31 March 2008

But wait! There's more mountaineering!

If I were a youngster with a yen for climbing Mt. Everest, I would be crushed by the news in High Crimes: The Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed, a new nonfiction book by photojournalist Michael Kodas. The poor author went with his wife to Everest on the 2004 Connecticut Expedition, but not only did they not summit but he also discovered a lethal minefield of treachery, theft, and disdain for human life. It's enough to seriously shake anyone's faith in humans, especially the ones lurking around Everest's Base Camp, the ones standing between the aspiring and sometimes naive climbers and the summit. Guides, sherpas, climbers -- no one seems to be immune to the attractions of lots of cash, the money raised for expedition costs, for tips, for gear, even the money that is given for spent oxygen bottles brought down from the mountain. This is a horrifying trek that amplifies some of the issues brought to light in Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air and had me reading until 3 a.m. with its tales of guides leaving their dying clients on the mountain, guides stealing the photos of others who reached the summit so they could claim they had climbed to the top, and those returning to camp after climbs to find their tent, gear, and provisions gone. Perhaps the saddest thing is the parade of people who pass various climbers and sherpas in need of rescue without stopping to help. And there are other disturbing things, like the fact that anyone at Everest can call themselves a guide -- and many do without any credentials or without the ones they say they have -- and the fact that a lot more than the weather can turn people or teams back during any given summit bid (people stealing critical ropes and equipment, the "8,000 meter toll road" trick in which bandits demand more cash from surprised mountaineers for the use of higher ropes or to pass them on the path). I'd better not spoil it any more, but it's an irresistible tale and I hope it results in changes in how traffic on Mt. Everest is managed.

That distressing parade of people past the dead and dying also raises some of the same haunting questions posed by author and filmmaker Joe Simpson in The Beckoning Silence, which I recently wrote about here, and by Mark Obenhaus' recent film Steep: is it worth all the deaths? Climbing and skiing big mountains just has never compelled me enough to risk my life (and when I went up Long's Peak when I was 14, not only was that peak only 14,000 feet tall, but I also too young to comprehend the possibility that climbing that high could be that risky). Nor do I believe I could walk past another person who was clearly freezing to death, but clearly the lack of oxygen has more profound effects than can be anticipated from lower altitudes. These films and stories make me nervous enough about getting frostbite on my bike or on a ski lift; I'm not about to go so far. But some people will stop at nothing.

28 March 2008

From far away she comes, ill-mannered and plastic

From our dinner-table conversation the other night:

"Our little barbarian," Daddy sighed as he watched our daughter eat her chopped salad with her fingers.

"Where's Barbaria?" the young one queried.

"It's where Barbies come from!" I said brightly.

23 March 2008

Lariam on the loose

This is from an FDA publication in 2003:

Consumer Guide for Malaria Drug

A new medication guide provides better information to consumers about the risks and benefits of Lariam (mefloquine hydrochloride), a drug that helps to prevent malaria.

Janet Woodcock, M.D., director of the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, says, "Lariam can work in certain areas where malaria is resistant to other drugs, and it offers several other advantages, including its once weekly dosing, the ability to use it in children, and the fact that it does not sensitize people to sunlight."

But in rare instances, Lariam has been associated with serious psychiatric problems. The Lariam medication guide instructs people who experience a sudden onset of certain adverse events--anxiety, depression, restlessness, or confusion--to contact a doctor or other health care provider because it may be necessary to stop taking Lariam and use another malaria prevention medicine. Sometimes these adverse events may persist even after stopping the medication. Rare reports have claimed that some Lariam users think about killing themselves. There have been rarer reports of suicides, but the FDA does not know if Lariam use was related to these suicides.

The medication guide highlights the risks of malaria and provides information on how to recognize psychiatric risks. It also gives other important facts, including how the drug should be taken and a list of the most common side effects, such as bad dreams, difficulty sleeping, nausea, and vomiting.

The FDA and Lariam's manufacturer, Roche Pharmaceuticals of Nutley, N.J., developed the medication guide, which should be given with each Lariam prescription filled.

What they don't tell you in this sketchy little blurb, amongst the "rare" and "rarer" and "psychiatric risks" is that one of the dangers of taking this drug is getting permanent brain lesions from it. And these lesions can affect people in wildly different but rarely positive ways. This ain't no shock treatment. This is your brain on drugs.


There's an excellent cover story by Joel Warner in this week's Westword in which Lariam is featured. I'm outraged afresh (yep! still paying attention!). I'm pissed that a few hundred to a couple of thousand people, maybe more over time, will read that cover story (I sure hope it's more than that, but realistically, I doubt it), and a few hundred or thousand will see the documentary "Taken as Directed." I just want to, as I told my sweetie just now, "shout it from the roooooooftooooops!" I can't stand that this is happening and that people like Andrew Pogany are getting the bum's rush from the Army as a result of his efforts to make sure servicepeople are getting the medical attention for injuries sustained during wartime that they deserve. As far as I am concerned, they deserve their Veteran's Administration benefits forever, but that's often not how the military sees things, as you can read in the Westword story.

It just makes me want to write in my novel about the real drug and its real side effects more, instead of making up my own parallel-universe version. (In an earlier beginning to my novel, I had a grandma taking anti-Alzheimer's medication and discovering that the medication had an unexpected side effect of inducing spontaneous and unpredictable orgasms, but that got too distracting. Hollywood would probably eat that one up.) In my understanding of the legality of discussing true events or entities in the roman a clef literary form, as long as I say it's fiction, I never have to say I'm sorry.

My goal is to show how a public health disaster is made possible from many sides: from the pharmacists to the doctors to the drug reps to the drug analysts to the drug marketers to the people who trade drug stocks to the people who take the drugs and the people who have to help those who have taken the drugs recover from the side effects of said drugs. Because it's all true, and if you spent 100 hours researching this, you too would be this outraged.

22 March 2008

Running roughshod over our bodies no more

By now, if you've been reading this at all, you know I'm on something of a new crusade. It's in part my shock as a result of seeing that Lariam documentary. It's also every story I hear everywhere I turn: catastrophic health-care bills and health problems that upend lives every day in enormous ways. Every time I see a new article that mentions the economic costs of a given disorder or disease in society, I think of everyone I know, all the people who have suffered from various forms of depression, heart problems, and gut diseases. Last night I started Paul Hawken's Blessed Unrest and was inspired -- that's what I'm talking about! -- from the get-go.

For I am one of those people, those mad-as-hell-and-I'm-not-going-to-take-it people. One of those people who needs to stand up and demand, how much of this current health crisis is a direct result of misguided economic and agricultural policies? And how much entrenchment in the industries that hasten our physical and economic dependence on them prevents us from seeing change in those industries (the transportation and energy industries, namely, and the newest boon to investors, the psychopharmaceuticals, a newly tapped market that turned out to be far more vast than anyone had ever dreamed).

And I am convinced there is a connection between the degree of our overfed and isolated misery here in this country and our fealty to the way things are, our willingness to swallow pills in hopes that they will magically fix what is wrong with us but not have any other effects whatsoever, our willingness to use a lot of gas and make a fat carbon footprint as our fathers did before us. I see a growing gulf, as if an earthquake has rent a chasm in the earth, with people who see us as all connected and one organism with the earth on one side and on the other people who completely disregard any responsibility to the planet other than that of satisfying their urges for novelty and umami and whatever it is this week. More and more often I feel that cognitive dissonance (where I believe one thing yet do something else) when I jump into the car and start the engine; it's only getting louder and more distracting as time passes. I see my own compliance with the way things are, with the ideas I have of my status and privileges. I hear a growing sound that everyone on the planet is making, a growing cry for help in more and more of the people I know. I see an inability to balance our "lifestyles" with our impacts on our environment and planet, and I sense that this creates this same cognitive dissonance in others that I have been experiencing daily.

21 March 2008

The power to change

I threw the newsletter down in disgust when I read, reviewing last week's class newsletter from my daughter's teacher, "we will have a relaxing time sharing books," at the end of a paragraph in which she invited all the kids to bring a favorite book and small blanket from home.

The thing was, I had asked my daughter about that day and she said, "We all read our books to ourselves."

Huh. So much for the sharing.

What can I do? Whip out my laptop and blog, for one. Vent some steam.

This is just an example of what this year has been like. At every turn, my kid's teacher, her primary role model besides me and her dad, just seems like someone who wants to retire already. She's often snappish and fed up with the kids, especially the ones like mine who aren't easy and confident already. We all know those ones will be fine. The beautiful, articulate, confident ones already know how to charm, how to love and be loved. But then there are the other ones, the dreamers and the ESL kids and the differently-abled learners, whom Ol' Teach seems to think are just a pain and if they'd just behave better all these other problems would just go away. I had that mistaken belief until I realized my kid couldn't "see" in any sense what I was trying to explain or describe or write. She's just starting to now, but she certainly couldn't then. And for a brief time, I kept approaching it as some kind of behavioral issue, because she just wouldn't even try, and I backed off of helping with homework because we always ended up mad at each other.

Now she's starting to be able to perceive and read and write and compute, and I can see just how difficult it was for her to do any of that before all these interventions and just naturally growing into being able to learn to read. Part of me wants to just change my kid's chronological age for school records, but that would be too weird. It has just felt like my daughter's chronological age is not her developmental age. And the educational system tries, but hasn't until recently been allowed do her many favors. She was tested at school to see if she qualified for special education services and when the team of specialists gathered to announce the results to us, some of them were just about throwing off sparks in their excitement because she is so strong in certain areas (verbally, and with a near-freakish ability to remember and repeat back a string of letters or numbers), and so impaired in others (visually, motor skills of all stripes). To them, her problems are identifiable and therefore solvable, which helps us see the possibilities as well. We have been encouraged to enrich our daughter's sensory inputs, her "sensory diet," as the occupational therapists like to say. We're good about it in some ways yet lazy in others, farming it out to others to some degree but also taking on more at home. Her strengths are getting more and more evident every day, too.

But at school, nothing has changed in her classroom. And it would take more than both of my hands to count the times I have come into the classroom and found a certain bright, curious, and Latino kid at a desk by himself. I volunteer in the classroom every week and see how it is, especially under the militaristic glare of my kid's teacher. There is no accounting for cultural differences and learning-style differences on some fundamental level in our school, if people like my kid's teacher get to keep on treating the ones who don't get it as miscreants. We need cultural cross-training. Often I think it's not fair the way some of these kids are expected to behave at school, when home life is nothing like this weirdly careful, quiet atmosphere.

The worst thing is I see how I exert some of this kind of pressure on my own kid, too. I'm middle-aged. It's a fact of life, and my kid is only a few years old. I'm one of those women who didn't have babies early, and now I have a much lower threshold than I did even before my kid for high noise levels (especially if it's noisy). And I'm a middle-to-upper-middle class white lady, right? I was raised with certain expectations about how a parent relates to their child and how kids are supposed to "behave." I find those same sets of expectations spilling out of my own head and mouth at my daughter, even though she's rarely done anything to deserve all those antiquated ideas.

So we all -- I include myself -- need some cultural sensitivity training. I live with a kid who is much louder than I am, and I suspect she came from people louder than ourselves. (Certainly she got used to more noise and tumult in the orphanage than she experiences here.) I came from quiet parents -- when one in particular wasn't drunk and picking fights, anyway. I think about the families who walk over to our school from the trailer park, where they share their 400 square feet with the rest of their family, however large or small, and I think you'd probably have a lot more noise if you lived so close to everyone, cheek-by-jowl as we old WASPs like to say. Then you'd go to school and everyone would be telling you to be quiet all the time, even though you were just starting to understand it all and were so curious you had a million questions. Wouldn't you just be in shock? Wouldn't school feel like a long, excruciating game of "freeze" most of the time?

18 March 2008

My new film: seven deaf Maoris go to the moon!

I never saw myself as the kind of person who would laugh at six blind Tibetan teenagers, but here I am. What provoked all this mirth was the announcement for a new film called Blindsight, billed as "a thrilling documentary about six Tibetan blind teenagers climbing Mount Everest." I laughed and thought, what do you have to do to get attention for your documentary now? It's not enough just to climb the mountain anymore, or to haul IMAX cameras all the way up to the summit, or even for one person to climb it blind.

15 March 2008

The driver

This guy, the guy with the pencils and the hots for the dremel tool, tried to draw me out about myself for a few minutes while I was getting to work taping, so I just gave a couple of brief answers ("Yep," "Moved away and came back,") and turned back to my work, without adding, "I'm really a writer," which is the first thing I wanted to say but was immediately glad I'd hadn't. I was wearing a film festival tshirt over dungarees and let him reach his own conclusions. I was just there to work. (And then go home and blog about it after, apparently, hahahahahaha!)

On day two of my adventure, I learned to grout, which at first felt like the activity from hell, until I figured out how to get the stuff to stick. I thought it was pretty fun after all. I got the idea of putting enough grout on there, really mashing it in (which is hard labor -- I'm taking credit on the little workout counter I update online) and making sure there's enough to fill in all the spaces and fill little curves that meet doorframes and a million other details. It's good work. And I have been getting fitter lately, figuring that it was for a good reason. Last time I worked up to painting our house. This time I want to do some decorating inside. It's time for an update.

I enjoy work I can do that is hard, too. Sometimes I think I missed my calling as a brain surgeon or something equally absorbing. Novel writing feels complex in a similar way. Like my brain was made to take all of those possibilities in and keep them running for a while all together. For some reason I'm a sucker for endurance when the outcome matters, too. I have never been able to get that up for racing, running or biking or anything like that, but if it's to do a task or a job (paint a house, get x miles down a river), I'm all over it. I have been pleasantly surprised to notice a tendency in myself I find I like and admire when I'm skiing: I am more and more willing to just go all out down some slope, no matter what it looks like, even off cornices and down little gullies and in trees. (The only exception: those steep volkswagen-sized mogul hills -- those are still scary to me, yet not as scary now that I ski better and am more fit than I have been for a couple of ski seasons.)

Deadlines help, too. I need a deadline for this novel. And for our bathroom project.

13 March 2008

Word of the day: slurry

I most recently heard this lovely word on a cooking show, where the very gay Asian host talked about making a “slurry” of water and cornstarch, to thicken a sauce.

Today I learned it in another context. My friend the tile artist says when, after the grout sets enough (and I got an education in how long to wait and what was too soon), you want to wash it off the tile. “Wax on, wax off,” she said, describing how to work across the tiles with a wet terrycloth towel, whose little knobby loops of thread grab the grout and smooth it around, instead of pulling the grout off like a sponge does. “You want to make a slurry with the grout on the surface of the tile.” Ah, so you're not just grouting, I see now: you are also polishing the tile. She followed me with a sponge, which she rinsed often and used to wash most of the grout off the surface of the tile. “I like to use warm water; it dries faster.” (I can't imagine doing this kind of work on the east coast or somewhere tropical. Must take forever for things to dry.)

She asked me to bring gloves, and I did bring a sturdy pair of rubber gloves that fit me... like gloves. "You wouldn't believe how many people show up to work and say, 'I'll be fine. I don't need gloves,'" my friend griped to me about all those subcontractors gone by. Which brings us to her gruesome factoid of the day: If you don't wear gloves to grout, you can wear your fingertips off. Worse, the portland cement has an anesthetizing effect, so you can easily rub off the ends of your fingertips before you even know it has happened, my friend explained. “Yeah, one day we realized S. was leaving blood on the grout as he worked.” Eww.

(My mom can put that one in her 365 Things You Wish You Didn't Know Calendar. Doesn't that sound like a project that should have illustrations by Ralph Steadman or Gahan Wilson or Edward Gorey?)

After lunch (at Pupusas, one of our town's great little restaurants), we donned dust masks (I can't emphasize enough how much you really don't want to be breathing silica and cement dust) and buffed the final bit of grout off the tile with a dry terrycloth towel. The beach-glass colored tiles glowed after that treatment, but my friend thought it would have looked really good with a darker grout that showed off the herringbone pattern of the tile. Nice work.

I felt like an amateur, because I was, but I comported myself well enough to get invited back to work tomorrow. “You are eminently trainable,” my friend announced to me and her other assistant. I taped quickly and smoothly enough, I guess, adjusting my fussiness to that of the house's owner as I heard him harangue my friend, the contractor, about evening up some edges with her dremel tool. He really wanted to convince her to do the smoothing out, and she was trying to understand his desire while defending the fact that these were individually made tiles and were therefore not uniform so were designed to be uneven. He wasn't hearing it. He wanted to see that dremel tool, and when she finally got it out so he could go to town on those edges if he wanted to, the guy was totally impressed.

“Gee, that's like a dental tool,” he practically gasped. He was so impressed with the delicacy of her tool that he had to make the same comparison a couple more times before absconding with it to smooth some edges for himself.

The other oddball thing about this guy is that while his house (a rock-covered French country mansion fantasy, every room on a vast scale and with very high ceilings that dwarfed me and made me feel like a doll in a dollhouse in just about every room) is being finished, he lives in another house up the street. And the guy always drives. It's maybe two to three city blocks, judging by street addresses, and it's along a quiet suburban street with a very small amount of traffic. But he never walks. And it's not like our winters are these bitter and snowbound eras. There are lots of perfectly dry days. Most days of the week throughout the seasons, I ride the city bus with my daughter to her school and then I make the 20-minute walk home. This guy drives two blocks up the street to his other house. Unbelievable.

11 March 2008

He's working on a new cocktail

I was writing the other day about framing some of the ethical conflicts in my book as environmental issues. As I am starting to see it, our right to be physically healthy is being compromised by big pharma in several areas: the side effects of all the drugs we are now taking, as well as the persistence of those drugs in our environment, which exposes all of us, whether we like it or not.

The omnipresence of these substances also introduces another element of uncertainty: how the prescription drugs so many of us are taking (3.7 billion prescriptions in the US are written a year, an increase of 12 percent over five years ago, according to The Guardian) are interacting with what we are getting in our water supply. Surely this "cocktail" of exposure affects some of us more than others (in terms of overall physical health and the health of our offspring, even, I would guess, of the potential for introducing spontaneous mutations). It could still prove that something like this even explains autism and other pervasive developmental disorders. Perhaps a shot of a vaccine is just one of the straws that causes the body to throw some kind of overload switch in certain sensitive individuals (e.g., babies and children) who have already been exposed to complex chemicals with long half-lives in their drinking water and breast milk.

Yet it's clear that it's not just big pharma that can act as a sort of public health riptide. We also must consider the role of food in questions of overall health. Learning about the effects of gluten is teaching me a lot about the gut's complex role in the body. I see a distinct possibility that more of us than we know, by far, are sensitive or even allergic to some of the foods we take for granted (wheat, dairy, eggs are common allergens). It seems more likely that our guts are affecting our brains, rather than our gut diseases being "all in our heads." If we can change our thinking, doctors have argued for years, then our guts will heal. But what if our injured guts won't let us think straight? Then we have to heal them before we can heal what's in our heads. It's hard to remember that not all food is love, isn't it? We all want to believe that about what we eat every day. Most of our mamas told us so.

Yet I feel we have to start drawing our line in the sand, defining the limits of what kind of side effects and increases in expenditures on drugs and medicine and insurance costs we are willing to tolerate, what kinds of concentrations of chemicals we will tolerate in our environment, and we must continue defining those boundaries repeatedly and over time given new knowledge and data, before our rights to do so are preempted by the rights claimed by corporate America to profit at any cost.

10 March 2008

Mother India and The Darjeeling Limited

My sweetie wanted to include Mother India in our adoption notice, but I couldn't quite wrap myself around that. Our child came from two people with a sad story and an orphanage too, yes; but all of India offering her up to us, plump and smiling, on a shiny stainless steel platter? Even if we are all connected, which I do believe, that was oversimplifying the situation a little too much, I felt.

Watching The Darjeeling Limited and its DVD featurette I was carried back to some of those beautiful moments from our week in India: the smiles and dedication and curiosity of the people we met everywhere: at the orphanage, at luxurious lunches, at the dosa stand (like an old-fashioned soda counter, a lovely stainless-and-formica-and-and-leatherette reminder of the Woolworth's era), at our guesthouse in a Kolkata suburb and our self-appointed guide whom we for some reason dubbed "George," all the schoolchildren in uniform calling out "hellow" and waving to us tourists, the marigolds in the car shrines, the cow shrines, the herd of goats passing through downtown at lunchtime, the dusky glory of our guesthouse host's golf club, in traffic, at the CD store, at the bakery, and on that wild and weird taxi ride with a stoned cabbie in one of those old Morris-type Ambassadors through a cloud of dust so dark our headlights were no help in penetrating it.

And I was reminded especially of one specific detail: I kept staring at the billboards because they were similar (full of ads) yet different (more text crammed into the same area), but I was having trouble identifying what it was that made them look so different. After a while I knew: they all seemed to be handmade. Every letter was a little different. Every square foot of every billboard was clearly create and arranged by the hand of a person. Here we know some giant printer has embossed and spewed out sheets that will be hung next to a freeway or highway. There, people have labored over every detail of these public ads and announcements.

I saw it as a reminder that we don't really employ people very well in this country. Many jobs have been replaced by machines, just as predicted by all the naysayers years ago. Could it be something other than coincidence that kids and older people don't have a place in society in the west? I'm not saying that everyone needs a menial job, but it seems to me there's a new spate of people in this culture who have grown up in the golden age of television and may not quite grasp that they might actually have to work for the nice house and flash car and the credit card and ATM full of instant cash. We've lost a connection to the idea that this is not necessarily everyone's destiny. Certainly our right to pursue it is, but I think we've come to mistake that for the right to achieve it. The saddest part to me is that our culture doesn't have as much room for things made or done by hand now. Even though we all have a Michael's or a Hobby Lobby within several miles now, crafts still seem to have been relegated to schoolchildren, church ladies, and a handful of younger women who have just enough spare time to learn to throw pots or paint or knit and keep these fading arts alive.

Well. I wasn't intending to rant about economics or fatalism, but there you go. Happy Monday.

Back to the Darjeeling's journey: I was thrilled to see that the featurette was about the production design, because I felt that was about half of the movie and maybe the part of the film I felt the most passionate about. I didn't feel the story was the strength of this film; it all seemed imbalanced and abrupt to me by the end, even while I liked most the words and images along the way. I enjoyed the brothers (who really did seem like brothers) and their weirdly mannered, structured behavior -- it matched up well with the painstakingly decorated train and sets. And my sweetie and I agreed that their luggage was like another character in the movie (I kept on trying to come up with collective nouns for it: the entourage of luggage, the Greek chorus of luggage, etc.).

See it and tell me what you think. Most of what I thought about was that the train in that movie had been decorated from scratch to look like that. Soot alert: just don't be surprised when everything isn't as fresh and brightly colored everywhere as it is in this film. Because I would want to take to the rails in India if I saw this movie without having been there. Perhaps it's impossible to prepare for India if you haven't been there -- you just have to go and see it for yourself.

I also felt great admiration for Wes Anderson for undertaking this production and for showing that you can do things like this in India. How thrilling to see that in action! Yes, you can find artisans who are happy to paint five hundred elephants by hand on your train and carve chairs and print tablecloths and fashion chandeliers if need be. If you can dream it -- and fund it -- you can do it. I called my friend one day and said, maybe we should film our elephant story as a live-action film in India! Later I thought, who am I kidding? But watching The Darjeeling Limited I thought, yes, we could do that! And it would be very exciting and fun and we would create all sorts of opportunities for happy accidents as I'm sure happened along the way in making this "filum" (as in, "Did you catch last-night's Satyajit Ray filum retrospective on PBS, hunh?").

09 March 2008

What if everyone saw Taxi to the Dark Side today?

The New York Times has a front-page story today about Bush's veto of a bill that would have stopped the Central Intelligence Agency from using "interrogation methods like waterboarding." I'm so mad I could spit in Bush's eye. Can't we still impeach the guy? Wouldn't it be great to turn ahead all those "Bush's Last Day" clocks?

I'd really like to know whether, if every member of Congress and the US Senate saw the film Taxi to the Dark Side today, would they a) override the veto and b) move to impeach George W and Co.? Perhaps I'm more optimistic about the power of film than I am pessimistic about the powerful impetus of inertia, but I think it would make a difference.

What outrages me most in reading this story today is that all Bush says in his defense is that having "enhanced interrogation techniques" (a term that is to "torture" as "ethnic cleansing" is to "genocide") is necessary for deterring terrorists. He even says they have prevented additional terrorist acts against westerners, adding, "And this is no time for Congress to abandon practices that have a proven track record of keeping America safe." (To which US Senator John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia responds, "As chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I have heard nothing to suggest that information obtained from enhanced interrogation techniques has prevented an imminent terrorist attack.")

I see two big, fat problems with Bush's argument. First, isn't it akin to saying capital punishment is effective at deterring people from murdering other people? Not only is that difficult to prove, but some argue that capital punishment actually increases murder rates (more on "brutalization theory" below). Second, what about habeas corpus? What about the principles on which this country was founded -- the right to a fair and speedy trial to establish innocence or guilt before deciding whether punitive measures should be undertaken? The people Bush labels "terrorists" are, as we know now, not always what they are presumed to be. This is what makes Dilawar's story so painful to watch in Taxi to the Dark Side. Dilawar was a taxi driver who was captured and tortured on the presumption that he had valuable information. His abusive treatment in the five days between his incarceration at the Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan and his death as a result of the injuries he sustained at the hands of US troops and military contractors distorted his consciousness to such an extent that he could not possibly have provided any useful information, even if he'd had any to begin with, according to the experts interviewed in the documentary.

Another danger of this blind pursuit of Executive Branch powers is that it may have the opposite effect of turning our country and its people into even bigger targets. The "brutalization effect" I mentioned in the last paragraph argues that the devaluation of human beings that occurs in states that kill capital offenders results in a broader, institutionalized devaluation of humanity that in turn results in more murders. Not only that, but people like Dilawar become martyrs in their communities, which may well draw more angry extremists to pursue retaliatory violence against us and those who carry out our brutal policies.

To me it is clear that, as Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi have said, violence cannot solve these problems. We have to pursue other, more humane, more creative solutions, or we all suffer more as a result.

07 March 2008

The largest Elizabeth in the room

I keep examining why this story is important to me and what is driving me. Part of it is this conspiracy-theory feeling that the fatcats (because this all feels like such a throwback to gilded-age policy and practices, doesn't it?) don't want us to see the eight-zillion-pound Enron -- I mean elephant in the room. And I am seeing it, and I can't help seeing its parts and effects everywhere: the heaps of poop, the detritus left after the trees have been chomped as if they were celery stalks, the dirt and dust from the bathing rituals, and their massive presence in the room, their audible and subsonic sounds and signals, their memories, their histories, their needs.

Today I spoke with someone involved with a government agency long ago. She asked me about my project and I explained there were three inspirations, the film Taken as Directed, the film Syriana (in how it looked at a problem from so many different angles), and the prevalence of side effects of medications on everyone around me. My interviewee agreed heartily with my perception that more people than ever are taking prescription drugs, noting that the populace only started taking them in 1964. If you think of that blip of time on a geological scale, it's a subspeck, but if you analyzed the effects on human health over this tiny timeframe, what would you see on an evolutionary scale? Would there be a balloon in mutations, I wonder? What sorts of divergences from established equilibria would be notable? Cross that with the effects of global warming and increased exposure to complex environmental chemicals in our daily lives, and then what?

So I find myself wanting to not only blow the whistle on big industry and a government that lets big industry call the shots but I also want to blow the whistle on all who believe the hype: the ones who ask for that medication we saw in the ads, the ones who hold stock in biopharm companies. The prescribers who take the tiny tokens and don't even notice that they have obligated themselves to return the favor. The nurses, pharmacists, and care workers who know better who persist in doing things like taking antibiotics as preventive measures, flushing expired prescription medications down the drain, and using antibacterial soap (which inhibits the natural inoculation against asthma in youngsters and upsets the pH balance of the water downstream for all the plants and animals that depend upon it). The prescription drug users who don't understand the potential effects of the pills and the myths they swallow.

I see how I could easily take just one part of this story, and for example, frame it in terms of an environmental debate about the concentration and persistence of these chemicals in our bodies and our water supplies.

But there are other sides, too. Human nature must be carefully considered in evaluating the results of all these drug studies. We all know belief is a fundamental component of health and healing, but we don't often consider how this works in combination with other principles that drive us. I'm thinking of commitment, for example: once you have chosen a means of trying to solve a problem, be it by taking a government-approved medication or by participating in a clinical trial, that solution becomes your favorite in the race for a cure. You commit to it, you talk it up, and you naturally pin your hopes on it. When you combine your commitment with your desire for something to believe in, this form of rooting for the chosen solution is bound to affect the outcome. Even if you take the placebo, you are under observation, being cared for, and you get the placebo effect, of doing something as opposed to nothing at all. Your participation surely has an amplification effect that could be as influential as the chemical composition of the pill or injection that you have chosen as your deliverer.

Doing something is always going to have an effect, and I want to explore what that can mean to people, how people aren't necessarily limited to the options suggested on the commercial breaks during the Late Show. How doing something can mean taking an Advil instead of a Vicodin or listening to music or learning to ski or painting a picture or meditating or making a garden bed.

For some people, I understand that making a garden bed is not even possible, much less enough to keep them from walking in front of a bus. But I also see a recent and dramatic about-face on the efficacy of SSRIs in the general population and that little fact alone is enough to scare the bejeesus out of me: I think we still know so little about our brains and bodies and about the effects of these strong medicines on our brains and bodies that we should be very careful with our brains. They are the only ones we get.

A near and dear bipolar says, "I love Lithium because it's the second element in the Periodic Table of Elements!" But in some cases this can be as disingenuous as letting big pharma decide what's best, as pointed out in a terrific expose of the supplements industry we both read by Dan Hurley called Natural Causes, "all natural" does not necessarily equate to "all good."

It's complex stuff, our health, and I feel I am walking around scoping out all the angles to see the elephant from: making my little director's finger-frame from up close, from afar, in discrete parts, and as a whole. Is there anything new to be seen from here? I'm convinced there is, even if I haven't a clue what the heck it means yet.

Part of this verge-of-discovery feeling may be connected to my recent forays into gluten-free baking and eating, too. That adventure is fodder for another post or several, it's led me to feel that what I am eating is more nourishing. I am eating a greater variety of grains and everything is tasting good. I even found a dish that totally eased the transition to gluten-free flour for me, and the help of a decent cookbook recommended by a neighbor. Now I'm not feeling I am cheating my body of something when I have a piece of banana bread or blueberry cake. I feel I am giving myself health and well being and nutrition, and it makes a world of difference to me. I'm also noticing my need to be in motion and active more during the day lately, perhaps just because I'm interested in my physical health, perhaps because we're on the brink of spring, but in any event these days I am riding my bike more and working out and walking more. I feel I have found my own way to give myself the gift of better health, and I find am not as depressed or manic as I was a few months back when I was having a much harder time keeping things in perspective. So that's my story, and everyone's is different, and some people wouldn't be alive without big pharma's fruits. But I still think there are many more ways to look at this elephant that is public health.

06 March 2008

Films to write home about

OK, just after the festival ended, I looked at my program and realized that despite having seen many of the films there were more I wanted to see and many I wanted to continue discussing. So I marked up the film list (click on the graphic to enlarge it). Here's the key:
Blue dot = Saw at Boulder International Film Fest 2008
Red dot = Saw as screener as member of the selection committee
Gray asterisk = Will rent or see in theater
Pink asterisk = Still plan to see
Plus sign on yellow = Recommending to friends in person or on my blog

I was impressed all over again that these films could move and inspire me in so many ways before, during, and after the festival.

Okay, I'm done raving about that for now.

Let me go, why don't you?

A wine glass perches at the edge of the table, just to the left of my left hand as I type this entry. No, I'm not drinking at 11:30; my almost-empty cup from my second latte of the morning is on my right. The wine glass is upside-down, fresh from the dishwasher, ready to be shelved with the others. And there's a certain suspense, just seeing the glass at the edge of the table. I am enough of a spaz to knock it down with a sudden gesture, but on the other hand because I am thinking about it, the wine glass is firmly planted in my awareness, as if it were something more fixed than it truly is. Will she knock it over, or won't she?

I'm in that state where my thoughts never stray far from my project. It's annoying to those around me, I know; I am muttering to myself about people who aren't even there. Running little dialogues that I accidentally start saying out loud -- it's embarrassing sometimes! But this kind of focus and its unforeseen side effect of not being able to talk about much else also seems necessary to keep moving forward.

04 March 2008

At war with our own culture

Yet another angle of this story I've assigned myself is that we have always made so many choices about living in the modern world, so many compromises about our health. I will recycle all my paper and glass but I will keep buying plastic stuff too. I will take only the most biodegradable dish soap camping, but I'll blow five gallons of gasoline to get up to my campsite plus a few more to get back home after, and all that that entails.

I think about lifespan when I change the kitty litter, a task during which I try to breathe as little of the dust as possible. Yet it is inevitable with all the changing and the sweeping and the vacuuming that dust will fly, and I do breathe some of it, wondering all the while whether the exposure to these chemicals will shorten my life (gross-out alert: although I have far more immediate worries about whether cats are really engaged in a long-term project to train us so they can eat our brains). And at the same moment, my partner in time is exposed to another set of chemicals and compromises because he has a corporate job and bikes back and forth every day. I can say with great certainty that all those buildings in all those office parks and plunked down at the edges of the city centers expose their occupants to wildly varying conditions. I believe a great tragedy like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was to its century as toxic conditions in seemingly innocuous atmospheres are to this century. Really, this kind of poisoning is a violation of a right I feel we don't even realize we have: the right to a safe environment. Which to me is the ultimate statement of nonviolence, an idea I keep coming back to, because there is nothing else. "You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars! You have a right to be here!" (cue "Desiderata" as recited/sung by Les Crane -- and then the parody, "You are a fluke of the universe. You have no right to be here...." along with which I still remember laughing until I cried back when I first heard it as a kid -- but I digress, again).

In urban environments especially I feel we live in this supersaturated agora in which we are not just asked to make a few choices about lifestyle but rather are bombarded with these compromise-inducing options at every turn. Daily we face food that is more convenient than nutritious. We see an obliviousness to special needs and allergenic substances that still has a long way to go (I know, I'm projecting on this one). Direct-to-consumer drug advertising is one huge example of this bombardment -- how many of us have had the experience of looking at that sad little animated character and envisioned the lightness of being experienced by the sunny actress at the ad's close (for yes, we're not total rubes, here: we know Hollywood just puts people in these scenes as placeholders), yet casting ourselves in that tiny moment of unreality TV remains an improvement on what we are experiencing for real. How can we not consider asking our doctor for the "little [color of your choice] pill" we see right there in that ad that suggests that our problems can be solved (but not without the warning beats of all those icky side effects and adverse reactions and compromises we stand to allow into our lives if we choose this particular route to "wellness")?

Conspiracy? Nah. Just follow the money.

Oeuvre or oeuf?

I made a playlist last year and called it Keep the Faith.

Just today it occurred to me that this work I'm doing, this eking out of this fun story about FDA operatives and big pharma, is a prayer of sorts. I keep inching everything along and saying to myself, "Keep the Faith." This year's mantra.

1. A Moment to Myself Macy Gray
2. Ain’t Goin’ to Goa A3
3. Deeper Well Emmylou Harris
4. Gham Ka Khazana Tera Bhi Hai Mera Bhi Lata Mangeskar & Jagjit Singh
5. Giant Heartbeat Split Enz
6. Keep the Faith Poi Dog Pondering
7. Let’s See Action Pete Townshend
8. Missing Beck
9. Mitwa A. R. Rahman
10. Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World Melvin Amina
11. Sunday Sia
12. Thank U Alanis Morrissette
13. Truth Neil Finn
With love and hope
June, 2007

02 March 2008

These eyes

I've been steeping myself in so many books and films about big pharma and food and medical issues, a few of which are:
Taken As Directed, a stunning documentary about an antimalarial drug still being liberally prescribed
Natural Causes - an expose of the natural supplements industry that everyone should read before eating shark cartilage or anything that exotic (and perhaps unintended by nature for human consumption)
Gina Kolata's book Rethinking Thin
Greg Critser's Generation Rx and Fat Land
Fast Food Nation and
Supersize Me (Morgan Spurlock's film) also started this ball rolling,
and Sicko furthered the conversation,
as did Michael Clayton
The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog
(and still recommend The Boy who Loved Windows)
The Truth about the Drug Companies, by the former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, my ethical hero, Marcia Angell
And some goofy thrillers by Robin Cook (tried one that was ludicrous) and Tess Gerritsen (better) and Michael Palmer -- they're all pretty pedestrian but fun airplane reading and often just as conspiracy-ridden as my own fantasies of late
OverDose, which suggests we're just getting too much of some perfectly good medicine a lot of the time
Overdo$ed America
The Gospel of Food (subtitled Everything You Think You Know About Food Is Wrong)
The Omnivore's Dilemma
Safe Food
Hooked: Ethics, The Medical Profession, and the Pharmaceutical Industry
Comfortably Numb
Against Depression
Beauty Mark (a new film by a local woman, Diane English, that may well be coming soon to a festival near you)
...and a bunch of films and articles and npr pieces about kids on drugs, heroic doctors, unusual diagnoses, whistleblowers, soldiers, mountain climbers, and confessions of drug reps who suddenly realize they have turned into shills for something they don't actually believe in.

Edit: add The $800 Pill to the list. Good stuff about the historical context and nuts and bolts of the drug development and approval process. I needed to find this book at just this time -- I don't think I would have been this interested three months ago at all. It was all about side effects then; now it's about how those things slip through the cracks. That's a kind of faith, too: in pursuing this research, I am trusting that something meaningful is revealing itself to me.

I am so glad I'm writing this stuff down and putting it all in one place. That's all I can say right now. It's very satisfying.

And what's on my mind right now? How to let my kid know that throwing a tantrum every time I ask her to do something she has promised to do is not okay. Argh.