Polio And “Superbugs”

In Syria, more than a dozen children have fallen prey to the crippling effects of polio.

“Polio?”, you say.  “That terrible affliction that paralyzed thousands of American children each year?  But polio was eradicated by the development of the Salk vaccine.”  Yes, but a vaccine can only work if the shot is delivered.  In war-torn Syria, some children aren’t receiving their vaccinations — and the polio virus is still out there, lurking and ready to spread its infection that, for some unlucky few, will produce paralysis.

The story of the Syrian children is a reminder of the thin line of defense that protects humans from illness caused by bacteria, microbe, and virus.  It’s a timely reminder, too, because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other world health organizations are increasingly concerned about the development of “superbugs” — bacteria that have developed resistance to treatment because antibiotics are being overused.  The CDC estimates that more than 2 million Americans get antibiotic-resistant infections each year, and at least 23,000 die because drugs no longer stop their infections from spreading.  The two most dangerous “superbugs” in America are CRE bacteria, which produce deadly, raging infections, and Clostridium difficile, which produces diarrhea that kills thousands each year.  The CDC’s European health counterpart is reporting on outbreaks of other antibiotic-resistant illnesses in some European countries.

This is one of those stories that don’t get much attention because it isn’t threatening to most of us — at least, not right now.  But the spread of “superbugs,” and the overuse of antibiotics that often kill “good” bacteria that are found in every human, are an enormously important public health issue.  We need to stop the overuse of antibiotics that have contributed to the development of drug-resistant bacteria and focus on developing new vaccines and forms of treatment to fight the superbugs.  Otherwise, one day we might wake up to find that the stout antibiotic line of defense that has protected humans from all manner of deadly diseases is simply gone.

Iran And Nukes

Today the United States and a group of other countries reached agreement on a proposal that addressed the Iranian nuclear program.  The agreement is a temporary one, apparently designed to freeze the Iranian program in place so that additional negotiations can occur.

According to the BBC, the key elements of the agreement are that Iran will stop enriching uranium beyond a certain point, allow inspectors increased access to its nuclear sites, and stop development of a plant that could create plutonium, and in exchange no new sanctions will be imposed for six months and Iran will receive billions of dollars in relief from existing sanctions.  U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says the deal gives the U.S., and Israel, “breathing space” for additional negotiations with Iran.  Iran says the deal recognizes its right to enrich uranium; Kerry denies that.

Is it a good deal?  I tend to trust Israel on Middle Eastern matters, because the Israelis have shown a very clear-eyed view of the realpolitik in that perpetually challenging region of the world.  They have to be clear-eyed, of course, because their very survival is on the line.  It’s fair to say the Israelis aren’t happy about this agreement, and neither are their supporters — both Republican and Democrat — in the U.S. Congress.  In fact, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “historic mistake.”  The Israelis and their supporters think the sanctions were working and should have been continued until Iran agreed to end its program.

I don’t trust Iran.  I don’t trust a government that has called for the obliteration of Israel, that still has a scent of fanaticism about it, that has cracked down on its own citizens as they have tried to exercise basic freedoms, and that has been a fomenter of terrorism and unrest in the Middle East for decades.  How do you negotiate with a country that you can’t trust?

The Flavor Of The Week

I notice that the Baylor Bears lost to the Oklahoma State Cowboys last night.  In fact, losing doesn’t seem quite like the accurate word when you fall by a score like 49-14.  Perhaps crushed is more accurate.  Or obliterated.  Or shellacked.

I’ve got nothing against Baylor, and I’m not one of those thin-skinned Ohio State fans who becomes enraged at every perceived slight from the national media.  I don’t watch ESPN, I don’t read sports columnists on line, and I really don’t much care what some carefully coiffed commentator has to say about whether one team is better than another — because they are so often, and so predictably, wrong, wrong, and wrong again.

This season, however, members of Buckeye Nation can’t help but notice that the sports chat community always seems to want to talk up some team other than Ohio State.  I think that’s not only because the TV shows and the talk radio community focus on ginning up controversy to attract viewers, but also because they are just dazzled by high-scoring offenses.  Until yesterday, Baylor was a high-flying offense that was putting up the points, just as Oregon had done before it.  (Coincidentally, Oregon also got mauled yesterday.)  These teams are like the flavor of the week at the local ice cream shop — it’s interesting to try the vanilla mango cherry pistachio mix, but at the end of the week you realize chocolate chip is just better.

It’s an old saying in college football that November separates the contenders from the pretenders.  With Michigan Week now officially upon us, Ohio State remains undefeated.  There are not many teams left that can say that.

Snow ‘Shoe

IMG_5469I’ve been going to Ohio State home games for more than 40 years, and I’ve never seen it snow as much as it did during yesterday’s game against Indiana.

It made the game a memorable one.  At times the old Horseshoe experienced blizzard-like conditions, and there was sufficient accumulation on the field that two attendants had to go out with push brooms to sweep off the yard lines and the hash marks.  Fortunately I was sitting in B Deck, so I was shielded somewhat from the cutting wind and only had to deal with the distinctly arctic air.  It was cold, and sitting in C Deck must have been brutal.

By the end of the third quarter, as the Buckeyes surged to a 35-0 lead, C Deck had emptied out and so had most of the stands, as even the diehard fans decided that the game was in hand and it was time to start worrying about potentially losing digits to frostbite.IMG_5479

Bryan Adams At The Ohio Theatre

IMG_5440Last night Kish and I put our ’80s on and went to see Bryan Adams at the Ohio Theatre with a group of friends.  We had a great time watching Adams put on a terrific show.

The performance was part of Adams’ Bare Bones Tour, in which he performs with an acoustic guitar, a harmonica, and (sometimes) a piano player — and nothing else.  The goal, he explained, was to reduce his songs to their absolute essence, stripped down and spare.  It was interesting to hear his music reimagined in that way, and although the piano and acoustic guitar put out an impressive amount of sound, what the bare bones approach really accomplished was to allow Adams’ trademark gravelly voice to come to the fore.  And despite the passage of years Adams remains in astonishingly good voice, quite capable of the vocal leaps and flourishes that helped to make the original versions of his songs so special.

IMG_5447Among other selections, Adams played Run to You and Straight from the Heart, Cuts Like a Knife and Summer of ’69, Heaven and This Time, Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman? and I Still Miss You . . . a Little Bit.  Between songs he talked about his music, spoke to members of the audience who seemed very eager to interact with him, picked some fans to fill four seats down front, and invited people from the balcony to come down and dance in the aisles on the first floor.  By the end of the show the area around the stage was a mosh pit of thirty- and forty-somethings, swaying to the music and singing his songs at the top of their lungs.

Last night’s crowd was predominantly female and appeared to include many woman who became Bryan Adams fans as young girls and still love his music.  We were entertained by a group of four women sitting right in front of us who clearly were on a liquor-fueled ladies’ night out.  They sang Adams’ songs with lusty abandon, blurted out unexpected comments, and tried, unsuccessfully, to clap in rhythm to the beat.  They were channeling their inner teenagers and transported back in time by songs that they loved and still touched them deeply.  It was a living testimonial to the enduring power of music.

On That Dallas Day

President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed 50 years ago today.  Fifty years is a long time, but in some ways the Kennedy assassination seems even more distant and remote.  So much has happened since, and so much of it has been bad.  The world is such a different place now, it is almost as if the shooting in Dallas occurred in another reality altogether.

I was a first-grader when it happened.  I remember a scratchy voice coming out of the polished wooden PA system box above the blackboard and announcing that the President had died, and our teacher shocked and sobbing.  But, of course, I was just a little kid, not quite sure who the President was, even, or what this would mean for me or my family.  Everything I know about President Kennedy — the romance of “Camelot,” the inspiring speeches, the successes, the failures, and the details of his personal life — I’ve learned since his death, with the information, always, shaped and colored by the terrible senselessness of his assassination.  The impact of his death on how his legacy was viewed in the years after his death shouldn’t surprise anyone; America lost a vigorous young President and the promise he brought with him, and the country was profoundly shaken.  Even now, half a century later, it is hard to view things with the abstract objectivity of historians.

Students of popular culture tend to put things into neat packages.  For many, the story is of a boring, stodgy America during the 1950s, followed by the short sunburst of the Kennedy years, and then a country that lost its way after bullets rained down on that Dallas motorcade.  That story, I think, is a bit too tidy and, perhaps, confuses a timeline with causation.  The ’50s were not a Norman Rockwell painting, and the Kennedy presidency was not the golden era that it was once depicted to be.  To be sure, the years after the shooting were tumultuous, with race riots, the Vietnam War, anti-war protests, more assassinations, Apollo moon landings, and profound social changes, but did the Kennedy assassination cause, or even contribute significantly, to those events?  We can safely conclude that the Apollo moon landings would not have happened but for the challenge issued by a newly elected President in 1961, and we know from that lesson and others that individual people can alter and shape the future — but how many of the signature events of the ’60s were the inevitable result of historical forces long since set in motion, bound to happen no matter who was President?

Historians will comb the record of the 1000 days of the Kennedy presidency to try to determine whether his assassination should be viewed like that of President Lincoln, whose death clearly affected the course of Reconstruction after the Civil War, or like that of Presidents Garfield and McKinley, whose killings are treated like mere eddies in the onrushing current of history.  For average Americans, the question is much more basic:  If President Kennedy had survived, would our world now be a better place?  Unfortunately, we’ll never know the answer.

The First “Friendsgiving”

It was the early 1980s.  Kish and I had just moved to Washington, D.C.  We worked on Capitol Hill and lived in a tiny apartment on East Capitol Street.  We were young and employed, and eager to flex our adulthood and independence.

When Thanksgiving drew near, we wanted to set our own holiday traditions.  So, rather than driving back to Ohio and deciding which set of parents to visit for the big meal, we chose to stay in D.C. with visiting friends from Chicago.  We sat at our little table, eating our simple Thanksgiving meal in the bay window of our little apartment, and had a fantastic time. It was one of those little events that nevertheless can be a memorable landmark for a young couple that is in the process of charting their own path and becoming their own family.

Our friends enjoyed themselves, too, and we decided that we would keep up the tradition for as long as we could.  For the next few years, until children came, we rotated Thanksgiving between Washington and Chicago, each time enjoying the fellowship . . . and the food.  To this day, those Thanksgiving meals have a kind of golden glow in my memory.

We weren’t alone in celebrating Thanksgiving with friends.  In fact, in the 30 years since we carved the turkey in Washington, D.C., the notion of “Friendsgiving,” where friends gather to eat together come Thanksgiving time, has become widely popular and even has an entry in the Urban Dictionary.

Of course, the first Friendsgiving was really the first Thanksgiving.  The pilgrims didn’t limit participation in their meal to just their own family members; they sat down communally with other members of the settlement and their Indian neighbors as well.  They understood that eating together is an intimate, bonding act, one that promotes peace and satisfaction, and they wanted to be inclusive rather than exclusive.  In that sense, Friendsgiving is a faithful reflection of some of the most important values that lie at the core of Thanksgiving.

Happy Friendsgiving!

Criminal Knockouts

According to news reports, there’s a new, sick, violent “game” that has taken hold in some large cities.  It’s one of those cultural tales that makes you hope that the uproar is overblown — because if the stories are true, you have to shake your head and wonder about the future of things.

The practice is called “knockout.”  (I say “practice” because calling it a “game” diminishes what is actually the crime of assault and battery.)  Young kids find an unwary person, sneak up on them, and then throw a sucker punch, hoping to land a knockout.  It’s happened in Brooklyn, Hoboken, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis — as well as London, England.  In some cases, the victims are Jewish, but other targeted people seem to have been picked purely at random.  One victim was a 78-year-old woman.  Many of the individuals who have been preyed upon have suffered serious injuries, and some have died.

Have we really reached the point where some teenagers have become so disassociated from society, and so divorced from normal behavior, that they can viciously attack an entirely innocent person as part of a cruel “game”?  How could anyone with normal human feelings attack a 78-year-old woman laden with shopping bags?  What kind of upbringing and home life have these kids had?  (Don’t get me wrong — I’m not absolving the criminal attacker of blame, but I am wondering what kind of conditions could have caused an innocent child to grow into a monster who thinks it’s funny to cold-cock and seriously harm a random stranger.)

Just what we need — another bit of senselessness to worry about as we walk down a public street and pass a group of young kids.


When Everyone And Everything Seems To Suck

These days America, collectively, is like Mikey in the old TV commercial for Life cereal.  We seem to hate everything — or, more precisely, everyone, or every party, that has anything to do with national politics.

NPR had an interesting story last night about the unusual poll results we are seeing.  President Obama’s general approval numbers not only are plummeting, but public perception of his personal qualities for honesty, trustworthiness, and awareness of the concerns of ordinary Americans also is falling like a brick tossed from the roof of a skyscraper.  And he’s not alone.  Approval ratings for Congress, and for congressional leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike, are incredibly low, and their negative ratings are spiking.

I think the mood of abject disgust that these polls reflect is real, and likely to be long-lasting.  The debacle with “Obamacare” and the healthcare.gov website, coming on the heels of the government shutdown, have contributed to that mood, but the sense of fear and loathing has been brewing for some time.

President Obama’s awkward comments about the “Obamacare” rollout, which suggest his seeming disengagement with nuts and bolts decisions and bad news,  his failure to truly monitor important activities, and his apparent discovery that everyday activities like buying insurance can be complicated, aptly capture our concerns about all politicians.  Forget about being competent; are they even paying attention?  Do they feel accountable for blunders that cost taxpayers billions to fix?  Are they so insulated by a phalanx of sycophants and enablers and excuse-makers that they really don’t live in the same world the rest of us occupy?

From time to time during my adult life, people have questioned whether a viable third party could emerge, but America’s two-party system is just too engrained.  These days, however, I wonder:  are the repeated failures we are seeing fraying the ties to political parties for everyone other than the true believers?  Might a significant chunk of Americans be willing to look in a new direction?

Monty Python, Back From The Choir Invisible

News sites are reporting that the surviving members of the Monty Python troupe are talking about putting on a reunion show.  For any true fan — and I count myself as one — this is tremendous news.  If only Graham Chapman were here to participate, too!

To mark the occasion, I offer one of Python’s greatest sketches — the classic pet shop piece about the pining Norwegian blue parrot.

The Eyes Have It

During your childhood, did your parents ever say:  “Look at me when I’m talking to you”?  According to a recent study, that approach is not helpful if you are trying to persuade an unwilling listener, because people who are forced to make eye contact against their wishes become stubborn and harder to convince.

IMG_1618Of course, your parents didn’t want you to look at them to increase the persuasiveness of their argument.  When the “look at me when I’m talking to you” line was used, persuasion wasn’t the goal.  Instead, the context involved a different power equation.  Your parents were getting information from you, and then they were laying down the law.  They wanted you to look at them to be sure you were paying attention and to see whether you were telling the truth.  If you were squirmy and shifty-eyed, they knew you were lying like a rug.

They say the eyes are the window to the soul, and it’s the truth.  How many of us have sat in a meeting, exchanging quick glances and raised eyebrows with other attendees that spoke volumes about the inadvertent humor in the droning presentation?  How many of us have withered under a father’s angry glare — Dad had a special look that was both cold and capable of melting diamonds, for example — or shriveled inside when a mother’s downcast eyes confirmed her terrible disappointment in your thoughtless actions?  Whether it’s lying, or love, or lewd thoughts, boredom, or bitterness, or bewilderment, the eyes tell the tale.

I can’t imagine ever telling anyone, outside of the parent-child relationship, to look at me when I’m talking; it’s too much of an overt power play to ever use in talks between two adults.  But I do try to keep and maintain eye contact, whether I’m speaking to one person or to a full room.  How else am I supposed to know when their eyes glaze over?

Breathe In, Email Out

Modern technology has contributed to lots of new physical conditions — carpal tunnel syndrome being one example.  Could the simple process of writing an email actually cause a form of apnea similar to sleep apnea?

IMG_5427The theory is that, when people write emails, they stop breathing properly.  They hold their breath when writing a compelling sentence, or start breathing too shallowly.  Those who experience the symptoms can end up sweating heavily and feeling light-headed.

This is one of those news stories that I greet with a healthy dose of skepticism.  I’ve been writing and reading emails for decades now, and I don’t remember ever feeling light-headed.  Bored, yes.  Amazed at the inanity of some human communications, yes.  Astonished at the pathetic quality of purported fraudulent schemes that seem unlikely to fool a kindergartner, yes.

The only times I’ve ever held my breath at the computer keyboard occurred when I read an email so bizarre or ill-advised that I feared for the sanity or likely career trajectory of the sender.  It makes me wonder:  how many of the claimed “email apnea” cases are really just a reflection of an e-mailer worrying about sending a particularly risky email?  An especially ticklish message might cause you to leave puddles of sweat on the keys and forget to breathe.

Given the ludicrous amount of email Americans send and receive these days, wouldn’t we have heard about email apnea before now?  In fact, if it were any kind of significant concern, we’d be in the grips of an epidemic.  The fact that we aren’t seeing infomercials touting a combination keyboard and breathing mask tells you all you need to know.

Inadvertent IPod Wipeout

I am of the generation that views every electronic device with wary trepidation.  Raised during a time when computers crashed even more frequently than the healthcare.gov website, I firmly believe — despite the bland assurances of sons and IT nerds alike — that I can bring any system down with one false keystroke.

IMG_5424Saturday morning, it happened.  I had my iPod attached to the computer and was listening to music when I decided to remove the iPod.  It’s something I’ve done hundreds of times, but this time the outcome was different.  Suddenly a wavy line appeared on the screen, the mouse became unresponsive, and before I knew it the computer was telling me that did not recognize its old pal, my iPod.  When I removed the iPod, with sinking feeling, I found that all of my music and my carefully constructed playlists had been removed.  And, because I’ve been lazy about it, I don’t have any remotely current back-up on the computer itself.

So I went through the seven stages of reaction to technology disaster.  First, shock that my faithful iPod had deserted me, then denial that I could wreak such havoc with one inadvertent mouse click.  Next, I raged at the capricious electronic device gods for punishing me so grievously for one little mistake.  Then, false hope and bargaining.  Surely, the music still had to be on my iPod somewhere!   I’ll do a google search and find out how to retrieve it!  But google gave no answer, and when google gives no answer you are truly screwed.  My hope gone, I accepted responsibility for the disaster, then wrestled with the devastating realization that, although every other American under the age of 80 happily uses their iPod without incident, I am an idiot who can somehow evade all of the safety protections Apple has built into one of its signature products.

Those stages are behind me now, and I’ve moved, finally, to acceptance and hope.  I now welcome the chance to change things around, to shift the order of songs and maybe be a bit more selective in what goes on the iPod in the first place.  (The Telemann piece with the hunting horns probably will hit the cutting room floor this time.)  I’ll rebuild my iPod, with new and better playlists!  This time, I’ll back things up!  This time, I’ll do things the way Apple wants them done!

Oh, and I’ll be a bit more careful when removing my iPod from the computer.

Browns, Bean Dip, And Beer

IMG_5422Normally if I’m going to drink an alcoholic beverage, I prefer wine, but it just doesn’t go with NFL football — particularly when the Browns are moments away from playing their most important game in years.  So this afternoon it’s cold Yuengling lager, a hearty, grossly unhealthy, and soon-to-be piping hot bean dip that also features hamburger, pork, sour cream, lots of shredded cheese, and salsa, and some nacho chips.

Go Browns!  Beat the Bungles!

The Death Of “Ming”

It was just a clam, living peacefully in the briny deep off the coast of Iceland.  Its existence was simple and unremarkable.  It siphoned water in and filtered it for food and oxygen, as clams do.  It was content and as happy as, well, a clam.

But this clam was a bit different.  It had lived for centuries, capably performing the simple functions it needed to survive.  It first began its life sometime around the year 1500, when Henry VII was the King of England and Nicolaus Copernicus was getting ready to announce his theory that the Earth revolved around the Sun and not the other way around.  The clam lived in those cold Icelandic waters, not bothering a soul, as Shakespeare wrote his epic plays, as Newton developed the theory of gravity, as the American Revolution and the French Revolution changed the world, as wars were fought and genocides raged and fashions changed and railroads and motor cars and airplanes and rocket ships were invented.

Then, in 2006, the clam’s fortune changed.  “Researchers” found the clam and realized that it was incredibly old.  They called it “Ming,” after the Chinese dynasty in power when the clam first came into the world, even though the clam really didn’t have that name, or any name.  The researchers didn’t know precisely how old the clam was, however, and were of an inquisitive mindset — so they concluded that they should open the clam to try to precisely determine its true age.  The clam was not consulted in this decision.

In the process of opening the clam to satisfy their curiosity, the scientists killed the clam — which may have been the oldest living creature in the world.  Sometimes, science is just like that.  Sometimes, curiosity kills the clam.