Truvada: the underachieving drug.

Let’s pretend there’s a drug that helps minimize effects of lung cancer in people close to death. Call it Inqui. (“Inn-kwee.” Derived from the Latin word for “unfair.”)

Inqui has been around for a few years. Researchers and docs familiar with the drug know it also works well as a preventative for lung cancer if taken daily.

Yet, that knowledge has not resulted in widespread use of Inqui as a prophylactic. Here are a few of the reasons:

–Testing drugs on well people is tricky.

–Anti-American protesters don’t want it tested on poor people in other countries.

–The drug company making it would rather not give it to un-sick people, because live people tend to sue when things go wrong, whereas dead people do not.

And, perhaps most significantly, because politically active healthy nonsmokers are violently opposed to giving the drug to people who smoked. Those people knew the risks and did not seek help to quit using nicotine or breathing second-hand smoke, so screw them.

This would be outrageous. Right?

Yet this is pretty much the case with Truvada, a drug prescribed to people infected with HIV, as described in “An AIDS Advance, Hiding in the Open,” by Donald G. McNeil Jr. in The New York Times.

As he put it:

“The delay [in selling Truvada for prevention] turns out to be a combination of scientific caution and the fiery politics of AIDS. While a medical advance can be made by a momentary flash of inspiration or luck — as legendarily happened with penicillin — proving that it works can take forever. And that is particularly true with AIDS, a disease surrounded by visceral fears, longstanding prejudices and the potential for huge profits.”

Good thing lung cancer affects straight people, otherwise “Inqui” as preventative wouldn’t have seen the light of day either.

Writers in passing: Hugh Prather, Norris Church Mailer.

Two deaths reported in The New York Times give me pause. Both were considered accidental authors by their critics. Both found their gifts in unusual ways.

Hugh Prather wrote Notes to Myself as a journal in the early 1970s; it was a surprise bestseller. Norris Church Mailer was a fashion model who married Norman Mailer when he was more than twice her age. While insisting she was no intellectual, Ms. Mailer created fine art, theater and prose that showed intelligence and spirit.

Prather came from privilege and discovered his literary and artistic talent through manual labor; Ms. Mailer climbed out of childhood poverty as a beauty-pageant contestant and became the glue in the lives of the much-married writer, her two sons and seven stepchildren.

Both artists used inner strengths to empower countless others. Prather was the first contemporary journal writer I read, and his gentle reflections helped me make the feminism of my twenties part of my heart, not just my rhetoric. Ms. Mailer I came to admire in middle age, for her ability to be both helpmeet and writer–in the shade of Norman Mailer’s massive ego and talent, yet.

The notion that writers should “empower” us is a relatively new requirement. Literature and memoir were not always evaluated for this ability. There’s a certain flimsiness to the idea, since it bases the value of a piece of writing on how it makes us feel, period. A key manner in which new books are publicly valued relies on tabulating the number of people who buy into the hype of impending empowerment, then buy the book.

There are, though, other measures of a book’s power over us. The test of time, for one. The books that stay shelved in one’s inner library do matter, often for reasons beyond craft or depth. And the “back story” of a book has power too. For all the celebrity and success around her, Ms. Mailer rarely had a real Room of Her Own. She was always a writer with a hyphen: wife-and-writer, mother-and-writer. She too was someone for this feminist to learn from, and admire.

“Cry to Heaven” by Anne Rice

“Cry to Heaven” (Knopf) came out in 1982 and it is the first Anne Rice work I’ve read. It’s rich and brilliant, the story of 17th century castrati, castrated males with unearthly, beautiful voices. These revered artists were courted by the Vatican and high society, but were also outcasts: eunuchs who existed in an excruciating gender limbo surrounded by complicated societal mores and attitudes. The boys who were sold by parents, then “cut,” did not all become stars. The ones who lost their voices or never developed the talent needed for the stage are among history’s most tragic figures. The story tells of Tonio Treschi, a Venetian nobleman kidnapped and castrated, who rises through the ranks of this odd society. His teachers, lovers, audiences and family are all swept up by his unearthly gift, for which everyone pays a price. Read this and prepare to dream about the story at night. Rice is a clever literary witch.

Keegan Smith’s music: New baggage

Music can be heavy. By that I mean, it has baggage. Meaning, it takes me places.

And, some days, I just want to hear good music, not travel old roads and remember days when I was younger or happily dumber. I want to hear something new that makes me feel like I’m into something different, but not just a voyeur spying on the 20-somethings.

photo from Keegan Smith website/Portland Music Awards

I just want to feel good in the car with the music cranked up,  you know?

So, for that…there’s Keegan Smith. We heard this young guy a couple months ago at Jimmy Maks in Portland (best Jazz club in the Northwest, and maybe the West) and loved him. He’s original, but he showcases his roots. Clever, but real. A good musician who seems to love the life.

As an added attraction, this marked the first time I’d seen a rapper perform while holding an infant. (This being the time and place it is, the kid was wearing protective earplugs while Daddy got down.)

Then we went to hear him at another Portland club, where I was the oldest person in the room. It was the night after Halloween and everyone else was in costume. The guy dressed in a trash bag with a sign reading “Douche Bag” will go far in this life, you could tell.

Smith’s new CD, “Special Delivery” was just out and he performed several of the cuts. There’s some ghosts of the past in his work–you catch a few seconds of Paul Simon here, maybe a moment of Van Morrison, a whiff of Genesis in the late 1970s. With rap and reggae in there to be poetic and recreational.

I wanted the CD fast, so I downloaded it for $8.99 from Amazon. (I’m making dubs for friends, and I’ll send $8.99 a whack to Smith directly.  It is bad, bad juju to steal from a musician, my niece taught me that.)

Go ahead, get yourself some new baggage. There’s the download, used copies, or you can be a big spender and go for the new CD.

Posted in: Art |

Guns into plowshares. Or Christmas stockings.

Portland’s mayor Sam Adams wants a gun “buy back” event in December. Those are the events to which you can bring a gun, turn in it without any questions asked, and get a few bucks. Not a bad concept, and it works well in many cities to get weapons out of homes.

But leave it to Adams; the guy could make free ice cream sound stupid.

The Oregonian’s website quotes Adams as follows. Italics are mine.

“The mayor said on Friday he’d announce the exact date and location today. The December date, Adams said, should draw plenty of gun owners who may be looking for extra shopping money for the holidays.

Yup, the greenest city in America has a new economic stimulus plan. Maybe we should cut out the middleman and just let people use the guns as legal tender. Pistols as point-of-service payment.

The ad campaign practically writes itself: “For everything else, there’s Smith and Wesson.”

Pretty in pink. Yeah, but it’s still cancer.

For some time now, I’ve wondered what it is that seems wrong to me about the breast-cancer awareness barrage — all the pink on the NFL gridiron; the rallies, the walks, the t-shirts, the slogans. Surely it’s a good thing to make people more aware of this disease, right?

Well, yes. But there’s more to it than that. A piece by Peggy Orenstein in The New York Times answers my question: Anything that gets more women to do exams is good…and promoting open conversation about cancer is very good. But the pep rally nature of all of this has also obscured some of the realities. Orenstein had breast cancer. She writes:

“But a funny thing happened on the way to destigmatization. The experience of actual women with cancer…got lost. Rather than truly breaking silences, acceptable narratives of coping emerged, each tied up with a pretty pink bow. There were the pink teddy bears that, as Barbara Ehrenreich observed, infantilized patients in a reassuringly feminine fashion. “Men diagnosed with prostate cancer do not receive gifts of Matchbox cars,” she wrote in her book “Bright-Sided.”

Alternatively, there are what Gayle Sulik, author of “Pink Ribbon Blues,” calls “She-roes” — rhymes with “heroes.” These aggressive warriors in heels kick cancer’s butt (and look fab doing it). Like the bear huggers, they say what people want to hear: that not only have they survived cancer, but the disease has made them better people and better women. She-roes, it goes without saying, do not contract late-stage disease, nor do they die.”

Orestein describes a wave of new attention-getting t-shirts and slogans, meant to attract and educate young women. Some really are funny and clever. (“Save the Ta-Tas” made me laugh, I admit it.) But there’s a real danger that this disease becomes a big pink event, especially for those younger women. Orenstein writes:

“I hate to be a buzz kill, but breast cancer is just not sexy. It’s not ennobling. It’s not a feminine rite of passage. And, though it pains me to say it, it’s also not very much fun. I get that the irreverence is meant to combat crisis fatigue, the complacency brought on by the annual onslaught of pink, yet it similarly risks turning people cynical. By making consumers feel good without actually doing anything meaningful, it discourages understanding, undermining the search for better detection, safer treatments, causes and cures for a disease that still afflicts 250,000 women annually (and speaking of figures, the number who die has remained unchanged — hovering around 40,000 — for more than a decade).”

I don’t think Orenstein wants the breast-cancer walks to stop, and I don’t think she’s claiming that all women share her view. Many feel empowered and supported by this movement. But she does a great service when she asks that we remember that this is a disease, not an ad campaign.

“Scottsboro” by Ellen Feldman

“Scottsboro: A Novel” by Ellen Feldman (Norton, 2008) -

The case of the “Scottsboro Boys” in 1931 proves that real-life stories, are in fact, stranger, meaner, more shocking and riveting than the made-up stuff can ever be.

The Alabama case of nine African American teenagers charged with the rape of two white women stretched on for years, a spectacle still unrivaled. The Jim Crow racism that allowed the trumped-up charges to stand is well known, but Ellen Feldman’s excellent novel tells of the other forces at work.

The International Labor Defense (legal arm of the Communist Party), the NAACP, various writers, and other defenders of the Scottsboro nine kept them alive, each questioning the motives–even the true goals–of the other. As one character remarked in accusing another defender: Some activists knew that nine martyrs were more politically useful than nine free men, and so actually hoped for their convictions.

Some of the novel’s characters have rich real-life histories, such as Sam Leibowitz, the tireless defense attorney–also known as a CommieNewYorkJew, who was a hero, an opportunist, and a figure who provoked both pride and fear in other American Jews. (The Scottsboro case explains much about new waves of anti-Semitism during the years that followed.) The two women, cast as victims by Southern white-supremacist myth, emerge as a pair of the most sympathetic liars in modern history.

A fine book, well grounded in history and crafted with skill.

Deep end of the gene pool.

Often when I read some fascinating piece in The New York Times about mental health, addiction or behavior…I look up and see reporter Benedict Carey’s byline on it. The piece headlined “Genes as Mirrors of Life Experiences” in the online edition is the latest one to catch my eye.

The piece is about “epigenetics” — the study of how our life experiences and surroundings affect gene function. This is all new to me — and mind-boggling stuff. I long ago came to understand how my paternal forebears’ addictions took up residence in my genes’ neighborhood, but this? Whoa.

Carey writes:

“In studies of rats, researchers have shown that affectionate mothering alters the expression of genes, allowing them to dampen their physiological response to stress. These biological buffers are then passed on to the next generation: rodents and nonhuman primates biologically primed to handle stress tend to be more nurturing to their own offspring, and the system is thought to work similarly in humans.

Epigenetic markers may likewise hinder normal development: the offspring of parents who experience famine are at heightened risk for developing schizophrenia, some research suggests — perhaps because of the chemical signatures on the genes that parents pass on….”

The children of Holocaust survivors, offspring of veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, descendants of successful, happy folks…all those genes carry their own back story, it seems.

Read the whole story here.

“Among Thieves” by David Hosp steals the show.

If you saw the movie “The Town” about underworld life in Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood, you know this Irish-thug genre. It draws on the local “family business” of crime, in which fathers pass on armed-robbery skills and turf to sons, continuing a particularly violent history in the narrow streets of a tough neighborhood.

The story of the film is good, but “Among Thieves” by David Hosp (Grand Central Publishing, 2010) is much better. It has killers with and without wits; a big, smart ex-cop; a small, smart gal cop; a criminal-lawyer-with-a-heart; a tough teenager and a shockingly bold museum robbery.

(The robbery at the eclectic and wonderful Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum really happened in 1990, and remains unsolved.)

The author is a lawyer in real life, with a big fancy Boston firm. Of course he makes Finn, his lawyer-hero, a hardscrabble case who eschews the trappings of a successful career. But is still the smartest guy in the game. A forgivable conceit. Finn won’t rest until he serves his client, a fuck-up of a crook just trying to provide for his newly discovered daughter. That puts Finn back in the museum case 20 years after the fact, racing against the bad guys and assorted cops all running down the same trail.

It’s hard to put down, and the mystery remains a mystery until close to the end. Don’t pick it up if you have work to do or a place to be.

(More Tiny Book Reviews, here.)

Portland: Low-tech and high priced.

If you want an excellent blueprint for wasting resources, look at this report from Portland’s city auditor. You don’t need to read very far to get the idea.

The city that prides itself on its green approach to life is hugely wasteful when it comes to that paper stuff called “money.”

392 Business System Software Implementation Audit FULL(2)

If a private business operated this way, its creditors would be holding a fire sale right now.

“Cooks Source” is a den of thieves.

People who steal images or words from others on the web will go to a special Hell…where there is nothing to read but outdated airline magazines with pages missing.

And the reading light is too low.

Oh, and no snacks. Or bathroom.

And the only other human is the person who was meanest to you in grade school.

You, word thieves, are scum.

(Click here for “Copyright Infringement and Me,” a blog post about plagiarism by “Cooks Source Magazine” and one editor’s ridiculous response that inspired the above sentiments. The rant against Cooks Source is going viral and the unleashed fury is wonderful to behold.)