Friday, January 26, 2007

Let's Talk About You. What Do YOU Think About Me?

We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.
Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

So here I was the other day, indulging in that creepiest of children's games this side of "...step on a crack and break your mother's back", the counting of celebrity deaths in groups of three. There was James Brown on Christmas day, 2006, Gerald Ford a day later, and Yvonne De Carlo on January 8th, 2007, to name the three that leapt to mind. I realize that many famous people die almost every day, certainly every week, and that we simply group them in threes and then start the next three whenever we notice. I suspect it probably has something to do with ancient superstitions going back to pre-druidic practices. Or maybe a Victorian prank, I don't know.

At any rate, there's been a longish lull between posts here recently for a couple of reasons: First, and the lesser of the reasons, is I haven't had much of any import to impart. The reason that's the lesser of the reasons? Having anything of import has never been a criterion for any of my rants, rambles, or musings. The more substantive reason slowly became more and more apparent over the last few weeks.

I was in a minor accident earlier this month (minor in terms of cosmic importance anyways, it shook me up pretty good). I was rear-ended while stopped and waiting to turn in a rainstorm. Car is still getting fixed, my shoulder was separated but getting better, and I've already received a fair settlement from the other driver's insurance company. The problem is, this is the first accident I've been involved in in 33 years of driving, so now, of course, I'm driving like a little old lady, which can't be a particularly safe thing to do, not to mention that I approach intersections like a S.W.A.T. team approaches a meth lab. And believe me, I know how to drive offensively AND defensively. I grew up in Chicago.

The followup to this little life-glitch happened a few days after the accident. I find out that a friend of mine was just recalled to Iraq for the second time in 8 months, because he teaches bomb and mine disposal. He has a couple of kids at home and his wife has Macular Degeneration in both eyes and is almost blind in one. Oh yeah, and this friend of mine is in his late forties and ALREADY did a full tour in Desert Storm I.

AND THEN, I'm reading blogs like Mother Courage, by a high school classmate of mine (I've mentioned her before), about a mother with a son in the line of fire in a desert.

And I, bless my ego-centric heart, am writing about pet peeves, cloned food, and reunions. I suddenly felt like Burt Bacharach sitting between Bach and Beethoven the first day in Composing 101. Suddenly Saliere seems an even more sympathetic character to me.

But, much like the old joke that ends: "...But enough about me. Let's talk about you. What do YOU think about me?", I realized that scale is a relative thing, and a blog (this blog at least) is for presenting who I am and what I think, much like the original use of places like Chicago's Haymarket Square, where the original soapboxes (real soapboxes) were set up for anyone to state an opinion, and hundreds did, from the trivial to the monumental. So, what the hell. Back to the podium, if a bit tentatively.

This last bit of reasoning got me to thinking about mortality, raison d' etre, and legacies. It is said that no one dies as long as someone remembers them. The reality is no one remains immortal, and the most famous of the famous is gone from memory in the blink of an eye, in the greater history of the world. Memory becomes history, and we've already talked about how screwed-up history can be. Then history becomes legend, and legend becomes myth (didn't I steal that from one of the Lord of The Rings prologues?) The most famous (or infamous) last the longest, but everything fades as mythos after mythos rise and fall.

Beliefs are obviously a difficult concept to discuss, especially in a world where there are people who will not only die but kill (and in some cases both) when your beliefs contradict theirs. I've spent many years fairly comfortable in the position that I believe in very little, but I believe in the possibility of almost everything. There's another old joke about a very pious rabbi who is on his deathbed, when his family comes in to see him receiving the last rites from a priest. His children are aghast, and when they ask what in the world he's doing, the rabbi replies: "Couldn't hurt." I don't know what happens to me after I die, and I expect that I'll find out when the time comes. I wonder because I don't know, along with everything else that I don't know. That being said, if God (in any incarnation) actually DOES contact me, I expect I will believe with every fibre in my being. Proof doesn't necessarily have to be empirical, just convincing. If not, I just hope He/She/It understands a questioning mind and skeptical nature. If not, oh well. I can't justify "in-case" belief (In case there IS a vengeful God who'd be irritated I doubted).

So one does what one can do. I'm not actually a believer in the concept of reincarnation (although I may be as close to a believer in that as anything), but hell, if I can get a mulligan on this life for a shot at living a better one, I'm there. Short of that though (***TRITE ALERT***TRITE ALERT***), the more people you influence positively, the longer you live. Sure you get remembered for negative influence too, but who needs THAT kinda Karma?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Send In The Clones

Did you read recently that meat from cloned animals is apparently getting closer to FDA approval? That the FDA declared in December that cloned meat and milk is no more unsafe than it's old fashioned cousin? Do you care? To be honest, I thought I'd care more about this by now. I seem to be caring less about the ramifications of eating a cloned Kobe steak today, than I do, say, the ramifications of warrantless secret wiretaps being legal in America solely on the sayso of some deputy bureau chief in the CIA, NSA, FBI, DoD, or any other random collection of letters. Wow, that was some run-on sentence there, wasn't it?

When Dolly the sheep was presented to the world in 1997, people were polarized (well, some people were) - Was this a good thing? Was it the first chapter in a real-life "Jurassic Park"? Or maybe "The Boys From Brazil"?

I am not a medical ethicist, speaking of which, is a pretty odd notion: There apparently are codes of ethics, set up much like federal, state, and local laws are, including professionals whose job is to interpret these codes, for an entire profession. But that's another blog for another time. Anyways, NOT being one of these professionals, I find it interesting that the twists and turns of advancing medicine always seems to fall over itself when it comes to codifying those ethics. At what point is life being alive? A heart beat? A brain wave? For half a minute? For a minute? What happens if you get a life support machine to restart a heart, or lungs, long after any measurable brain function? Does the soul, or mind, or whatever ineffable criteria by which someone defines a human, remain when no part of the brain functions? If one is in excruciating pain (we'll just work for the moment within the realm of physical pain, not emotional) every moment of his or her existence, is this life? Is life defined by quality or quantity? And if one measures life according to a pulse or a breath or a brain wave, why do we (with few exceptions), have no problem with euthanizing an animal in pain that can't be healed, while we charge doctors who assist a terminal human in suicide with murder? The A.M.A. and their lobby occasionally remind me of the writers on all the incarnations of "Star Trek": The Prime Directive, that holiest of holies - sayest thus: 'You shall not interfere in any manner of a native culture's development or history - Unless it contributeth to the story line'. Bearing in mind that I'm a huge fan of most of the 'Trek incarnations, you hafta wonder what Gene Roddenberry was smoking when he developed THAT as the Prime Directive of a group dedicated to exploring the galaxy and meeting and interacting with new cultures.

Lest you think this thought is meandering away again, I think it's relevant to any discussion of clones, and what constitutes a life, as well as what constitutes an artificial one. For example, take the fairly straightforward concept of artificial insemination. Widely held a very reasonable next step for a couple unable to conceive the old fashioned way. Ok, take it one step further (or, perhaps not further, but a different course): fertility drugs. They will promote ovulation, as well as markedly raise the risk of multiple births. Let's say you have taken a fertility drug, increased your ovulation, and produced quadruplets. Is this in any practical way different from having a single baby cloned three times? Besides the random effect of whether or not the extra ovulation will take, you are using artificial methods to reproduce a baby.

And yes, I realize the above example is a hugely simplified one, in a complex conundrum. But I meant it to illustrate that the technologies contained within cloning are a lot more involved than worrying about skinheads cloning Hitler. Actually, I think it's a lot like the development of the atom: It's a weapon, as well as the basis for radiology. Were more people saved by X-Rays than killed by an atomic bomb?

Cloning technology is the laboratory for cures of diseases at the genetic level. And I'm not unmindful of the abuse potential inherent in any genetic manipulation. But the questions that are begged are not unlike any technological leap forward. Many on the religious side of the fence (and this includes any of the Judeo/Christian ones), for instance, make their case against allowing the 'plug' to be pulled (on terminal patients hooked up to life support) based on the fact that man shouldn't be "allowed to play God". I never see it postulated that man is ALREADY playing God by hooking up the patient to a machine man created to keep the patient alive in the first place. Or by curing any disease at all, for that matter. As much as it horrifies me to hear of parents who refuse medical treatment for their children on religious grounds (and very little makes me angrier or sadder, actually), at least it is consistent with the man playing God theory. The bottom line is that for good or ill, man makes those calls based on his or her own conscience.

And personally, I believe that mankind should work to cure every ill he can, however he can, including at the genetic level. Every generation in recorded history has shown us madmen and monsters that can (and will) use whatever technology is at hand to manipulate power. The best that we can do is the best that we can do.

And to tie this back to the more immediate future, much of the negative reaction people seem to have to having meat from cloned animals is safety-based. Have you ever been to a modern-day meat-packing plant? Know what's in a hot dog? Ask a friend (or the child of a friend) who works in almost any fast-food restaurant about the horror stories. Here are a couple more tidbits that might put you right off your feed: According to the New York Times (referenced through Wikipedia), every year, 5,000 deaths, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 76,000,000 illnesses are caused by foodborne illnesses within the U.S. alone. And according to the World Health Organization, in industrialized countries, the percentage of people suffering from foodborne diseases each year has been reported to be up to 30%. And that's just the reported cases.

Now, again, not purporting to be a genetic scientist, it still seems to me that if you can isolate the healthy animals in the food chain, reproduce them, and serve only the healthy byproducts of that reproduction, count me in.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Paging Dr. D.... Happy Birthday, Grandpa

For many years I memorialized my grandfather on the anniversary of his death with the traditional Yahrzheit candle, then just a few moments of reflection on both his birthday as well as the day he died. But this year, as it is his first birthday since the birth of this blog, I thought I'd introduce (albeit posthumously), a hero of mine, and one of the most remarkable people I've ever met personally.

Milton A. Dushkin was born in Chicago on Wednesday, January 4, 1911. His father, Sam (Shmuel), was a talented painter from Kovno (now Kaunas, Lithuania). In fact, we still have several of Sam's works hanging in my parents' house. He came to Chicago from Kovno in 1903, some 39 years before it was turned into the ghetto shtetl that saw over 80,000 die in the Holocaust there.

Young Milton was a prodigy. He got through grade school, high school, and college in 13 years (7, 3, and 3 respectively), and medical school a semester early. He finished his residency and had his own medical practice before he turned 24. His younger sister Leah also did well in school, in a time and place where not many young Jewish women in Chicago did.

The newly-degreed Dr. Dushkin hung out his shingle in Des Moines, IA as a General Practitioner. In the '30s this meant he was a pediatrician, obstetrician, family doctor, and even surgeon. Before the outbreak of World War II, Milton enlisted in the army with his brother-in-law and best friend (also a doctor), Werner Eisenstadt. They were both commissioned officers, and when war broke out, Milton was assigned to the China/Burma/Indian Theatre of operations (CBI), and Werner to the European War. Funny thing about that was that Werner, to his dying day in his 90s, spoke with the heaviest German accent I've ever heard.

But back to our Dr. Dushkin. He plunged into the war with both feet. He was a Major when he was assigned to Dr. Gordon Seagrave, a.k.a. "The Burma Surgeon", who headed up what would eventually become the first M.A.S.H. units, mobile surgical units that went with General Stillwell and Merrill's Marauders, to carve and keep open a path from India through Burma to send relief to China, with the bulk of the Japanese army determined to stop them.

In his book "Burma Surgeon Returns", Dr. Seagrave writes about my grandfather: "I selected my executive officer, Major Dushkin, a fire-eater who seemed determined to take vengeance on the Japanese for all the sins of the Axis against the Hebrew race." And..."It became immediately apparent to Dushkin that the captain in charge was determined to have nothing to do with him. But you couldn't do such things to Dushkin. You couldn't keep him quiet if you put him in a padded cell. At Ningham, in order to keep everyone from going mad, we had to issue an order forbidding him to pull any wisecracks before 3 P.M. Dushkin blithely changed P.M. to A.M. and kept on going."

And finally, also from "Burma Surgeon Returns", this snippet sums up the man (seated in the picture left) as an officer: "Major Dushkin was a wonderful letter writer - to his wife. He used to write her such wonderful letters that he lost his censorship privileges for three months! He wrote to no one else, not even reports to his C.O. I soon learned that once Dushkin got away from me on a flank move, he and his detachment would be completely lost, then suddenly reappear again half a hundred miles away. It was no use worrying about him. He would undoubtedly take good care of himself, or his boys would see to it that he didn't get hurt." Although I wouldn't come into the good Doctor's world for another 15 years, that was exactly the same man I knew and loved. Oh, by the way, I have a box full of those letters he wrote to my grandmother and mother. I doubt it was all of them, but there ARE a bunch... And sure enough, parts of them are blacked out, or even cut out. Gotta love the Army.

Moving on a few years, Dr. Dushkin moved up from Major Dushkin, to Lt. Colonel Dushkin, to bird-Colonel Dushkin, staying active duty and, because he apparently didn't think being the father of two, a Colonel in the U.S. Army, and a successful doctor was quite enough on his plate, he decided to go back to medical school and become a Psychiatrist. And he finished this degree a year early too.

By this time, my father had just completed his tour in Korea and had married my mother (the former Tanya Dushkin). My father, unlike his new father-in-law, had no intention of making the Army his vocation. He was a corporal who had seen quite enough of the 38th parallel, the DMZ, and even kimchee. As part of his enlistment deal, he had to serve 3 years active, then either 6 years reserve, or 3 years "active reserve". He chose the latter. As part of that he had weekly meetings with his reserve outfit, where they trained in case they were ever to be called up.

During one of these training weekends, my grandfather, who by now was the Chief Medical Officer for my father's division, decided he'd like to have a bit of fun. As part of the readiness training, all active reservists had to be kept up on all inoculations, in case they were needed to go overseas. They all had shot records with them, and all shots had to be updated on a yearly basis. There were something like 9 shots, all with large-gauge and painful needles, to be given. But you spread them out over a year and it wasn't so bad. My father had just gotten the last of his shots for the year when he was stopped in the hall by Colonel Dushkin (who made him salute at full attention, just because it amused him). After the salute, the Colonel asked Corporal Paullin for his shot record. My father grinned, knowing it was full and correct, and handed it to the Colonel, who promptly tore it into little pieces. The grin turned into a near sob... Colonel Dushkin then handed a blank shot record to Corporal Paullin and told him he had til the end of the day (their last day on this training weekend) to get it filled.

My parents lived right next door to my grandparents, with both houses connected by an intercom. That night my father answered the intercom with difficulty, because both of his arms were almost useless. My grandmother asked him what was wrong. He proceeded to call her husband all sorts of names. My poor, perplexed grandmother only replied that must be why her husband was laughing so hard he was almost crying. Later, he claimed that "If the Army offers you something for nothing, you take it." But I think it was for marrying his only daughter.

After he retired from the Army, his flourishing Psychiatric practice really took off. At various points in time he headed up the Psychiatry Departments at Cook County Hospital, Thorek Hospital in Chicago, and the Elgin Mental Health Center in Elgin, IL among others, all while handling a large private practice. He is credited (at least by Time Magazine) with naming the ailment many had in 1961 "nucleomitophobia" - fear of the atom. He even had the distinction of being one of convicted serial killer Richard Speck's Psychiatrists.

I was the first (of his eventual 4) grandchild. And personally, I like to believe I was his favorite. While my brother inherited my father's work ethic and people skills, I was the intellectual clone of my mother, who in turn had her father's proclivities for reading and intellectual pursuits. Even as an adolescent and teenager, my grandfather and I had discussions, debates, and even arguments. Although those were few and far between, because we also shared most of our liberal views.

My grandfather's father died when he (Sam) was 56. So in fact had several other males in his family. And given that by the time my grandfather was approaching 56, he was about 80 lbs overweight, a pipe and cigar smoker, and had had several previous heart attacks, he was pretty excited when he passed his 56th birthday without incident. But he knew, even then, that he was on borrowed time, and he decided that he had lived his life on his terms for a lot of years, and wasn't about to diet, or give up anything that contributed to his love of life.

One of those loves was the Cubs. He took my brother and me to probably 10 or 15 games a year at Wrigley, and we'd never miss a home opener. He would good-naturedly complain every year about the prices, and loudly looked forward to the day he'd qualify for senior citizen rates. When he had his last heart attack, in May of 1975, he was 64 years old. He had missed it by 11 months. Months after the funeral, my mother and I were the only ones in the family (including extended family) that really hadn't cried. This perplexed most of the family, considering we were probably the two closest people to him in his life, besides his wife. But mom and I both knew that he had lived exactly the life he would have chosen, almost without exception. In fact, to this day, I believe his only real regret would be missing out on the damned senior rates at Wrigley Field.