Are “Childhood Diseases” No Big Deal?
When I was fifteen, I got chickenpox. I believe all my siblings had it earlier, but at a much younger age-in fact, I’m not sure if they ever remember having it or not.
The first symptoms were dizziness and fever: I almost passed out during a (don’t laugh) Sunday-school puppet theater I’d been volunteered for by my mother. That afternoon, I just felt terrible: I was burning up with fever, and just stripped to my underwear and lay in bed. I thought it was a garden-variety flu until I woke up the next morning and found red spots all over my body.
They itched like hell, but other than that, I felt tolerable. That was Monday. I had scratched about ten of them off before my mom told me that scratching them would cause scars. She was right-I still have several scars on my face and forehead from itching.
The good news was, I had an automatic week off from school. The bad news was that it was Thanksgiving week and I was stuck at home while my family went to Grandma’s for turkey-I’d been banished (I think it might have even been under doctor’s orders) because they were at risk of catching shingles from me.
I had to go to the doctor every day and get my blood tested. I wasn’t sure why at the time, but I kept having to go, and the doctor got more and more concerned every time I went.
Around Tuesday, I got the worst sore throat I’ve ever had in my life, and it stayed around through the weekend. It was the sickest I’ve ever felt, and probably the sickest I’ve ever been in my life except being hospitalized for meningitis when I was a toddler. I lived on 7-Up and the little bit of food I could choke down. I couldn’t drink orange juice because the acid stung my throat. It was like swallowing razor blades. I felt so miserable that I literally at one point, said aloud, “If I’m dying, please just get it over with.”
The daily trips to the doctor continued, and he got more and more worried, but near the end of the week my immune system finally rallied and I was able to go back to school. The doctor was a friend of my mom’s, and years later, she still remarks about how worried they were about me. I was this strapping kid who ran and lifted weights-my entire life was centered around health (well, except for my diet) and a disease that people glibly lump in with colds and flu almost put me in the hospital.
The general reasoning behind vaccines is that the potential complications from the vaccine are far milder than the complications from the actual disease. According to the VAERS database, in 2014, 1,737 people reported an event (death, disability, hospitalization or adverse reaction) from a vaccine (and this is from TOTAL immunizations, not just chickenpox). Before the vaccine, according to the CDC, 10,500 people were hospitalized for chickenpox every year, and there were 150 deaths…many of which were previously healthy people. Given a 1 in 2,000 chance of suffering a (likely minor) side effect of the vaccine versus a 1 in 400 chance of being hospitalized for chickenpox complications, what’s the wise choice?
Was I “Vaccine Injured?”
At my wife’s urging, around the time of my birthday last fall, I had a full physical for the first time in almost twenty years and had my blood drawn and my numbers checked. They asked me when my last dTap (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) booster had been, and I didn’t know, but it had probably been, well, twenty years. So, I opted to have a booster, after reviewing the three or so pages of warnings, disclaimers and advisories.
And, a curious thing happened…I got sick.
I rarely get sick-usually one or two mild colds a year, and maybe a flu or stomach bug every few years. And never one right after the other. But, last October, I got two colds, one right after the other. They were mild, sure, but for me, this was unheard of.
I stayed well until the beginning of May, and then got ANOTHER cold, a severe one. After a week, it subsided, and then I got one more, which stayed with me through a stage production I was playing for. I was coughing for almost three weeks. Again, for me, this was unheard of.
So, after getting a shot that was supposed to make me WELL, I got way sicker this winter than I usually do. A mere coincidence? Probably, and here’s why:
I teach part-time in the mornings, and my hours were tripled this year from last year, which means that I spend three times as much in school environments-and around the attendant kid germs, than I have in the past. Plus, I have a nine-year-old who is in school all the time-again with the kid germs.
The drought in California isn’t over, but it’s rained considerably more this year than last year (thank the Lord). Like most people, I suffer from occasional allergies. Not being a doctor, I can’t really tell the difference between allergy symptoms and mild colds, and in either case, there’s no point going to the doctor (unless you suffer several allergies to the point where you can’t function). And, the considerably greater rainfall brought out every pollen, mold, spore and God knows what else that was driven underground by the drought.
Plus, I’m reaching A Certain Age, and my body handles illness and stress differently than it used to.
So, maybe my dTap booster lowered my immunity and made me sick…or maybe I just spend more time around kid-germs and pollen than I used to.
We get our medical insurance from my wife’s job. A few years ago, our insurance plan changed and we had to find a new pediatrician for our son. Not knowing anyone or having any recommendations to go on, I just went on the Anthem/Blue Cross website and started looking up pediatricians at random.
Turns out the Anthem/Blue Cross website was a complete joke. I called several numbers that were disconnected, called another that ended up being a direct line to an OR, and then finally found the pediatric desk. I asked if any pediatricians were accepting new patients, and they found one. When they were gathering data about my son, I explained that our son was autistic, and the receptionist said this doctor might be a particularly good fit because she also had an autistic child.
A few days later, we found ourselves in the office with our son’s new pediatrician, whom I’ll call Dr. B. Dr. B. was (and is) fantastic: caring, compassionate, professional and funny.
Our son’s medical records weren’t online, and so Dr. B. didn’t have a list of our son’s vaccinations (which he’d completed). Near the end of our son’s examination, she cocked her head and asked, “What’s your stance on vaccines?”
My wife answered, “We’ve had him vaccinated.”
Dr. B. nodded. “Good.”
Call me naïve, but as far as I’m concerned, this is the last word for me on the subject: a doctor with an autistic child still recommended vaccinating our son.
The ant-vax blogosphere is full of stories about tyrannical doctors refusing to treat unvaccinated patients, but she was very mild and diplomatic about it. There were no scenes, no thunderous decrees, just “good.”
According to the prestigious Internet, in order to become a pediatrician, you have to complete four years of medical school (of course, after completing your undergrad and then being admitted to med school, which less than half of the people applying will do). Then follows a three-year pediatrics residency, then an additional two years if you’re going to combine pediatrics with another specialty. So, that’s eleven years…if you’re “just” going to be a pediatrician. Combine that with around $1 million in student loans.
I remember having someone tell me once that “drug companies put doctors through medical school-then those doctors become glorified drug salesmen to pay the debt back.” If this is the case, I’m lucky I got an honest doctor because Dr. B. made an off-hand remark about taking 25 years to pay off her student loans. Either she’s one of the rare honest ones or the drug companies dragged their feet paying for their investment.
I actually (believe it or not) used to read a lot of right-wing media, and when our son started speech therapy, I was ready for them to try to drug him, because that’s the first thing “government schools” do with problem or special-needs kids. I even informed his school psychologist during his initial evaluation that I didn’t want them to drug him. The psychologist gave me a blank look: “He eats and sleeps. There’s no reason to drug him.”
If the pharmaceutical industry really has turned doctors into drug dealers, wouldn’t that be the final argument for taxpayer-funded education up to the MD level? You don’t trust Big Pharma? Well, then take the power out of their hands. The only “substances” Dr. B. has ever urged us to put in our son are multivitamins and sunscreen. Maybe she’s in the pocket of Big Flintstone. Or Big Hawaiian Tropic.
Maybe this is naïve, but I have to put faith in a system that requires people to complete 11 years of schooling, followed by a grueling board exam. I’m not saying that “bad doctors” can’t exist. The modern age of vaccine paranoia was STARTED by a doctor (although he’s not a doctor anymore because he was stripped of his license to practice medicine in the UK). Multiple studies have been since published finding no causal link between vaccines and autism, but, as a commentator wisely said, it’s much easier to scare people than un-scare them.
Dr. B. isn’t just a pediatrician, but a mother. Now, if it were in fact true that vaccines caused autism, certainly during her eleven years of training and decades of practice, she’d HAVE to know this. What would it take for a doctor to urge parents to vaccinate their children, even with the full knowledge she was recommending something that had caused brain damage to her own child, and she was setting up other parents for the same hardships she’d endured as the parent of a special-needs child? Dr. B. would have to be a monster, an idiot, or both. An idiot/monster who somehow managed to complete one of the most demanding training programs in the world.
I understand there are doctors at varying levels of expertise. I’m sure there are doctors who are disillusioned or burned-out and would probably be better off carving sculptures out of driftwood. And, I wouldn’t go to a neurosurgeon for a knee replacement. But, I honestly believe people who criticize doctors out of hand haven’t thought about the personal, physical and financial hell people go through to earn an MD in this day and age, or how badly controls in place would have to fail before a genuine idiot, quack or opportunist could make it through the system and into practice.
I understand doctors make mistakes. This is why they have malpractice insurance, and this is why we have courts. Nobody’s saying that doctors shouldn’t be held liable in instances of gross negligence. Again, this is why they go through eleven years of training-to minimize risk as much as possible.
In order for anti-medicine hysteria to be justified, it wouldn’t take just one bad doctor. To keep “the conspiracy” going, it would take thousands. There are around 209,000 practicing primary care physicians in the United States. They’ve all been through med school and passed their boards. They all read peer-reviewed medical journals. They know that allegations of malpractice or fraud could be the end of their careers. They have families. And, not ONE of them has an attack of conscience? (at least none without serious financial or personal conflicts in place). There shouldn’t be one Andrew Wakefield. There should be thousands.
Right now, the overwhelming majority of doctors recommend vaccines. Maybe I’ll eat these words someday, but for now, that’s good enough for me.
First off, the title of this is “Why I Think Vaccines Are Safe,” not “Why People Who Don’t Trust Vaccines Are Idiots” or “Why I’m Right And Everyone Else Is Wrong.” There’s enough finger-pointing and name-calling about the subject already, and I’m honestly not trying to add to it.
Like most parents of autistic children, every once in awhile, I scratch my chin and go, “did vaccines cause this?” And, the conclusion I’ve come to is no. And, it’s not because of anything I’ve been shown or not shown. If you’ve made up your mind about something, the Internet is NOT where you go to disprove it. So, here are my personal ruminations along (but not necessarily about) “chemicals,” “vaccine injury” and related topics.
What Does “Safe” Mean?
The title of this piece is actually misleading, because I don’t think vaccines are safe. I don’t think cars are safe-do you? Cars kill over 40,000 people a year. I don’t think guns are safe. I don’t think crossing the street is safe-if you saw the way people drive around here, you wouldn’t think so, either. In fact, from the moment you get out of bed in the morning, everything you do from making breakfast to driving to work to picking up groceries has an inherent level of risk involved. In fact, chances are, whatever you’re doing as you read this, someone has been killed doing the exact same thing. If you use your phone in the bathroom and are now using your phone to read this, chances are your phone has fecal matter on it, putting you at risk of E.coli poisoning.
But, we understand all this, don’t we? I think, when we use the word “safe,” what we actually mean is “all things being equal, this activity, product or procedure is no more likely to harm or kill you than similar activities, products or procedures of its kind.” Maybe the Germans, who are great at coming up with words for things like this (my current favorites are “Weltschmerz” and “fachidiot“) have a specialized word for “reasonably safe considering external factors.”
When we learned my wife was pregnant, I spent quite a few hours assembling “baby stuff”-cribs, strollers, car-seats, you name it. And, the first thing you see when reading the instruction manual for “baby stuff” are colorful and horrifying descriptions of how you are going to maim or kill your baby if you assemble said product wrong. As somebody who’s worked with pro audio equipment their entire adult life, I can tell you that the first thing you see in any manual is the warning that misusing this product will lead to fire or electric shock. Companies are legally mandated to provide this information, and because they don’t enjoy getting sued (keeping in mind I have no great love for trans-national corporations) will warn you up-front about any possible scenario involving use or misuse of their product. Anytime anybody brings up “asking to see the inserts for vaccines,” my response (spoken or unspoken) is “It can’t be any more terrifying than looking up the insert for a stroller.”
Baby strollers, despite their inherent dangers, and potential for misuse, are a boon and a benefit to mankind. I’m sure, every year, a few babies are injured (or God forbid, killed) by parental incompetence in regard to strollers, but of all the threats to my child that have kept me up at night, his stroller was never one of them. Although maybe it should have been: an estimated 111 children every year are killed by nursery products.
Why Do We Need Experts When We Have The Internet?
My car is sporty and fun to drive, but burns oil at an heroic rate. I thought I’d save a few bucks by learning how to change my own oil (technically, I was right…I saved a few bucks. I literally saved a few bucks).
It’s a simple procedure and I was confident that, as a college-educated adult who over the years has proven to be reasonably good at following directions to put stuff together, that it would be pretty simple. So, in order to prevent costly mistakes, I resolved to “do my research.” I looked up two separate videos, one of which was professionally produced by an oil company. I watched both several times, then practiced taking the engine cover off and locating the oil drain plug and oil filter cover. I was gonna nail this!
(Disclaimer: I am NOT a mechanic, and am probably using the incorrect terminology for a lot of what follows. Flame away).
So, one bright summer morning, I drove my car up on a high curb (a technique my neighbor told me about), wormed my way under the car, and fitted the ratchet on the oil drain plug. It wouldn’t budge.
I know you have to be careful with the plug because if the threads are compromised, your car will leak oil. And, in situations like this, I’m overly careful because I don’t want to break something that will cost thousands of dollars to fix (after all, this was about saving money). So, I called a buddy of mine who happens to be a master mechanic, and told him my dilemma. His response: “Make a fist around the wrench with your left hand, then with the heel of your right hand, hit the hand holding the wrench.” Worked like a charm.
The first hurdle was over. The oil was drained, the plug replaced, and I was ready to change the filter.
No, I wasn’t. The oil filter wrench, which was allegedly designed specifically for such instances, and which looked so easy to use in the videos, just slid around the oil filter canister. After about half an hour of fiddling around, I realized the pin in the center of the canister needed an Allen wrench (something not shown in either of the videos I looked up). Well, if a guitarist has anything laying around, it’s Allen wrenches. I found the correct-sized Allen wrench, unscrewed the center of the canister, and was rewarded with a gout of oil as the center pin came out. I fitted the oil-filter wrench around the canister. It still wouldn’t budge.
I called my buddy again, who, thank God, wasn’t doing anything that day and came driving up with his kids in tow. While the kids played, he unfolded his heroic frame under the front of the car, surveyed the situation, then flagged down my neighbor (whom he knew from decades before), and requisitioned a medium-sized pair of channel-lock pliers. He slid back under the front of the car and, with a combination of surgical skill and brute force that was a thing of beauty to watch, smoothly unscrewed the oil filter canister, fishing out the spent filter.
I pulled out the new filter, and he explained to me how the little gaskets fit around the filter (something that also wasn’t explained in the videos, and could have led to considerable grief). The filter was replaced, fresh oil was poured in, and I was ready to go.
Part of the problem of living in an age of anti-intellectualism is the disdaining of “experts.” We don’t need “experts” if we just “do our research.” Well, I did what I thought was a reasonable amount of research for such a simple task (draining and replacing oil and an oil filter), knew the steps backwards and forwards, and still needed to rely on someone who looks at car engines every day. Maybe, in this day of unlimited information, we still need “experts” after all.
Are Chemicals Bad?
The first word typically thrown out during any debate about vaccines is “mercury.” Despite the fact that mercury was removed from childhood vaccines in the US in 2003 (more to assuage the fears of parents than by any evidence of Thimerosal being a health risk, and vaccine skeptics insist that childhood vaccines still contain mercury) fear about “chemicals being injected into our children” dominates the discussion.
I’m not an expert on mercury, but here’s a recent experience we had with a far more terrifying “substance”…and what I learned.
We live in an old house (by West Coast standards) and have a damp climate, and shortly after moving in, we wondered if there was anything we could do about the seemingly ever-present mustiness. We thought maybe having the house’s vents cleaned was the answer, so I called a vent-cleaning service (I forget how I found them-probably looked them up on Craigslist).
They came, hooked up the vacuum, vacuumed (blowing a fuse in the process), and then I was given some devastating news: the man in charge pointed at the white stuff covering the top of the furnace (now replaced), and said in a funereal tone, “that’s asbestos.”
Asbestos. It was a word I’d been raided with an instinctive horror of. I’d seen it on commercials for law firms since the 1970s. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it was bad, and caused cancer (mesothelioma-another terrifying-sounding word). I also knew the main furnace vent running through the attic was covered in the same white stuff.
Well, asbestos wasn’t going to take my family down. I asked the guy in charge if they removed asbestos and what the charge would be. Why, yes, they did asbestos removal, and to remove every bit of asbestos in the house would probably cost around $10,000.
Well, we didn’t have $10,000, and after making several phone calls to various friends in the trades, along with consulting our neighbor (who has been trained in asbestos removal) and doing a little reading, my worries abated somewhat.
Asbestos is dangerous to breathe, and does cause cancer. However, asbestos is largely safe unless you break it up and breathe the dust. A friend who lives in one of the few remaining areas of San Francisco that is still being developed also told me at one point that construction had to be halted due to the fact that asbestos in the rocks was being released into the air…that’s right, asbestos is “natural” (it’s technically a mineral). In fact, OSHA estimates that 40% of the land in America and much of our drinking water contains some naturally occurring level of asbestos (more below). And, OSHA also acknowledges that chrysotile asbestos (the kind insulating your pipes) is safe unless airborne.
When our furnace needed replacing, I had just gotten off the phone with the furnace repairman when my wife made me call him back: “Does he know the furnace has asbestos on it?”
My response: “I’m sure they know how to handle it.” My wife wasn’t satisfied and I called the repairman back, explaining the potential hazard waiting for him. Without skipping a beat, he answered, “No worries. We’re trained in asbestos removal and by law are allowed to remove a small amount.”
Let me be clear: asbestos causes cancer. In no way am I suggesting that it is not dangerous for untrained personnel to handle or remove it, and it causes significant danger for first responders every year (which is why they have breathing apparatus). But, according to OSHA, it’s not even in the top 10 causes of construction-related injury or death.
I’ve tried to avoid copious links in this article, but here’s what seems to be an excellent article from “Natural Handyman” Jerry Alonzy on the subject of asbestos. And, he raises a strong point: panicking about asbestos can be more dangerous than asbestos itself. Removal by untrained personnel is actually much more dangerous than just letting it be.
Now, if something I’ve been raised to believe is one of the most toxic substances on Earth is actually relatively safe, is it possible the dangers of mercury have been (somewhat) exaggerated?
Are Childhood Diseases Dangerous?
Is There A “Conspiracy?”
My heartfelt thanks to Glenda Bixler at Book Reader’s Heaven for the amazing review!
“ Normally my preference for SciFi is futuristic, having been a Trekkie since that show first appeared… But this book is quite different…and the emotional impact is far beyond most books I’ve read. It’s a powerful statement, albeit, sadly, not a surprising one, for our future…You may think you will be able to predict what will take place. You won’t. I guarantee it!
This is a very cool book that any sci-fi fan won’t want to miss. While the horror is hard to learn about, the overall concept cannot be matched. You’ve just got to check this one out!”
Read the full interview here.
I’m about to break one of my own rules.
Every time someone famous dies, I’m usually quick to criticize people for making the death of a celebrity “about them.” It’s okay to take a solemn moment and reflect on a world without David Bowie or Abe Vigoda, but cool it with the weeping and gnashing of teeth already. It seems like a lot of famous people have died this year. I don’t think there’s anything ‘cursed’ about 2016: it seems reasonable to assume that when a lot of people are born at the same time, a lot of them will probably die around the same time. And, in some cases (Lemmy) you have to be amazed they lived that long in the first place.
But when I got the news that Pat Conroy, author of The Prince Of Tides, The Great Santini and many other books had died, I had to make it ‘about me.’ More than any other fallen artist, his work has become an irreversible part of who I am, and has become part of my personal perspective in ways I’d never considered before his passing.
The two authors I’ve read the most are Conroy and Stephen King. As a tween/teen, King’s books were among the first “real” books I read. Their juvenile excesses are well documented, but I think he’s one of the best writers-maybe THE best-at conveying two things: how it feels to be an outsider, and how it feels to be afraid.
I haven’t read all of King’s books (all 3,569 of them), but I’ve read all of Conroy’s (except maybe a cookbook or two), most of them multiple times. And, now that I know about his personal life, it’s astonishing to see how little ‘fiction’ is in them. His characters leap off the page fully realized because they’re not characters, but real-life archetypes made larger than life through the power of description.
I think the first Conroy book I read was Prince Of Tides: I had to watch it for a college class (and boy, I’ll be damned if I can remember which class it was for, or what the justification was). There was a copy laying around at home, and I think my mother and sisters had read it so I dove in. I found myself hooked on the language and imagery. Reading the prose on the page was a feast for the senses, like listening to Debussy, eating red velvet cake or watching Blade Runner.
I decided I was going to keep reading and my mom gifted me (for either my birthday or Christmas) with paperback copies of The Lords Of Discipline and The Great Santini and I dove into Discipline, thinking because it was visibly longer, that it was going to be the tougher read. I was wrong. It was very quick reading and it changed my life.
The Great Santini and The Water Is Wide have universal, beloved appeal because they tell universal stories: Great Santini is the story of every father/son relationship, and The Water Is Wide is the story of every teacher.
But The Lords Of Discipline was my story. I read it at the end of a college career that, while nowhere near as physically punishing as the hero’s tenure at the Carolina Military Institute (Conroy’s Citadel in all but name), carried similar personal peril for me. I read the power struggle between the grizzled, honorable Col. “Bear” Berrineau and the school’s president, the controlling, opportunistic General Bentley Durrell with astonishment, having witnessed a similar power struggle in my own college between the chancellor and my orchestra director, and feeling caught in the middle and compelled to pick a side, much like Will McLean, the novel’s protagonist. Like Will McLean, there was no question of whom had earned my loyalty. And also like Will McLean, I’d felt lied to by people I loved and betrayed by people I trusted. I remember the electric moment when I finished Discipline…overcome, I thrust it out of my hands, like the book had taken on a life of its own. I felt McLean’s triumph, and resolved then to always be the colonel, not the general…a promise I have kept.
It’s a rainy, blustery night as I write this, and I recall a similar night, decades ago, standing sopping wet in a bar in lower downtown Denver, setting up for a gig and watching gleeful cadets celebrate on TV as Shannon Faulkner was forced to leave The Citadel. I remembered seeing Conroy state in an interview earlier in the week that she had his support, but she wasn’t going to make it because the only way to survive The Citadel was to create an impenetrable brotherhood, and she was alone. He related the story in My Losing Season: he’d promised a female cadet from a nearby institute that when a woman applied for the Citadel, she’d have his support. When the favor was called in, his words were “These damn women are going to get me killed.”
I had the privilege of seeing Conroy speak at Kepler’s Books in Palo Alto during his book tour for My Losing Season. I’d never been to such an event before and didn’t know what to expect. I showed up an hour early expecting all the seats to be taken already, but only a few other people were there. The room did fill up, and I was surprised when Pat took the lectern: I’d expected a “writer,” someone gloomy and morose and brooding, but he was great, feisty and funny like a character in his books. He was a masterful speaker, and I didn’t realize until I started reading Season that a lot of his discussion had been passages from his book, memorized and seamlessly inserted into his patter with the crowd. I was surprised at how short he was (in my family, anyone under 5’10 is ‘short’). I realized I’d taken my assumptions about his height from Jack McCall, the 6’5 hero of Beach Music. One of the perks of writing idealized versions of yourself is correcting God’s mistakes, which is why all my protagonists have very good hair.
The Q&A was fun. Most of the crowd, I’m sure, considered themselves literati and aspiring novelists, some probably straying over from nearby Stanford University. At the time, I had no question to ask, but a question I’ll regret never getting to ask him (in this life) is, “How did you know D-flat major on an organ sounds serious?” Many of the participants were clearly full of themselves, but he had an amazing way of putting people in their place without being mean or condescending. One dowager asked, “How do you describe your writing process?” and he quipped with a flourish, “I go into my study, pass out, and when I come to, a book is there!”
Another asked, “WHY did you quit teaching?” His curt response: “Because I was fired, madam. I am not allowed to teach in the state of South Carolina.” He went on to relate a story about his daughter Megan student-teaching in a neighborhood in Oakland that Pat found dangerous: he begged her to come home, saying he’d pay her whatever it took to bring her home. Her Conroy-worthy response: “Oh, is the mighty Conrack worried about me? Conrack thinks my school is dangerous? The great Conrack wishes I had a more safe occupation?”
He went on to confide-I believe it was during the discussion about his “process”-that every time he wrote a novel, he had a nervous breakdown. Minutes later, an elderly lady asked, “Are we going to have to wait ten years for the next book?” and I swear I felt like screaming, “Bitch, did you not hear him? Every time he writes a book, he has a nervous breakdown!” I almost took the microphone and said, “Sir, if it will save your life, I hope you never write another book again,” but I held my tongue, probably for the best.
His answer-and the first words that echoed in my head when I read of his passing:
“Madam, I am fifty-nine years old, and one of these books is not going to get finished.”
He finished his talk with the statement, “I’m grateful for each and every one of you, and I don’t take a single one of you for granted,” a sentiment I have stolen and echoed on occasion.
I had a nice conversation with the guy who was in front of me in line; we had the option to have one book personalized, and we discussed what we wanted Pat’s “special message” to us to be. I had no idea. My companion in line told me about getting a book signed by Gore Vidal-he’d given Mr. Vidal a long postscript to write. Gore nodded at every word, murmured assent…then simply signed “Gore Vidal” and handed it back.
We got to the head of the line, where Pat sat, flanked by a petite, worried-looking fifty-something woman in a Citadel cap. My companion was an aspiring writer (like most in the crowd probably were) and Pat spoke to him at length, even giving him his agent’s phone number. Pat closed their discussion by telling him, “You are a writer. Never forget. You are a writer.”
My turn came up. I handed Pat the two copies of My Losing Season I’d purchased. He opened one, picked up a pen, then asked, “And…what do you do for a living, sir?”
“I’m a bass player.”
My answer seemed to confuse and delight him. “Huh! No kidding?” I’m not sure if much else was said, but he asked me what I wanted for the personalized copy, and I told him to write whatever he wanted. He paused for a moment, then wrote the caption in the picture above.
I am fifty-nine years old, and one of these books is not going to get finished.
Somewhere, there’s a stack of yellow legal pads sitting alone, like a dog waiting by the door after its master has passed away. The thought makes me sad, but it’s also a moment of clarity. I’m going to be fifty years old in less than half a decade. Like most people, I will leave unfinished business, but I understand-finally-that I’m not going to live forever, and whatever I’m going to do, I need to do it now.
Good night, Mr. Conroy. I’m making your death about me because you’re part of me. Thank you and sleep well.
I guess, technically, I’m an “autism parent.” I’m the parent of an autistic child, but that’s kind of where it ends. My son is nine and this is the first book I’ve ever read on autism. I’m not proud of this, but not really ashamed, either.
I really got interested in this book after reading Amy Lutz’ “Please Stop Whitewashing Autism.” Read the comments to see what Silberman calls “the autism wars” in full swing: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/…
Silberman himself jumps in during the comments section, stating that his book is a history of the autism diagnosis, not a “how-to” manual, and he’s absolutely right. The book I think this bears the most resemblance to, in scope and tone, is Randy Shilts’ “And The Band Played On,” a sweeping history of the AIDS crisis. “NeuroTribes” is no more about living with autism than “And The Band Played On” is about living with AIDS, or “Too Big To Fail” about how to invest money.
It’s an unflinching, sometimes funny, sometimes infuriating, sometimes heartbreaking look at a much-misunderstood, unnecessarily dreaded and evolving neurological condition. I’ll admit to weeping openly during the section on Hans Asperger’s clinic in Vienna. It also gave extensive backup to information given by our son’s pediatricians and teachers during his time of assessment. I remember asking “is there an ‘autism epidemic’?” and being told “no, the diagnostic tools are just much better now.” “NeuroTribes” goes through this point in painstaking detail, from Asperger’s initial findings through the various editions of the DSM.
I also remember basically putting my son’s first pediatrician up against the wall and saying “tell me the truth about vaccines, or you’re dead.” He told me about the Wakefield study, the only study ever to establish a link between vaccines and autism, which is now (rightly) considered one of the deadliest hoaxes of the 20th and 21st centuries. Silberman spends a relatively small amount of the book’s 477 pages on this debacle, wisely avoiding the “autism wars” as much as he can (and most of the “autism wars” have had little to do with the quality of life and services for autistic people, anyway). However, his history is concise, unbiased (in my opinion) and detailed-he doesn’t shrink from the subject, either.
Like I said, I’ve only read one book on autism, but I’m glad it was this one.
Sometime around 1981, when I was eleven years old, I bought Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of the movie Alien.
It started with an interesting sequence, something not contained in the movie or in any version of the script that I’m aware of (in all honesty, I haven’t read any of the movie’s scripts): The following is the introductory paragraph of Foster’s Alien:
You must understand that they were not professional dreamers. Professional dreamers are highly paid, respected, much sought-after talents. Like the majority of us, these seven dreamt without effort or discipline. Dreaming professionally, so that one’s dreams can be recorded or played back for the entertainment of others, is a much more demanding proposition. It requires the ability to regulate semi-conscious creative impulses and to stratify imagination, an extraordinarily difficult combination to achieve. A professional dreamer is simultaneously the most organized of all artists and the most spontaneous. A subtle weaver of speculation, not straightforward and clumsy like you or I. Or these certain seven sleepers.
Of them all, Ripley came closest to possessing that special potential…
The first three pages of Alien talk about the now-famous crew of the Nostromo and how they’d fare as professional dreamers. Foster spends so much time expanding on something not part of the Alien universe that I wonder if it was something he’d thought about on his own for a separate book.
And, it planted a seed that, thirty-some years later, motivated me to write a short story called “The Nightmare Man” which appeared in a bogus Craigslist hijack called Scary Stories, and finally in a legitimate short-story anthology, Nightscapes, from my first publisher, Stonegarden Publishing.
I thought about the type of person who could dream for a living and came up with Owen Tipton. Owen lives like a rockstar, but his inner life is much different than his public persona. In my mind, he’s Sting from the earliest era of the Police: cocky, cerebral, and haunted all at the same time. He’s a savant who doesn’t understand why he’s able to do what he does, which makes it all the more disturbing when he loses power over his dreams…which gain power until he’s almost destroyed by them.
The Vault is coming in January from Black Rose Writing. It’s a big book (94,000 words) with big images, big visuals and big concepts…and I can’t wait to share it with you.
I moved to California twenty years ago.
This is nothing like the type of immigration I’m about to talk about, but, no mistake about it, I was a stranger in a strange land. CA and CO are two very different states, with different populations and different paces.
I was alone and didn’t know how to not be around my family or the people I grew up with. I thought I liked being alone, but had no conception of what absolute solitude meant, and had no idea of what it truly meant to be cut off from your family or the people you grew up with.
Dealing with immigrant populations has been a wedge issue in American politics for a long time, but in the fifteen years or so that I’ve actually been paying attention to politics and current events, this is probably the worst it’s ever been. I keep waiting for Donald Trump to embarrass himself to the point where even the lunatic fringe refuses to take him seriously, but not only is it NOT happening, it’s triggering a fervor I honestly find frightening. A colleague of mine remarked (Godwin’s Law notwithstanding) that it reminded him of Hitler’s rise to power, and he’s right. Less than 100 years ago-a blink of the eye in the scope of human history-millions of human beings were herded up like cattle and executed as a result of rhetoric that doesn’t sound that different from Trump’s.
Months ago, I had a discussion with one of my classes about empathy. I went around the room, and told each student something I had in common with them. One of them struggled with feelings of inadequacy in my class: who hasn’t felt that way? Another one had a parent who taught in the school: every time I had a substitute teacher in choir or band, they knew my parents. If you meet someone on the street and try to find something in common with them, you usually don’t have to try that hard.
Another aspect of empathy is being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, which by all indications seems to be a dying art. Do people look at refugees on TV-regardless of their country of origin-and ever wonder what it would be like to be them?
What would it be like to be an immigrant?
And, mind you, I’m not talking about the “oh, we lived in London for five years while I was a project manager for Google” kind of immigrant. I’m talking about the “we fled Latin America because the local cartel was going to kill my family” kind of immigrant.
So, if I go somewhere in the multiverse where I, Paul Nemeth, am forced by war or famine to move to a different country, here’s what I think I would be like:
I’d be very angry. I’d have grudging gratitude that I’d have a country to go to, but I’d be angry. And, that anger would be palpable. I’d be angry for the chaos in my homeland, I’d be angry about dead and lost loved ones. I’d be angry because I’d most likely be at the bottom of the ladder when it came to food and housing. I’d be angry if I’d been a doctor or a lawyer or a general in some other country and was emptying bedpans or cleaning toilets for a living. Is eating better than starving, and is having a roof better than not having one? Sure, but I’d still be angry. Admit it, you’d be, too.
I’d cling to every other American expatriate I could find. We’d become insular, clannish even. We wouldn’t trust the police, and the police wouldn’t trust us. If I ran a restaurant or store, I’d do business as fairly as I could, but-let’s face it-if one of my countrymen came in the door, they’d most likely get preferential treatment. And, another American broke the law and was wanted by the authorities, I would probably prioritize their “American-ness” over whatever local law they were accused of violating.
I would still speak English whenever I could. I’d do my best to learn the local language (and probably wouldn’t have much trouble, since I pick up language pretty quickly) but would never stop speaking English. If I was with another American in a roomful of people, I’d speak English if I didn’t want the others in the room to understand what we were talking about. Even though I pick up language easily, I would speak the local language with a noticeable accent, and I’d be kind of a dick if people complained about it. Which they would-I’ve heard enough 0ld white people complain about store clerks or gas jockeys with “accents” to not have any illusions about the treatment I’d get under similar circumstances.
Would I “assimilate?” Sort of. I would accept local customs, celebrate national holidays, and otherwise follow local laws, but I wouldn’t say, “America doesn’t exist…we’re Nationality X now.” And, even if I did attempt to throw out every trace of my past nationality, who would buy it? When was the last time you saw someone from Mexico or the Middle East wearing Western-style clothing driving a Toyota and speaking perfect, unaccented English and thought, “Wow! They’re really ‘fitting in?'”
If my neighborhood ended up having a large population of people like me, I’d push for having American stuff around: statues of famous Americans, parades on American holidays and events commemorating American history. And, my new country’s version of Fox News would most likely report it as a bunch of unpatriotic, angry, suspicious-acting foreigners who refuse to assimilate and are trying to turn every country in the world into the United States.
If I felt like my culture was all I had, yes, it would become very, very important to me.
So, yeah, I’ll be the first one to admit that I wouldn’t be one of the “oh, thank you for giving me a better life,” kind of immigrants. I’d like to think that I’d behave nobly under such circumstances, but I know myself-and I know human nature.
This might piss some people off. I hope it does. Because, even if it makes people angry, it might force them to put themselves in someone else’s shoes for once.
The late KGO broadcaster Gil Gross was having a discussion about this topic, and asked, “Can we not be decent?” If I were an immigrant, I wouldn’t ask to be embraced with open arms…but I’d ask for decency. And some empathy. It’s really not a lot to ask for.
Most people can say this, but I’m at a crossroads in my life where it’s more apparent than it’s ever been. I’ve always been fearful. There’s a pit in the middle of my soul that has always been a ball of solid, concentrated fear. I remember going through a sheaf of papers in grade school and finding a progress report from pre-school: “Talks often about monsters getting him. Is often fearful.” I was scared of the dark, of bugs and moths. I was scared of the vacuum cleaner and the blender. At parades, I would go to great lengths to avoid clowns (well, some fears are justified).
I’ve had modest success as a musician and writer, but I’m stuck at both. I need to break through a wall of fear that has surrounded me. Every selfish decision I’ve made in the last two decades of my life, every alcoholic drink I’ve ever taken, every time I’ve ever eaten until I was almost sick, every weird OCD habit creeping into my life (as I write this, I’m looking obsessively at the screen of my new laptop, looking for scratches) is there because of fear. One of the first things anybody ever says about any great artist, from Miles Davis to Bruce Lee, is that they were fearless. I’m not a great artist.
I have a book in print, which is something that most of the human population will never be able to say, but it’s sitting squarely somewhere around the 5-million mark on Amazon because I’m afraid to promote it. I’ve said for a long time that I believe that writers have to face rejection in a way no other artist in any other medium has to. Stephen King talks at length about the trunkful of rejection letters he received before he started getting acceptance letters, and the oft-told legend is that his wife rescued Carrie from his garbage can.
And, what is fear of rejection if not fear of death? In his book Beyond and Back, Ralph Wilkerson states-correctly-that every single fear we have is ultimately rooted in the fear of death, and if the fear of death can be conquered, the other fears vanish as well.
I have a videogame that I’m literally scared to play. As a huge fan of the Alien franchise, I saw reviews for Alien: Isolation and of course, wanted to play it. In fact, I broke one of my rules and paid full price for it instead of waiting for “Greatest Hits” status and a substantial discount.
The game is marvelous, immersive. The plot, in a nutshell, involves Ripley’s daughter Amanda (mentioned during a sub-plot in the director’s cut of Aliens) and a ship, the Torrens, identical to the Nostromo. The game’s design nails the 21st-century-meets-1970s aesthetic of the original, along with the amazing sound design (watching the Alien director’s cut through a good sound system is a religious experience).
I’m not a huge gamer, but I’ve faithfully played every Resident Evil installment and the first three Silent Hills, along with various others. Getting killed in Resident Evil has never been pleasant, but it’s never kept me from playing the game, either:
This has happened to me countless times over the last fifteen years: I just shake it off and come back for more. But, not this time.
Some people might live in fear of zombies, ghosts or serial killers, but I don’t. For me, the last word in terror has always been H.R. Giger’s ubiquitous xenomorph. It’s always been disturbing to me in a way that guys in hockey masks will never be. Beautiful and deadly, a perfect organism, its structural perfection matched only by its hostility. Eight feet long (well, Bodaji Boladejo, the actor in the costume-yes, it’s a guy in a suit-is technically 7’2) but endowed with cat-like grace…by the time you see it, it’s usually too late.
It’s the only movie monster I’ve ever had recurring dreams about. In these dreams, it never kills me-sometimes I never even feel like it’s hunting. It’s an enigma that stalks for its own reasons and on its own timetable. But, it’s like a time bomb that could go off at any moment. Quite simply, it has a mythology inside my head that no other creation like it has.
Two nights ago, I did an experiment that I’ll most likely do again tonight. The best suggestion I’ve seen for “Isolation” was; just simply let the monster kill you a number of times. Get used to being killed by the beast until you’re completely desensitized to it. I think there’s a real parallel there in regard to making friends with, accepting and even welcoming failure as a stepping-stone on the path to eventual success (or peace with said failure).
So, I fired up the Xbox with the express purpose of dying. And, believe it or not, it was incredibly difficult. I was in the medical wing (like in the video below), and watched it fall out of the ceiling vent. I forced myself to walk toward it instead of running away (incredibly difficult, even in a cartoon), let it see me and it was over.
I was going to let it kill me several times, but during my one deliberate failure, I found the door with the security code that let me in. If I hadn’t failed on purpose, I wouldn’t have found the door that let me continue. And, it did finally snatch me out of a storage locker, but I imagine I’ll get a little farther tonight:
I’ll die some more tonight, and maybe while I do, it’ll give me some clues on how to keep on living.
So, Nicolas Cage, LoLo Jones, Jordin Sparks, a Muslim and an angry midget are on an airplane…
Sounds like the setup to a joke, but happens in the 2014 movie version of Left Behind, based on the bestselling series by Christian authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.
A brief foreword: I was raised a Presbyterian and have been in churches my entire life. I read the entire Bible when I was in college. There are aspects to the faith (and its practitioners) that I’m not in love with, but I’m not anti-religion or anti-Christian.
So, on to the movie:
Nicolas Cage plays Rayford Steele, a womanizing pilot. Now, I would never condone adultery, but his wife (played by an unrecognizable Lea Thompson) is a humorless evangelist just this side of Carrie White’s mother. I’d say the movie’s first failure as a recruitment tool is that every overtly “Christian” character either disappears or is a grinding, obnoxious nag.
He’s chastised by his daughter for never being home; his daughter is obsessed with The Big Problem of how a kind and loving God can allow suffering in the world. Well, her questions are about to be not answered, because she’s at the mall hugging her winsome little brother (who looks about twenty years younger than her) when all of a sudden she’s hugging an empty set of clothes. Screams echo throughout the mall as little piles of clothes end up where all the children and some adults were.
Up in the air, Nicolas Coppola/Steele/Cage and his stewardess/squeeze are the only members of the flight crew left, and half the plane is gone. On Earth, all Hell is breaking loose as planes drop from the sky and driverless cars crash everywhere: it seems that Nic Cage is the only non-Christian pilot flying the friendly skies. His daughter, Chloe (I had to look it up, just like I had to look up the name of every other character, because the character development-shocker-sucks) dodges crash after crash, smashing her way through windows and glass doors so flimsy that you wonder how they got installed in the first place. I mean, I knew a guy in junior high who punched through a car window when he was drunk and literally broke every bone in his arm, but I’m supposed to believe Nic Cage’s girly daughter doesn’t see broken glass as an obstacle.
Rayford Steele’s plane has a minor collision with another plane, which was apparently staffed by better people than his because the cockpit is empty, and in between whining “mayday,” he goes through the missing flight attendant’s purse and finds a Bible and an appointment book full of bible-study appointments and figures out (with the help of a kooky passenger-again, for a Christian-produced movie, every portrayal of a Christian is either a kook or a humorless crank) that the Rapture has occurred. Of course, Nic Steele’s been married to a Christian presumably for decades, but never once heard of the Rapture, although he’s probably ignored his wife all this time anyway.
His daughter Chloe is making her way across whatever the hell town they’re in, hearing story after story and seeing that all the children are gone. It’s great that the children are all in Heaven, but boy, God sure ripped a lot of babies out of a lot of mothers’ arms. She finds her childhood church and the pastor’s inside. She’s figured out by now what’s been going on, and is surprised to see him, because you’d think a pastor would have made the final cut. He explains that “the words were on his lips, but he didn’t believe enough.” Oops.
Back on the plane, there’s all kinds of manufactured tension to try to lure me into caring about these people. There’s back-and-forth between an angry dwarf and a Muslim-y guy (they never actually identify him as a Muslim, but he’s wearing a little hat). I guess his name’s Hassid. I had to look it up because, again, I don’t care about these people. There’s also a fun senile old couple. Rayford Cage is in the cockpit with the dashing journalist, trying to figure it all out. Also, it becomes obvious pretty early on that the movie’s writers know nothing about aircraft or aviation and couldn’t be bothered to find out.
There’s an angry dwarf. He’s clearly angry at God for making him “different,” and I don’t know if the coming tribulation is going to make him less angry. Jordin Sparks is the ex-wife of an NFL player who accuses her husband of masterminding an elaborate plot to kidnap his daughter back by drugging her and swearing the rest of the plane to silence. Of course,his daughter’s been raptured away (again, it seems that a Kind And Loving God could have made His point without ripping another child out of the arms of her parents, but who am I to ask?) She also sings the slow-jam gospel song over the end credits, again making me question whether the movie’s producers actually listened to the music cues before they pasted them into the movie.
There’s a Muslim on the airplane, but no overtly gay people. On the ground, Chloe Steele doesn’t encounter any gay people either, which means legions of well-meaning bigots were wrong and they got raptured away, or that LaHaye and Jenkins were so repulsed by the phenomenon of homosexuality that they couldn’t even envision an apocalypse where gay people are eaten by radioactive scorpions, or whatever’s supposed to happen.
Early on, the movie shows promise as a camp classic, but takes itself so seriously that the sheer weight of its self-insistence turns what could have been a fun Airport-meets-World War Z-mashup into a dreadful, proselytizing bore. The initial dialogue is terse and clipped (“hey, if we stick to single sentences and one-word answers, they won’t know they’re watching a ‘Christian’ movie!”) but when the sermons come, they have all the nuance and subtle poetry of a Jehovah’s Witness camped out on your porch when you’re late for work. And, there’s no mention of why God is doing this, or what the end reward is for not just simply sticking a gun in your mouth to avoid the radioactive scorpions.
There’s a scene where Chloe Steele is at the top of an electrical tower ready to ‘end it all’. I’m not sure why-maybe it’s the sojourn through the maternity ward full of empty cribs, or maybe it’s the shock of learning her pastor wasn’t any more prepared for Heaven than she was, or maybe it’s the God-awful white-bread country-spiritual music playing, but she gets a sat-phone call from the dashing journalist and her father and somehow clears a path for the plane to land-the movie’s camp status is somewhat redeemed when we learn she’s not only an expert motorcycle rider but also knows how to operate heavy machinery.
Nicolas Rayford Steele Cage lands the plane and there’s a moment of subtle hilarity when the senile old lady says to her equally senile husband, “Honey, wake up, we’ve landed.” The movie ends with the same cliche’ ending used in every apocalyptic thriller from The Thing to every Resident Evil installment: the group standing by the wreckage, looking out onto Armageddon. The bad news is that this is the beginning of the end of the God-engineered collapse of human-society…the good news is that Rayford Coppola is free to bang away with his stewardess girlfriend, since of course, his Margaret White-ish wife has been raptured away, the only remnant being her earrings in the shower drain.
Then the Jordin Sparks slow jam starts, along with a Bible verse, which I think is Matthew 24:36 (“But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only) but like everything else, the movie screws that up, too.
I guess this mess is supposed to make me want to be a Christian somehow.
At the beginning of Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book When Bad Things Happen To Good People, he relates the account of a husband and wife in his synagogue whose college-aged daughter drops dead of a brain aneurism. The husband, stricken beyond belief, tells Kushner, “You know, Rabbi, we didn’t fast last Yom Kippur.”
“Who,” muses Kushner, “taught these people to believe in a God who would strike a promising young woman dead for someone else’s ritual infraction?”
What follows is an examination of the dichotomy between the patient, loving, kind God most of us were taught to believe in, and the wrathful Old Testament deity Kushner dubs the “monster-god.” It’s no mistake that, since the birth of film, the movie most credited for religious conversions has been The Exorcist. What does this say about us-as spiritual beings or as a species?
In no sense of the word can this be considered a “recruitment film.” More people probably joined the Army after watching Stripes than became Christians after viewing this dreck. Left Behind is such a failure in this regard that the only conclusion I can make is that it was never intended as such a tool in the first place. This movie was made to reinforce the worldview of people who not only believe the Rapture and Armageddon are coming, but are looking forward to it, and if given half the chance, would probably hasten the process. All I’m saying is…do you think anyone involved in writing or producing this movie looked in the mirror afterward and said “hey, a lot of planes fall from the sky in this movie…anybody else find that a tad ironic?”
One of my favorite novels has always been William Peter Blatty’s Legion (filmed as the credible but disappointing Exorcist III). The novel’s central character, the Jewish lieutenant William Kinderman, muses, “Why do I hear the words ‘love your enemies,’ and my heart sings?” To me, the concept of loving your enemies is central to the Christian faith, and yes, my heart sings when I hear those words as well. If the Left Behind book series says anything about loving your enemies, the filmmakers did a great job of leaving it off the celluloid.
God isn’t dying…the monster-god is, and personally I’ll rejoice when it’s done.