number of times.  On the whole, I think I like that variability.  It allows for the freedom of movement of the heart.

For the tin man.

There has been a fascination for us with the interaction between the mechanical and the visceral since the early popularity of L. Frank Baum’s books.  A range of characters portray the variations of what are supposedly the central issues of the two types of ‘people’.  Tik Tok, Data (from Star Trek: The Next Generation), and Adam Link (of The Outer Limits ‘I, Robot’ episode) all deal with the issue of becoming more human.  They, like humans who may want the advantages of being stronger or more durable or faster, are searching for something they don’t quite have the reach for.  Others, like David from A.I. or Andrew from Bicentennial Man, are searching for the acceptance of what they feel but others don’t see.  And some – the cyborgs – are simply seeking to regain what they have lost.  The most notable of these is the tin man, who has even lost his heart.

To a certain extent, many of us will be cyborgs in the future.  We’ll have prosthetic limbs that respond to nerve twitches in still-functioning parts of our body, or special exoskeletal devices to make us stronger or faster, or nano things in our blood to prevent disease.  We have new organs of a mechanical variety to replace the old ones as they give out.  Heck, they’re already doing it with hearts, and I have to say that the one in the article looks absolutely awesome and amazing.  But despite the replacement parts, we seem reasonably confident that we can remain ourselves.  The hope is that we can recombine in new ways, instead of stagnating, when we cheat death through more mechanical means.  I’m comfortable with that, as long as we don’t cheat life too.

Creepy and under my skin.

I’m all for new inventions.  And I know how debilitating conditions like diabetes can be.  Still, the idea of a dime-sized device under my skin freaks me out, especially when that device is in control of monitoring my health.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned or simply unrealistic.  After all, the kind of patient care required for lifelong illnesses must be truly demanding.  The kind of self-monitoring that goes on with certain conditions must be tedious.  I support the right of anyone to live a healthy, happy life.  But part of this whole monitoring idea is about relinquishing control.  Sure, the implanted sensors could give a more accurate reading of your body’s function than any person not hooked up to a machine.  But the idea of that same quick, accurate reading being used to inject me with certain substances is downright frightening.

Maybe it’s all too much movies.  The weird and wired plug-ins in the Matrix also were creepy for me to watch, even though they weren’t real.  I guess it’s just one more step towards the computers taking over, and to be frank, I’m not quite read for that one.

The Santa man.

Being sick sucks.  Going to the doctor sucks.  Being sick and then having to go to the doctor really sucks.  You know it’s especially bad when 4 or 5 people in your office ask you if you’re dying in a single day.  But there are compensations.  Today, in my hours-long doctor experience, there were a few shining moments of rare goodness.

The first one would have to be the jolly old guy who I first saw in urgent care.  He introduced himself and he seemed to be one of those nurses who actually still enjoys his job.  He was, after all, jolly.  He sat me down and started asking all the usual questions: symptoms, allergies, medications, that kind of thing.  It’s a rare man who can ask you kindly if you’ve been having diarrhea.  Of course, he also had the requisite fluffy white beard and grandfatherly expression.

The second was the actual practitioner I saw.  For the five minutes I was there, I don’t think I got a word in edgewise, which is pretty amazing considering treatment is usually based on symptoms described by the patient.  I guess I managed to convey most stuff with a few dazed nods in answer to her questions.  But she did love to talk – about kids, dogs, neighbors, a co-worker of hers who also has wild allergies (of COURSE we discussed my steroid intake and her love of certain new asthma meds).  All in all, it was a little overwhelming, but for just five minutes, it was like a breath of force.  Bam!  Ego in the Freud sense.  And then afterwards you stumble out and hopefully discover you liked the whole experience after a little recovery time.

Of course, then I was waiting at the pharmacy for 45 minutes and lost all patience with the world, but who’s counting?  What would a doctor’s visit be without a heaping helping of frustration?

Give ’em a drug

Recent research on mice has revealed a drug that may burn fat and make you more healthy (able to run on the hamster wheel longer) even when you’re a couch potato.  And there are cases where such a drug would be potentially necessary, in particular when people suffer from joint pain or risks of heart failure and are less able to get regular exercise.  Still, it seems like a patch rather than a real rehabilitation.

There are plenty of reasons why a person might not get the exercise they need outside of adverse medical conditions – emotional, financial, educational.  Even in the case of medical reasons, I wonder if a pill like this (especially in the case of widespread use) would become a slapdash ‘cure’.  If someone who does not exercise regularly is overweight, do doctors just prescribe the pill-of-the-month?  Or do we look at the possibility of  depression, thyroid imbalance, or the lifestyle of a single mom working three part-time jobs and scarfing burgers in her 30 minute lunch breaks?  How do we analyze cause and effect?

If we are dedicated to really testing the effects of this drug over the long term, I think that’s fine.  A slow introduction to the market and use only on a highly personalized case-by-case basis I think would be beneficial.  True, lives could be saved with a drug like this.  But, for the moment, we don’t know that for certain, and I would hate to see even the possiblity of a miracle cure make us complacent.

The Salamander

The word ‘salamander’ today often brings to mind something slimy and wet with very little concern for its own limbs.  After all, it can regrow limbs and other body parts at need.  So an individual arm or leg or even liver would not have the same value to it as these irreplaceable parts do to us.  For quite some time, this ability has been under investigation by the medical community.  After all, what person whose lost a hand wouldn’t give the world to get it back?  There have even been studies (which I know of only from hearsay – I haven’t read the research myself) that the human body originally has this regrowth ability.  Children under the age of five have been known to regrow pinkies – at least those that are cut above the second knuckle.

It seems somewhat realistic then that current medicine hopes to encourage our own stem cells to regrow body parts at least partially today.  While I am a little hesitant to endorse anything named ‘pixie dust’ and made from pig products, it’s still an interesting idea.  I would like to be able to encourage my cells to grow wings so I can fly.  Or at least a useful third arm.

Pixie dust and extra limbs aside, there are other connotations for salamanders that have grown up from misconceptions about the animal that I find intriguing.  Salamanders are named to be fire creature, created from flame, animals that live in intense heat and have the ability to cool fires.  Modern science calls them amphibians, living at least part of their lives in the water, and suspects that the whole fire idea came from rotting logs put on the flames that sent the creatures who lived there skittering out.  According to modern science, they secrete a milky substance when in danger, which may have kept them from being baked crispy by the flames.  But is this really the truth behind their legend?

We may all disparage people in the past, but I find it hard to believe that even the Greeks were without basic concepts of fire building.  A damply rotting log does not burn well.  An amphibian doesn’t usually try to live in a drying-out piece of rot, where its food source has probably already died out.  Be that as it may, there’s a certain attraction regarding any animal said to be born of fire.  Other associations of the word regard soldiers and chaste women.  The soldiers are exemplified for exposing themselves to the heat of the most intense combat; the women, for remaining pure when surrounded by the fires of temptation.  There’s even a verb form in the OED – ‘to live amist fire, like the salamander’.  It reminds me of the proverb about ‘interesting times’ – to live, surrounded by rage and pain and all the other downfalls of society and peril, and still to be a green and glowing thing.  Whether born of fire or pond, the salamander is still a form of renewal and growth and life.

A body is just a body.

Health professionals have noticed that women might not get the best treatment possible from their doctors due to researching and making their own interpretations, not asking questions, not recognizing gender bias, and not trusting their intuition.  The first two are understandable in the modern world.  With access to an increasing amount of information on the internet, of course we research and make our own interpretations more than might be healthy.  We might bias our own doctors with our assumptions, where medical professionals normally should have the experience that would lead them to better assumptions.  The last three are more difficult to understand.  After the ages when contemporary medicine told us our pain was due to a wandering womb, or the widespread appellation of hysteria during Victorian times, you might think we would’ve learned our lesson and been a bit more skeptical.

Why then, are we not asking questions?  Why are we not trusting our own judgment when it tells us something might not be right?  On reason might be the idea of medicine as law.  Medicine is one of the few hard sciences that every single person will encounter in their lives.  Despite questions of intelligent design and what should be taught in schools, the culture of this society has a healthy respect for science.  However, one of the key aspects of hard science that is often overlooked is that it is an exploration of the nature of things, a constant questioning, rather than a stable doctrine.  Yes, there are some ideas we’re pretty sure about, like the idea that the universe is expanding from what we can observe and the idea that smoking can predispose cells to become cancerous.  But we don’t know everything.  We’re still learning, especially in the area of personal health, rather than assured that certain symptoms are the result of a certain disease, or that certain lifestyles cause a longer, fuller life.

Another reason might be our own body image, and the idea of the physical form as controllable, at least to a certain extent.  There have always been ideas of clothing and face and body shape as an expression of who we are, both as individuals and as members of a particular class or society.  With a fuller understanding of our bodies as strictly physical, and plastic surgery and other body-modifying techniques, I think we tend to see ourselves as more changeable than we really are.  While our physical form is not the complete identity we possess, it is also more than a space where we are temporarily sheltered.  It holds a deeper connection to who we are, no matter how we control or change it.

Finally, one of my architecture professors dismissed my attempts to spare a few measly trees from the axe in one of my public park designs due to their physical shape.  He described them as not able to reach their true potential (either height or branch span) due to disease or impingement of sidewalks, structure, and power lines.  But a tree in the forest is also impinged upon, and is also subject to disease and lightening strike.  It does not make the form of the tree less appealing, or stop it from producing new leaves or branches, or simply living, as best it can.  We should not forget that about ourselves.

Bees go AWOL

In my days as a ‘current events avoider’, I still managed to a fear of the loss of honey bees.  As the greatest, most diverse , and most widespread pollinator, we owe this little creature just about everything we eat, grow, or wear.  Outside of the value of honey as a crop, beekeeping can provide additional income to those who travel with their hives to aid crop fertilization, making it a lucrative profession both in America and third world countries.  But it seems like there’s always a threat to these ventures:  mites, fungus, Africanized bees, or even pesticides.

A recent survey of 19% of the commercial bee industry in the U.S. showed losses of 32% over the past year.  True, this survey investigated only the largest operators, but a general trend can be induced from the study.  Just imagine if 1/3 of the people in your office died over the course of a year, or 1/3 of the businesses in your area were closed.  Now imagine that, in addition to rising food prices and the scarcity of certain crops due to their use as biofuel, the loss of 1/3 or more of this year’s crop due to a lack of fertilization.

The most interesting part of the situation, however, is the loss of bees and entire hives to CCD, colony collapse disorder.  Basically, the bees of a hive get fed up, or depressed, or disillusioned with the leadership of their hives, and wander off on their own.  They die alone, the queen dies by herself, and honey production stops, starving off the next generation.  Science has yet to determine a cause, but I have my own theory:  we’ve taught them well.

My First Gruit

For those of you that know what a gruit is….well, you’re probably snobby beer connoisseurs or other types of freaks. For the rest of you, I have a bit of an explanation. It’s a type of beer that mostly isn’t made anymore, and ale seasoned with an herb mixture. Typically the gruit mix takes the place of hops, though some gruits used to use hops in small quantities.

I’m not a big fan of lots of hops. Call me crazy, but the bitter flavor just isn’t really my thing. I do tend to like the darker porters and stouts, but that’s probably for the sweetness of their malts. So when I was at dinner at the Cambridge Brewing Company last night trying to pick a beer, the description with ‘no hops’ was attractive to me. Plus from the description, it looked…really good. Flavorings like licorice and wild rosemary are personal favorites of mine in food – how could they not be good in beer?

My dinner companions of that evening would not agree with me, but I found it really enjoyable.  it was almost like a beer/herb tea combination.  I know the very idea might make some of you feel yacky,  but at the end of the meal it really cleansed the palate.  I thought to myself, “If I can ever find it again, I’m going to try it again”.

After further research, this might not be such a good idea.  I went home and fell asleep quicking with a pretty bad headache.  According to wikipedia, the herbs in a traditional (mine from last night included)  gruit contain substances that are mildly or moderately narcotic.  While I may or may not have been suffering from those effects, at least one of the ingredients probably caused my need to hit the sack.  Wild rosemary, or Marsh Labrador Tea, is not really rosemary at all – in fact, the plant has toxic compounds called turpenes.  It’s like the stuff in turpentine, and it makes you aggressive even in small quantities.  There are even worse symptoms if you ingest more than a little.  According to wikipedia, “The mere smell of the plant may cause headache to some people.”  Hm.  Information I could’ve used before drinking the beer.

What I couldn’t do with $30,000

Inventiveness should be cherished.  It’s something that I’ve always felt was true, even though I’m likely to not ever make a better widget-maker.  I value creativity, in the areas of art where I have some potential for benefiting the world, but also in areas of science and most importantly, humaneness.  While the last is obviously the hardest to acheive, I still have utter respect for those who excel at the first two.

The Lemelson prize is a recognition of the second, a recognition of strides made in science inventiveness.  This year’s prize winner is all about bacteriophages, little viruses that infect bacteria.  By redesigning these, the winner was able to use them to target the DNA of bacteria and manipulate its ability to resist antibiotics as well as to produce enzymes that break down the biofilms that bacteria can build up as slimy layers of defense against antiseptics and cleaners.  What’s next?  Proteins for the destruction of viruses?  The manipulation of DNA on a molecular level?  I certainly don’t know.

There was also some discussion of the development of new antibiotics, and how expensive it was.  Evidently the reason most companies don’t take it on is due to the high cost of the process and the low returns due to a decreased use of antibiotics.  There are two contradictory self-defeating propositions there, I suppose counterbalancing each other.  The first is the reduced use of antibiotics due to increased resistance to them, which new developments might be able to overcome, increasing the use of that particular antibiotic.  The second is the increased resistance of bacteria to antibiotics due to the development of new ones that allow bacteria to grow more defensive.

Finally, I would like to discuss the prize of $30,000.  Now, I can understand the recognition we want to give to our inventors, and the bacteriophage work is something I never could have done.  But still, $30,000?  What is the money really for?  Do we think this winner is going to be more inspired to invent more due to his prize, or is this considered just as seed money for potential future developments?  Obviously the addition of funds helps research, but how much is a prize like this really going to fuel that research?  Would the money be better spent on programs that allow for development, rather than an individual?  Conversely, would we have peanut butter diesel fuel if George Washington Carver had won the Lemelson prize?

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