A meadowlark swoops
I watch and
wonder how that feels
The meadowlark glances at me
That is how it feels
How odd the contrast
A meadowlark swoops
I watch and
wonder how that feels
The meadowlark glances at me
That is how it feels
How odd the contrast
The redundancy never quenches
Punching up through wet earth
Climbing the sinews
And touching the resonant essence
I am organic
You are crystal
What a strange composite
Earth and diamond
The impossible admixture
Combusts upon contact
White hot interface
Between the impossible
And the truth
The “oversight” committee was aptly named. It was possible that their oversight was going to cost our species dearly, as in extinction. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We had thought of everything, archived every snippet of our DNA and understood exactly how to modify, repair, and massage our genomes to perfection. We built our bodies to be strong and, well, perfect. We mastered the code, so we controlled everything.
Then we started getting sick.
The oversight committee convened to oversee our genetic peril and concluded that they had missed nothing. They were dead wrong, of course. They had missed the main thing, the fact that our genome alone was not the Holy Grail to immorality. It was our entire genetic landscape in the most holistic sense that was key to long-term survival. Our genes were perfect, but those of our gut microbiome, that was another story altogether. Yup, that darned oversight committee overlooked the critical genes that were chugging away in our bowels, creating the fuel that made us, well… us. As pedestrian as it seemed at the time, we had neglected to note that even most elegant starship could be compromised by one batch of bad fuel.
Fortunately, the committee’s oversight had not extended to interstellar travel, nor had they forgotten the location of our planet of origin, that radioactive ball of ideological speciation called Earth.
So, echoing too accurately the song of the ancient space mariner known by the cryptic moniker Bow-Ee, “Here am I floating in my tin can” toward a raging hell of a planet that is, as far as we know, devoid of life, but maybe not devoid of the miraculous polymer encoding it. The chances of success are redonkulously low but I have to try because if I don’t then my planet, too, will be devoid of the life, as least as far as Homo superians is concerned.
The radioactive decay is precisely on mark. Bathed in atomic isotopes with half-lives ranging from a few thousand Earth days to 700 million Earth years or more this place was laterally on fire and would be forever. Good thing some of the ancients managed to leave before joining the vast majority of the population whose legacy was billions of charcoal silhouettes.
But to the task at hand, I land my spacecraft and calculate that despite my protective gear my personal DNA would sustain irreparable damage in a little over one Earth hour. I set to work with my PhotoPlow™, the laser burrowing deep through the scolding strata and into the remnants of a sewer system where the last shred of hope for our survival may yet linger. I descend the smoldering hollow and begin my quest. Minutes tick by and… nothing, not one damned microbial genome to be found.
Wait! Jammed into the hot soil packed into a deep crack in the sewer pipe wall I detect the impossible. Carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, organized into a polymer that could be the DNA I seek. I dig, scrap and finally, against all reason, use my bare fingers to pull out a gobbet of dripping black goo containing the organic remains of some ancient bug. This is fantastic! I don’t need the organism itself, just it’s DNA sequence, so I place the goober into the chamber of my Gnomiculator™ and attempt to determine the species based on the fragmented library of short sequence elements the oversight committee managed not to overlook. A stream of expletives escapes my maw as I determine that the little bastard is a mutant form of “Clostridium difficile“, a distant cousin to the microbial genome in the bugs that are killing my own species.
“Shit, ” I exclaim in the ancient mother tongue, blinded by despair to the irony of the statement.
I remove the black goo and pitch it into the knee high radioactive wastewater. At this point words cannot convey the wave of hopelessness I am feeling. I check my timer and realize that I have less than five Earth minutes to get back to the tin can I have called home for many Earth years of interstellar travel. Only there can I begin the gene regeneration process to repair all the damage the radiation has done to my perfect, and soon to be perfectly worthless genome. After a few heavy breathes I begin the assent out of the high-energy particle cauldron. In a moment of attention deficit, probably resulting from radiation poisoning, I bang my head hard on a stony outcropping in the nearly vertical ascent tube. The rebound forces my face directly into a conical protuberance sitting in a tiny alcove barely missed by the PhotoPlow™. I cuss for the third time in the last Earth hour and begin to climb again when I stop short, my heart pounding, and question my sanity (as I have done many times on this expedition).
“No way,” wheezes out of my ever more radiation ravaged lungs.
I look over my shoulder and spy the geological anomaly sitting there as if to say, “You sure you want to pass me by?”
Again I utter, “Noooo way,” and follow up with a closer inspection leading to a discovery that nearly ended my life right there as I lost all motor control and began to slip down the tube.
I catch myself eye-to-turd. Staring at the perfect little fecal pile I realize it was the Holy Grail of a mis-gutted species. An excretion miraculously perched on this most unlikely alter of hope in the rock where it sat hardening for thousands of years on the outside but, unless my LifeProbe™ was malfunctioning, containing the essence of microbial life in a tiny radiation resistant core.
I was shocked out of my reverie by a loud alarm and blinking red and orange lights on the inside of my sleeve.
“Crap!” I shouted, again missing the irony as I grabbed the pre-coprolitic icon of survival. I hustled to my spacecraft in triple time. Realizing that my immediate survival was a prerequisite for the perpetuation of the rest of my species, I set the artifact down and jumped into the Rejoovinator™. After the first genomic scan the news was not great, I would live but there was irreparable cellular damage and my lifespan was likely to be shortened by a few decades.
“Who cares”, I thought. A thousand Earth years plus or minus a few decades is a good long life as far as I was concerned. And any life is better than what lay ahead if I had not performed the most righteous poop-scoop of all time.
I felt great as I exited the Rejoovinator™ and began to analyze the recovered object d’feces. The genome for the entire original microbial ecosystem was present in this little dude, and it seemed “healthy” at least as far as I could tell from the limited information we had about what constituted a healthy gut microbiome back in the day. How it had survived the radiation was unimaginable. But it didn’t matter! I was on the way to the home world with the cure!
Now in my old age as I reflect back on that crazy expedition I have to laugh. I am an unworthy hero, nothing more than a soldier who got lucky on an impossible last resort quest. But here we are, a healthy and thriving, albeit more cautious and humble species. The now legendary DNA was used to regenerate a complete and hearty gut microbiome, transformed into SynthoCells™ and swallowed, post GI cleansing, of course, by everyone on the planet. As in most legends there is one remaining irony, you see it turned out that that particular fecal sample was… wait! I’ll have to get back to you on that, a female just passed by with the most enthralling scent emanating from her hindquarters.
He was the holy saint of macroeconomics, the quintessential bean counter. Arnie Schwartz was the CFO of a cutting edge biotechnology company poised to do a gargantuan sell out to an industry megalith. He had been working for months, well ahead of the meeting scheduled later in the day at which complex and protracted negotiations were to begin. His economic magnum opus was complete. At ninety-seven pages long it was quite the tome. He was beyond proud; this was virtuoso work. It covered everything, every nuance, every minute detail. If this were a symphony it would be a Mozart masterpiece. The document was symphonic in breadth, depth, and duration. A thousand monetary note analogs intertwined in econo-logical counterpoint sliding this way and that, each stimulating a cascade of events predicted with excruciating precision so that there could be no surprises. Even force majeure, the usual cover all for everything forgotten or too improbably to include specifically, was but a mere cog in the contractual tour de force.
He anticipated long-winded back and forth yammering leading circuitously back to the start and then over again. But he had ensured that not a single modification to the transactions was necessary. His pecuniary gem was the perfect cocktail of numbers and logic.
Arnie looked solemnly at his emaciated cat and said, “Well Shady, this is it. They will be floored when they fully digest this monster and we can finally retire and move to the woods by that lake we talk about all the time.”
The cat responded with, “mmfmfmtt,” a remnant of her former purr that seemed to have aged along with the rest of her disintegrating body.
As he stacked the papers together, neatly aligning the edges the way he neatly aligned everything in his life, he saw a flash of light to the right side of his visual field.
“What was…,” he began to utter to the cat as a searing pain splintered his brain and he attempted to gain purchase. Stumbling, he grabbed the table and knocked his masterpiece to the floor, papers floating down beside him like autumn leaves on a grave, as he died quickly, the burst artery in his brain relieving him of blood pressure and concomitant life.
Three hours later in a large conference room a group consisting mostly of impatient men and women sat around a gorgeous mahogany live-edge table hewn from what must have been a three hundred year old tree. The group included no fewer than six attorneys, their minions, the CEO of the industry megalith and a longhaired thirty-something biotechnology genius and startup founder/CEO who had eschewed convention and discovered a new way to make anticancer drugs from organic waste. The elder CEO had seen everything in the industry for over fifty years but was nonetheless excited about the technology and the deal they were about to do. Unbeknownst to the rest of the group, the two company leaders had been talking about the general outline of the deal over the phone for the last week and they were just waiting for the paperwork to be completed so they could sign on the dotted line and move on.
But there were no papers to sign. The CFO responsible for drafting the documents was late, very late. He could not be reached. As the two CEOs chatted about wine and music, passions they both shared, they laughed and could just as well have been enjoying a California Pinot noir at a Napa vineyard. But they were in a Manhattan skyscraper waiting for a CFO who had dropped off the face of the earth.
The younger CEO finally said, “Hey Sanford, as far as I am concerned we can move forward with the deal and tie up the details later, if there are any.”
Sanford, the elder, said without hesitation, “Sounds like a plan to me, Braxton.”
Sanford stood and the lawyers became suddenly quiet as a wave of anxiety perfused the room. They sensed something unconventional and irreverent about to happen.
Sanford announced, “Braxton and I have come to an agreement about the deal. We see no need for formalities so please pay attention.”
He stopped speaking and gestured to Braxton to allow him time at the pulpit.
“What is your offer, Sanford?” said Braxton.
Without missing a beat Sanford said, “I would like to purchase your company for eight hundred million dollars in cash and two percent sharing of all net profit from your products going forward.”
Braxton smiled and said, “Done.”
The two men shook hands in front of gaping mouths of the gaggle of attorneys. Before the inevitable legal uproar ensued Sanford said sternly, “Please see that a check for eight hundred million dollars arrives in Braxton’s company coffers by this time tomorrow. That is all, thank you.”
As the clamor began to grow Sanford put his arm around Braxton and led him from the room, leaving the attorneys baffled despite their crystal clear instructions. The two CEOs walked toward central park chatting about music while in a Manhattan apartment an aging cat relieved itself for the last time and died next to its caretaker who lay face down in the center of an exquisite financial instrument that nobody would ever read.
It contemplated one of its billions of creations. The emergent life there called it Dark Energy, but also called it God. How interesting that they could not close that simple loop.
It had so many ongoing projects that omniscience sure came in handy. Of course, that was its essence. Everywhere at all times and fully connected to everything. The emergent life on this one planet would have a hard time reducing that to their math. But they would try, that was their essence, tenacity and an arrogance that empowered them. Should they lose that know-it-all self-righteousness they would falter, so it let them continue on their chosen course. If all went well this experiment would follow the trajectory of a billion others in this galaxy and eventually the web of emergent life would connect across its vastness, fulfilling its reason for existence.
Connection, after all, is everything.
Pearls of moisture formed on the nacre of his smartsuite as he peered through a light mist out over the iridescent sea. The shell he held had been the home to some organism that thrived in this mysterious glowing ocean.
This new place was now his home, these new creatures his cohabitants. He explored the coast, the smartsuite reconfiguring to accommodate his motion every picosecond. Perhaps it was the shell he still held, or the profundity of being the first and only human to experience this landscape. Whatever the catalyst, an ancient parable sprung to his conscious mind about sand dollars layering the seashore and a persistent child being chided by a cynical adult as the former continued to save one sand dollar at a time. He wept and whispered to the photons reflecting from the pearlescent shell, “Thank you for saving me.”
In a twisted way the fact that he was in prison made sense, maybe. Leonard took advantage of his court imposed extended free time to study irony and paradox. Yes, he had broken the law and thereby compromised his right to freedom. But it was a bad law. He was being punished for trying to save a life.
How can fear and greed act together as the underpinnings of a healthcare system that was supposed to help people?
Wrapped in mental body armor hewn from the savagery of prison Leonard walked the yard, hands in the pockets of his bright unicolor jumpsuit, broad shoulders humped against the bracing wind. No wonder inmates who did their time and reentered the world outside the brick walls and barbed wire were hardened and isolated.
Leonard chuckled to himself muttering, “You want to see a real “Tough Man” competition? Take a shower in this fucking this place.”
Fortunately for him, Leonard was a strong man. An athlete throughout high school and college, he continued hard physical training despite the grueling demands of medical school. The large tattoo on his mammoth right bicep said, “Do No Harm”. When Leonard completed his residency at Mayo he had the ink skillfully applied in large block letters to confirm his dedication to medicine and saving lives with the skills he had mastered. The “Do No Harm” tattoo garnered him some respect in prison, interpreted as “Do Me No Harm or Suffer the Consequences”.
But it was the symbol of Caduceus on the opposing forearm that earned him a unique hierarchical position during his incarceration. Early on in his prison career he had to defend himself against a vicious predator as the pecking order was delineated. To survive he had crushed the man’s face against a cement wall and destroyed one of his attacker’s eyes. The horror of what he had done and subsequent perpetual self-admonition were his daily burden and to pay penance he had the Caduceus painfully inked by a prison artist. Now they left him alone. Neither prey nor predator, Leonard had become the go to guy for information, advice and help. Even in prison, Leonard’s role was that of healer. That small truth gave him comfort and he privately clung to it like a frightened child to his favorite security blanket as he paid his dues to society.
A bell rang and Leonard dutifully turned to reenter the dank building that had been his home for nearly five years and would remain so for three more months. Before being labeled by his peers as a criminal he had lived in a humble three-bedroom ranch house in Minneapolis with his wife, Jenai, and their one-year old daughter, Jen. Despite post-residency opportunities at prestigious medical institutes and phenomenal compensations packages in the biomedical industry, Leonard, a microbiome specialist, had chosen a different path. He went deeper into debt by purchasing his own medical equipment and a motor home, which he had converted to a mobile human repair center. His operations were funded by his wife’s income at a stockbroker and the occasional philanthropic donation as he traveled to underprivileged neighborhoods offering high-end medical service to the needy. It was in this context that he discovered that the relatively economical treatment of fecal transplantation cured or improved a vast spectrum of conditions from IBS and Crohn’s disease to persistent C. difficile infection. He was in touch with companies working on identifying and creating formulations of the bacteria in the stools that mitigated or cured a variety of illnesses, but while they struggled with the FDA and clinical trials, Leonard helped thousands of individual patients on the street. For the time being this was permitted because fecal transplantation flew under the radar of the arcane and insidiously lethargic machine of health provision regulation.
Then Janai, a lupus sufferer, got sick. She had endured lupus attacks many times but this flare up was particularly harsh and her heart and kidneys were under attack by her own immune system. Thanks to massive infusions of prednisone she barely pulled through but before Leonard could breathe a sigh of relief he got a call from a friend in pathology.
“Are you sure?” Leonard had asked through tearing eyes.
“Metastatic squamous cell carcinoma, so sorry man,” the pathologist replied.
He had remained in their small study for hours wrestling with the stark truth and staring at his hands, now useless instruments of healing. Janai had cancer, an aggressive and lethal cancer. Knowing full well how barbaric and pointless it was, Leonard had supported and even helped administer the radiation treatments and chemotherapy. In reflective moments he asked himself, “Is this the state of the art in medicine? Kill every dividing cells in the body, but on slightly different time scales so that, if good fortune prevails, there are enough healthy cells left to support life?”
He watched, helpless as he poisoned the woman he loved. He was killing her.
With just weeks to live Janai whispered through cisplatin ravaged throat and vocal cords, “Leonard, you look after Jen and don’t take too long finding a partner to help you. Our daughter needs a mother and I am so sorry I can’t do that from where I am going.”
Leonard became desperate and thought long and hard about an idea percolating in his brain that was completely untested, unorthodox, and probably illegal to put into practice. Then, in the throes of a philosophical epiphany he decided to do it. He retrieved Jenai’s frozen tumor tissue from the pathology lab, homogenized it in sterile saline containing an adjuvant to enhance an immune response, and injected it into his wife’s body. Most physicians would caution that the last thing Janai needed was an infusion of foreign and possibly contaminated biomaterial into her immunologically compromised system. Leonard disagreed. If her tendency to create antibodies against “self” was aggravated maybe she would create anti-cancer antibodies that would tip the scales in favor of survival.
Then he got caught. In the era of sensationalized reporting and YouTube he became the successor to Dr. “Death” Kevorkian, the practitioner who helped people undergo self-inflicted euthanasia. Leonard was tried, convicted, and sentenced to five long years in prison for carrying out an illegal and unsanctioned human clinical trial.
It was visiting day at the prison. Leonard took a deep breath, closed his eyes with head bowed, and sent up a brief but heartfelt “thank you” to the cosmos. He entered the visiting area and looked through the glass at his beautiful daughter, Jen, now six years old.
“Hi Daddy,” Jen said.
Choking back tears, as always, Leonard said, “Hi baby, you look beautiful! How are you doing?”
“I’m fine Dad, and guess what, I got a trampoline!” the little girl stated with a brilliant voice.
“You did?” exclaimed Leonard.
“Yup!” Jen replied. “Mommy said you wouldn’t mind.”
Leonard lifted his eyes from his daughter to the radiant face of his wife. Her color was perfect, her skin tone and muscle tone ideal. She was the picture of health and, beyond his wildest theorizing, she no longer manifest the symptoms of lupus.
“I am so happy you are going to be getting out of here,” Janai said with tears streaming down her cheeks. “We will get back to normal, finally, and I am so, so sorry that it went this way, Len.”
Leonard tried to talk past the pain forming in his throat, but couldn’t. He put his hands against the glass while Janai and Jen did the same. Leonard just stared at his family and wept openly.
His release was big news for a fifteen-minute Warhol moment. Reporters swarmed him as he exited the prison gates and attempted to head to the car in which Janai and Jen were waiting. A small but tenacious woman from CNN stood directly in front of him and said, “Dr. Kwon, are you sorry for what you’ve done? Do you feel like the punishment matched the crime?”
Leonard stopped short, looked straight at the young reporter, then exploring the whole gaggle of information spin doctors he said, “I am absolutely not sorry for saving my wife’s life.”
He took a breath, and said, “Furthermore, the punishment did not match the crime, since there was no crime other than practicing scientifically sound, if unorthodox, medicine. Finally, I can only hope that self-involved politicians and fear-driven FDA regulators gleaned from this story at least a glimmer of the fact that greed and fear are no foundation for the thoughtful practice of medicine for humans beings who are suffering unnecessarily.”
Leonard began to step around the aggressive reporter when she stopped him with a hand on his chest. Looking down and controlling his natural reaction to remove the hand and the body to which is was attached, Dr. Leonard Kwon stopped and said, “I will answer one more question, after you remove your hand from my body.”
The reporter sensed the underlying threat and snapped her hand away. Her voice quivering slightly she said, “Dr. Kwon, after serving a five-year sentence in a high security prison, would you ever do something like this again?”
He looked at his beaming wife and child, then back to the reporter and said, “In a heartbeat.”
The rough-hewn and splintering wood would stand another century, she was sure of that. It had stood a century before so another hence seemed reasonable. Requiring no maintenance the perfect arch, designed by nothing more than a keen eye to the horizon, connected one field to the next as it had done when her grandfather purchased the farm. The intervening stream was her plaything, a path to the wonderment that so easily germinates in a child’s brain and a source of incalculable numbers of fish that kept her body alive for these eighty-seven years.
She stood at the sink where her grandmother and mother had stood looking out the window framed by the wood from trees felled in decades past. The glass, original, had to have lost molecular layers at the hands of fervent scrubbers relentlessly removing residue from the thousands of meals prepared on the wood-burning stove.
Though there was a time when her practical mind worked constantly to calculate strategies and solve problems, these days most of her thinking was in metaphor. The bridge a perfect example, suggesting connections, transcendence through time, the toughness and resilience of life, hers, her ancestors, the plants and animals, everything.
During her service in the Peace Corps she had stifled many a tear but now she let them flow, the penance for withholding as a young woman who could not let emotion stymie necessary actions. Her nine fingers were a testament to her dedication. One finger a small sacrifice for saving the life of a tiny being too filled with the natural enthusiasm and joy of youth to see a half-buried landmine. Joseph had lived, she had lived, albeit one finger reduced. He was now fifty-years old, still in his African homeland with his wife, six children and two grandchildren. Her own descendent pedigree was a dead end, experiencing motherhood only vicariously through Joseph, who kept in constant touch with letters and email, and the hundreds of other children that had passed through her hands during her service to humanity.
Bridges were such simple, powerful metaphors. Connections, passage over treacherous chasms that human beings so readily created, absent any thought to the future or lessons from the past.
She gazed out the window, only half conscious of the scenery outside as she allowed her mind to wander until she was pulled into the present by a young boy approaching the bridge from the south and with little hesitation running across, then back, then across again. She had run this path in exactly the same way at his age and the vision instilled in her a moment of profound memory. The boy had no idea that his feet pounded the earth above the resting place of her parents and grandparents. They had been interred at the foot of the south side of the bridge through no formal action demanded by a legal document. The last will and testament in her family was tradition. The family was returned to the ground that gave life to them, buried side by side adjacent to the bridge. She would soon be joining them and was content knowing that her bones would turn to soil that bolstered the footings of the bridge connecting her to the earth, the fields, and the cosmos.
That we live in a world where people execute 22-year olds who are trying to make things better boggles my mind. But that is our world and I hope it changes. In the mean time a friend of mine brought to my attention a statement by the mother of that poor youngster saying that her beautiful daughter had led a purposeful life.
That got me thinking about the semantics involved in defining “purposeful” and the resolution I have achieved thus far is that each individual has to define the meaning for his or her self. Although foreign to my nature it is reasonable to consider a life of listening to Murray and Oprah while eating chips and fad dieting to be purposeful.
But not to me.
There is plenty of opportunity to do nothing in this life so why not stand against entropy and sloth and do something. Anything. That is, anything positive.
I teach my children the simple philosophy of “leave the earth a little better than you found it”. I think that if you start there you can do nothing other than lead a purposeful life.
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