24 10 2014

As is not-unexpected, New York has its first case of Ebola.

Am I worried? Nope, not even a little—at least, not for myself. For the doc who got it, on the other hand. . . .

My students have asked me, a not-MD, about Ebola, and I have been vigilant in cutting down any fears about the disease. I even went after a colleague who said she was hesitant to fly due to Ebola.

It’s not airborne! I barked at her. You’re not going to get it.

And that is the crucial piece for those of us who a) do not live in Guinea, Liberia, or Sierra Leone, and b) are neither health care nor mortuary workers—i.e., those of us who are unlikely to come into contact with the bodily fluids of infected persons.

Those who are likely to so come into contact are at great risk: the virus is highly infectious, so tremendous caution must be taken to avoid contact with any fluid. But, again, for the rest of us—something else will get us before Ebola does.

Laurie Garrett introduced me (personally!) to Ebola in her terrific book, The Coming Plague. The cases she discussed had a very high kill rate—over 90 percent—which was both terrifying and, oddly, a kind of insurance against its spread: it killed people so quickly it could sweep through an isolated population before anyone had a chance to travel and transmit it elsewhere.

That kind of virulence-insurance would crumble once it reached more densely populated areas, which of course, it has. The death rate in some cases has fallen to “only” 50-60 percent, which is still appallingly high, and this microbe will kill thousands more people before health officials get ahead of it. That these outbreaks have occurred, and that the world health community (WHO, CDC, pharma, health ministries & depts, etc.)—with the exception of MSF—have, shall we say, underperformed in response to initial reports of its spread, is appalling in its own way, but there does seem to be a fair amount of confidence that the spread can be halted.

Or, to put it another way, Ebola may terrify us for its fast-moving virulence, but those old standbys HIV and malariaand flu—will likely kill far more people this year and next than Ebola.

This could change, of course: as Ebola spreads, it’s changing (as infectious microbes are wont to do), and epidemiologist Michael Osterholm has written of his fears that, via combination with other microbes, it could—could—become airborne.

Now, it’s possible that any mutations which lead to Ebola becoming a respiratory illness might also mean it becomes less virulent, but it’s also possible that it could join its mighty virulence to easy transmissibility to become a super-bug, much like the (misnamed) Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.

If that happens, then, yep, I’ll be afraid.

But until then, I’ll be more worried that the kid sitting next to me or the guy standing in front of me on train will give me the regular old flu (due to my egg allergy, my doc advises against a flu shot) than a deadly hemorrhagic fever.

Every move you make

25 05 2013

I know I don’t speak for everyone, but for me, the freedoms enjoyed by artists and journalists are worth possible breaches of privacy.
Kathy Ryan

So said the journalist (or artist), not the person whose privacy is breached.

Given my rants against Google Glass and Facebook and the general hoovering-up of every last bit of ourselves in the name of Big Data, it is no surprise that I consider someone taking a photograph of me in my home an offense against all that is Good and Holy.

I draw lines between private and public, lines which, in practice, can be difficult to maintain. I want to reveal what I want to reveal and nothing more, but, of course, in the writing of this (now-less-than-) pseudonymous blog I say things about myself of which I am completely unaware.

I know that, but I choose—I choose—to do it anyway.

But sitting in my apartment on a cool spring day, drinking coffee and doing crosswords, no, I do not choose to have you record me, take something from me.

When I enter a public space I am aware of myself as being “in public”. I’m not much concerned I’ll be recorded—I am unremarkable in appearance—but I recognize, however gruffly, that if someone snaps a pic of me there’s little I can do about it. And even if you do grab me with your camera, I’ll almost certainly remain anonymous, in the background or a (drab) bit of the local scenery.

And, in any case, if I am in public so too are you: there is a symmetry of risk in our interactions.

(This is among the reasons I am leery of CCTV and apparatuses like Google Glass: the asymmetry of risk, which makes the person watched vulnerable to the person watching. And no, telling me I can even the score by recording back is not a sufficient answer, not least because such a response would force me deeper into a regime to which existence I object.)

In my apartment, however, I am not “in public”, windows be damned. That you can see me and I can see you is, of course, where the blur comes in, but part of living in a city means you maintain a set of manners in which the blur serves to protect privacy. I might see you playing your guitar and you might see me dancing, but we each let it go, unmentioned.

That we leave our curtains open as we strum or dance or eat or play with the dog or tickle the baby doesn’t mean we’re putting ourselves on display; it just means we want some light.

Yes, some people do put themselves on display, and within (generous) limits, that’s fine; that one person is an exhibitionist, however, does not mean the person next to her is.

This is, for me, theoretical. I live in an un-hip section of Brooklyn where few people would be so foolish as to think they could point a camera in someone’s window without consequence. I certainly wouldn’t advocate violence against that fool, but if the camera were, ah, rendered inoperable, well, them’s the risks you take.

Just who is the five o-clock hero?

21 09 2010

I lost out on a job; I am so relieved.

I shouldn’t be: I should be freaking out. Yes, I’m still teaching, but that covers rent, nothing more. And I do have a bit of money in the bank, but not enough for me to be relieved instead of freaking out.

So why aren’t I freaking out?

One obvious reason is that I didn’t want the job. It’s at the same place I’ve been working, so I know people there, I like the organization well enough, and it’s an easy commute. Oh, and the job would have been fine, too.

I just didn’t want it. The pay would have been okay, and the work conditions not-onerous, and there are parts of the job I think I would have enjoyed. But I was worried—worried—that I’d be offered the position, and stuck in a sideways corporate position which was more comfortable than challenging. Yes, I could have paid for things besides rent with this job—no small thing, and why I would have felt I had to take it, had it been offered to me—but jesusmaryandjoseph did I move to New York City for. . . this?

Okay, so that’s over the top, and completely unfair to the job itself. But I did take risks to move here (some of which I’m still trying to pay off in the not-rent portion of my financial obligations), and at some point it seems a waste of that risk to settle for something merely because it’s safe.

Easy for me to say, I know: I don’t have a partner or kids or a mortgage, and safety and settling matter when there are people relying upon you. Risk calculation changes when you’re responsible for someone else.

I am responsible for no one else. Whether that’s good or bad matters less than the bare fact of it itself, which means if I am to take responsibility for myself, then I need to pay attention not just to my bank account, but to the whole of my life.

Truth be told, I’m not very good at that, and too often anxiety and fear cloud my sensibilities and make me uneasy to try—to risk—what I may actually be able to do.

This 9-5 job would have been a respectable reason for me to hold off on those risks, on those efforts, and I have no good faith that those efforts will pay off.

But Christ, all that it took to bring me here: isn’t it time to take a deep breath and go?


And on that point: listen to and enjoy Poi!


8 09 2010

Two-thirds, that is—I’m about 2/3 of the way through the chop-edit of my first novel.

I’ll go back over it, again, once I’ve finished with the axe, but by then sandpaper should do.

As I’m thwacking my way through this, it’s so, so clear how much a first novel this is. I knew that, before, even when it was still my darling, but my cold eyes now see all of the cracks covered by my previous affection.

Still, I plan to go through with my plans to Smashwords this. Flaws and all, it is still an engaging enough read. And I’ll never write another novel like this one.

Perhaps that’s why I’m willing to put this cracked-pot out there: because I won’t ever write something like this again.

My second novel, as I’ve mentioned, is better, more complex, and my third novel—well, two of my three third novels (not counting the first third-novel, now languishing in a persistent vegetative state)—take(s) me even further away from my experiences and more into ‘what-if’ territory.  I don’t want any of these novels to become mechanical (cf. Ian McEwan, Richard Powers), but I do want to see if I conjure a novel out of the air rather than memory.

I rush to remind that the first novel is not autobiographical—and in the reminder hope you don’t notice the rush. To say that the characters are not me or her or her or him is true enough, but, in fact, I’m not wholly comfortable with how much is recognizable. This is one novel that, for those who know me, one could say Oh, yeah, I see that. And not just see what I see, but see parts of me that I don’t see.


But if I am to write for others, I have to allow that those others will see what I don’t see. I can control everything up to the point I let it go, at which point I must simply let it go.

So that’s why I want to put (the still provisionally-named—please, if you have any suggestions, let me know) Unexpected People out there. Few people are likely ever to read it, certainly, but the risk—the risk!—that it might actually be read, well, let me start dealing with that now, with the novel that got me started.

That all sounds backasswards, I know: I’m afraid not that I won’t have readers, but that I will. But there it is.

And so if I am ever to make a move with my other novels or any other writing, I have to stop hiding, stop protecting whatever the hell it is I think I’m protecting, and let it go.

And so, after the chopping and sanding, and the running of my hand over it one last time, I’ll let it go.

Gimme the ball, gimme the ball, gimme the ball—yeah!

25 10 2009

How should you regulate an activity in which damage is inherent to that activity?

Less abstractly, if certain positions in football necessarily lead to brain damage, what should be done?

Over at TNC’s blog a number of us were chewing over the implications of Malcolm Gladwell’s recent article on dementia in football players. Gladwell compared footballing to dog-fighting—a comparison which I’m not exactly sure holds—but the info regarding the high probability of long-term brain damage even for non-NFL players is worthy of further consideration.

Some argue that risk is inherent in all kinds of activities; that doesn’t necessarily mean such activities should be regulated. It’s a reasonable enough point, but it’s not clear that such a laissez-faire attitude is the correct one for this situation.

One, the football and practices fields are workplaces, and as such, are not the same as recreational places.  How is it okay to state that football players—most of whom have careers of less than 4 years—have to suck it up while we as citizens would never tell coal-miners or uranium workers to suck up cave-ins, black lung disease, and long-term radiation damage?

They’re adults, they’re getting paid—and better than any miner is is not an excuse to overlook the dangerous conditions of the workplace itself. Yeah, the minimum wage for rookies is $193,000 (and oh, what I wouldn’t give to make a minimum of even $93K), but is it acceptable to say If we pay you enough, it’s okay to damage you to the point after which it is difficult to enjoy the rest of your life? And if so, how much is ‘enough’ to take away the rest of that person’s life?

That the NFL Player’s Association has thus far done a shitty job of taking care of its members hardly excuses the NFL—or, for that matter, the NCAA (which is a racket deserving of its own post)—for putting its players in a situation in which the only way to do the job well is to damage oneself.

Which leads to the second point: There is a distinction between activities in which risk of damage is omnipresent to those in which risk of damage is necessary. Downhill skiing, rock climbing, bicycle racing, even, as Gladwell points out, professional auto racing, are all risky activities, but to succeed in these endeavors one only risks, but does not necessitate, damage. There is risk of a wipe-out on skis or a bike or in a car, but if you wipe out you probably don’t win. Success does not depend upon damage, but upon the avoidance of damage.

Success in football, however, requires damage. Some positions are risky in the sense of ski or bike racing—punting, say, or perhaps even quarterback—but others require the players face off and smash into one another play after play after play. To be an offensive or defensive linesman is to throw your large body against another large body, to prevent anyone from getting past you or for you to try to get past the other.

That’s the whole point of these positions: to try to hold or break the line.

Football doesn’t work without linesmen. And thus far there is no way to play the game without incurring damage to these players.

So what to do?

Beyond a call for further research, I don’t know. I’m a football fan, but, for many reasons, an ambivalent one. I don’t, for example, enjoy pro boxing, not least because I see damage with every blow. I don’t see the damage to these heavily-equipped and masked men, and as much I recognize the importance of the linemen, I pay more attention to the flash players—the quarterbacks, receivers, running- and cornerbacks. Whoo-hoo! I cheer, when my team scores.

And no, it’s not the linemen who score.

So, again, what to do? Dismiss the whole thing as unworthy of concern: These guys are meatheads. . .  They know what they’re in for. . .  Hey, at least they’re getting paid well. . . ?

Or recognize that players are in fact workers in a large and profitable enterprise and, as such, deserve the same consideration for their safety as is—or ought to be—for every other worker?

Cat lady rocks!

13 04 2009


Doesn’t anyone stay in one place, anymore (pt I)

6 04 2009

‘Not all social networking stuff is bad, you know.’

C. may have even raised her eyebrows as she said it.

‘I know,’ I mumbled. ‘Hey, I blog, don’t I?’


Two things lead me to this point. One was this post by Meghan O’Rourke at XX Factor, how those of us old enough to have a past can be thrown off by the jumbling of time when one is friended by a memory. Sometimes I find it reassuring; at other times, extremely destabilizing, a vortex forcing me to contemplate years gone by, loves lost, friends I let go of without fully intending to. Sure, there are class reunions and gossip through whatever thin vines are left connecting one back to the old days, but reunions are fixed in time, recognizable as the artifacts they are.

But a poke from the past? As cool as I find quantum mechanics (what I can understand of it, I mean), I am utterly turned-off by the wormhole aspect of Facebook. It’s not that I hate everyone, or even anyone, from my past; it is that I am content for the past to remain so.

Yes, I rootch around in it, and sometimes memories come, unbidden, but I am ever aware of that distance between then and now—and of the panoply of feelings around that distance. Sometimes I am sad, sometimes relieved, or confused, or embarassed, remorseful, and sometimes I feel nothing other than I am not who I was.

There can be a poignance to this recognition. I am mortal, and will lose and gain and change as I move through this life, until there is nothing left of me at all. I can’t gather all my life in, live simultaneously as the happy third-grader or shattered teenager or tentative new adult. There are people I knew then who I don’t know now; what would it be to have them here, with me, now?

It’s not that there must have been a Reason for us to have parted; time and physical distance are as good an explanation as anything. We simply lost touch with one another, that’s all.

So why not get back in touch? I am, after all, still friends with two women who I’ve known since kindergarten, some others from high school, college, grad school, post-grad. . . if I can hang on to these people, why not throw another knotted rope to the past, in hopes of enticing the others to grab on?

I don’t know, really, that I have a good answer to that; I think it’s a why/why not choice, that is, one made less through reason than a shrug.

Perhaps I can only justify my choice after-the-fact, to say that this is what seems appropriate to me, what works for me. I need to have a sense of time, and to remind myself of the inevitability of loss inherent in time. It’s not about despair—some of what was lost deserved to be shed, and I am the stronger and saner for it—but about understanding, making sense of the trajectory of my life.

Would friending someone I knew in, say, 10th grade foul up that sense? I do wonder about some people, about KB and CM and SP and how and who they are, today, and have even thought about trying to get in touch with them.

But then what? We were tight then, and now we’re not. I am curious, but do I miss them? I miss what we had, but would we have it again? I don’t think so.

So why not take the chance, track down the old running buddies and confidants to see if there is still something there?  Am I afraid?

Again, I don’t think so. It’s more that my life is here, today, in New York City in 2009, and I need to make my life stick here, today, in New York City in 2009. Time spent with those I’ve lost is time not spent with those I’ve hung on to (and who’ve hung on to me), and those I’ve found.

And the people here matter. I like them and getting to know them, and letting them getting to know me. We can’t take anything for granted, can’t call up a shared past or a ‘remember when’ as we huddle over our beers. I have that with some people, but with these new friends, there is the frisson of wondering what to reveal and what will be revealed, of risk and anxiety and the delight in discovering that, yes, there is more than mere proximity to our relationships, that we are, in fact, friends.

O’Rourke noted that Sometimes I have an almost physical need to touch the screen and get past the pixels. I understand that longing, I do. I also understand the necessity of bearing such longing, and remembering that not all can be reconciled.

Sing! Sing! Sing!

11 01 2009

I got sucked  into the speakers yesterday.

I don’t remember the song (something about heartbreak) and was surprised when Jonathan Schwartz credited Betty Buckley as the singer (it didn’t sound like her). But I was caught by all that she gave to the song—that’s what caught me. Yes, she has a lovely voice, but it was the. . . I don’t know, that sense that she scraped away herself and in so doing scraped away the skin of that sad and pretty melody to lay bare nerve and bone.

How could she do that? Where does that come from? When I was (way) younger I wanted nothing more than to sing, to be a singer. That didn’t happen. I have a competent voice—a ‘chorus’ voice—but my lack comes less from technical faults than the inability to inhabit the song with my voice. Oh, I might feel moved, but that feeling doesn’t come through. It’s posing.

Was Buckley posing? I’ll never know, but man, it doesn’t sound like it. Does Patti Smith sound like she’s posing? I remember when I first listened, really listened to Patti Smith—it wasn’t until grad school. Where the fuck was she when I was in high school?! Of course, I had Janis Joplin back then, but Janis was already dead, and Patti was, is, blazingly alive.

Neither Janis nor Patti has classically trained ‘great’ voices, but man, can they sing! Dive into that song and pull off all their clothes and dare us to dive in with them. This is it, they’re telling us. this is all a song can be. Can you follow? Are you brave enough to care?

In my responses to Ainadamar I noted my marvel at Dawn Upshaw and Kelley O’Connor’s passion. Did I mention it was almost as hard to witness as it was wondrous? I was embarrassed, fearful for them. Oh no, I thought, what are you doing? You’re so naked on that stage; you’ll be caught out, alone and exposed!

What could compel them to take such risks?

Perhaps it is because I ask such questions that I get in my own way. Do they see what they do as risky? Perhaps the danger is in not singing, in not throwing oneself into the music; perhaps it is only the embrace of the music which carries them. Perhaps the question is How could they not?

I don’t have it in me—the singing, I mean. Perhaps had I had the Voice (be it Joplin’s or Upshaw’s), I would have lain all other concerns aside to tend to that gift.

Or not. What do I do now with my modest talents? Tend to them, fitfully. Take them seriously, kind of; treat them warily. I protect them. I do not risk them. I do not risk              anything.