As children learn to speak, they feel out gaps in their parents’ language. Words that ought to be there, but aren’t.
On a Friday afternoon, my five-year-old might say something like “Tomorrow at school I’ll finish drawing my Snakes Waam!” (This is a series of comic books she’s making in which a family of snakes prevent monsters from burning down our city.)
My daughter knows that there’s no school on Saturday – when she says “tomorrow,” she means the next day when I am at school.
Or, on a Monday morning, she might say: “Yesterday at school we got to visit the library!”
I wish that English had the words she’s grasping for!
Different languages sway speakers toward different conceptions of the world. In English, we typically imagine that we’re facing the future: the world to come is before our eyes.
But, as David Kishik writes in The Book of Shem, “in Hebrew forward (kadima) is related to what is ancient (kadum), just as backward (achora) is linked to what is last (acharon).” Or, as Laura Spiinny writes in “How Time Flies,” “q”ipuru, the Aymara word for tomorrow, combines q”ipa [“behind / back”] and uru, the word for day, to produce a literal meaning of ‘some day behind one’s back.’ “
In these cultures, there’s an emphasis on the past as known – things that have happened can be seen, whereas the future is a mystery. There’s also, especially in biblical Hebrew, a sense that the progression of time is coupled with decline.
In Sanskrit, I believe the future is described as being ahead of people, but in ancient Vedic thought the progression of time leads toward inevitable decay. Time flows cyclically, but during each cycle the world becomes steadily worse until it is destroyed and reborn as good again.
Within these cultural frameworks, it’s certainly possible to feel optimistic about the future, but it’s more difficult.
I found myself thinking about how our culture might shift if English had the words my daughter wants. A set of time words that were strictly relational: a “tomorrow” that could mean “the next time I’m in school” or “the next time that I see you.”
Perhaps this would help us to maintain a more fluid perspective on time. To see that psychological time flows unpredictably and unsteadily, not like the uniform ticking of clocks (stubborn little devices that have made many people’s interior lives feel worse).
As James Gleick writes in “The Toll of the Clock,” “When the first public sundial arrived in Rome … some Romans cursed it.
“The gods damn the man who first discovered the hours and – yes – who first set up a sundial here, who’s smashed the day into bits,” wrote Plautus.
… People have been complaining about clocks ever since.”
We each contain many braids of time. The hours we spend with different groupings of people are unique strands. Time together makes relationships, a link that’s distinct from each day’s journey of the sun.
Would we put more effort into maintaining our relationships if there was no other way for “tomorrow” to come?
Mythological heroes of yore – and comic book superheroes today – embody our deepest values. This is what a hero would do. Heracles, Arjuna, and Spiderman learn that great powers bestow equivalent responsibility. Prometheus, Odin, and Deadpool accept suffering as the cost of their attachment to the world. Theseus, Samson, and Punisher wreck violence upon their enemies.
These men are all heroes. They battle monsters. They fight and kill to enforce boundaries.
At times, they reveal themselves to be more monstrous than the monsters.
The Greek hero Theseus has a signature style: he follows the Golden Rule. Do unto others as they would do unto you.
Theseus encounters Club Bearer, a villain who murders people by using a big stick to smash them into the earth. Theseus murders Club Bearer by using a big stick to smash him into the earth.
Theseus encounters Pinebender, a villain who murders people by tying their limbs to the bowed trunks of pine trees. Theseus murders Pinebender by tying his limbs to the bowed trunks of pine trees.
Theseus encounters Sciron, a villain who murders people by kicking them off a cliff when they attempt to wash their feet. Theseus murders Sciron by kicking him off a cliff when he attempts to wash his feet.
And so on.
Theseus, the hero, rids the world of monsters by doing unto monsters precisely what they would do to him.
Then Theseus meets the Minotaur.
The Minotaur – a monster with a human body and bovine head – was born because his mother was unsatisfied with her husband and went to great efforts – constructing a wooden cow costume, etc. – to have sex with a bull instead.
Obviously, this myth was concocted by a man. Many men fear that they’re lousy in bed; many men assume that a larger penis would make them IRRESISTIBLE to women; many men tell stories about “wicked women” turning faithless in the face of someone better endowed.
And – also obviously – in a man’s story, the Minotaur’s monstrous genesis had to be a wicked woman’s fault.
The Minotaur is known to be a monster because he eat humans. The Minotaur’s father imprisoned him inside a giant labyrinth. The Minotaur’s father locks defenseless young people inside the labyrinth. Then the Minotaur eats them.
But Theseus seduces the Minotaur’s fully-human sister, convinces her to give him a secret map to navigate the labyrinth, and then smuggles in a sword during the night. After skulking through the labyrinth, Theseus slays the sleeping Minotaur.
The Minotaur – we recognize him as a monster by his big bovine head. But all bovines only eat plants. It’s actually the monster’s human gullet, stomach, & intestines – the monster’s human appetite – that must be feared. The Minotaur has an herbivorous head but is a meat-eating monstrosity beneath the neck.
During his travels, Theseus has often feasted upon bovine flesh. He’s already mirrored the monstrosity of the Minotaur: eating the other’s people. But inside the labyrinth, Theseus does not devour the Minotaur. This is the only time when Theseus does not strictly mirror the behavior of an enemy.
Which might have revealed too much about the boundaries being policed: Only humans may eat the world.
The fundamental horror – what made all of Theseus’s enemies monstrous – was never about what they’d done, but rather who had done it.
In Jess Zimmerman’s essay collection Women and Other Monsters, she describes the ways that myths are used to define the boundaries of acceptable behavior. A human who eats other animals can be a hero; an animal (or animal-headed entity) who eats humans would be a monster.
Zimmerman offers advice: What should we do when we recognize the hypocrisies in our ancestors’ sacred stories?
For women, the boundaries of acceptability are strict, and they are many. We must be seductive but pure, quiet but not aloof, fragile but industrious, and always, always small. We must not be too successful, too ambitious, too independent, too self-centered – and when we can’t manage all the contradictory restrictions, we are turned into grotesques. Women have been monsters, and monsters have been women, in centuries’ worth of stories, because stories are a way to encode these expectations and pass them on.
We’ve built a culture on the backs of these monstrous women, letting them prop up tired morals about safety and normalcy and feminine propriety. But the traits they represent – aspiration, knowledge, strength, desire – are not hideous. In men’s hands, they have always been heroic.
The monsters of myth have been stationed at those borders in order to keep us out; they are intended as warnings about what happens when women aspire beyond what we’re allowed. … They mark areas on a map: Do not enter. Here be monsters.
But if stepping outside the boundaries makes you monstrous, that means monsters are no longer bound. What happens if we charge through the gates and find that living on the other side – in all our Too Muchness, oversized and overweening and overcomplicated as we are – means living fully for the first time? Then the monster story stops being a warning sign, and starts to be a guide.
Public education is almost always contentious in this country: Evolution! The pledge of allegiance! The Founding Fathers’ complicity in felonious (oft murderous) abduction & torture!
Now, we’re also arguing over whether it’s safe for schools to be open at all!
At the school board meeting, a white woman stood up at the podium, ripped off her mask, and said “I can’t breathe.”
(Unfortunately, I assume the resonance with the BLM protests was intentional. When I went to pick up my kids from school last week, a white mother was wearing a t-shirt with the traditional white on black BLM layout that said “Drunk Wives Matter.” My hometown is within a half hour’s drive of the national KKK headquarters.)
As is the way of things in our country right now, about half the parents in attendance were aghast. The other half cheered.
“The masks don’t work! Everybody knows the masks don’t work!” people shouted.
Oddly enough, though, the people saying “the masks don’t work” are actually correct. But so are the people who say that masks work. The word “work” is pretty nebulous!
As Joseph Allen & Helen Jenkins wrote in a recent New York Times editorial, many well-meaning people have been unhelpfully vague when defining goals for our pandemic response. Are we trying to minimize lifelong harms from all causes? Are we trying to minimize the number of deaths that occur this year? Are we trying to eradicate the virus that causes Covid-19?
Each of these goals would require that we take a different set of actions.
Masks “work” in the sense that when people are wearing face masks, there’s a lower probability of Covid-19 transmission during any interaction.
Masks reduce the number of viral particles that exit a person’s airspace as they speak or exhale. Of course, this presupposes that the person wearing a mask actually is shedding viral particles. But that’s the tricky thing about Covid-19 (or influenza)! Some people feel fine!
Masks also might reduce the likelihood of transmission when an unexposed person who is hoping to avoid or delay illness wears a mask. (Masks probably help with this, but it’s less well tested.)
Universal mask requirements are a great tool to delay transmission!
When worn selectively – for instance, only during hospital visits, or only when inside nursing homes – masks can also skew the demographics of transmission. With Covid-19, skewing the demographics of transmission is a great goal!
Even back before we had safe, effective vaccines, we could’ve saved huge numbers of lives by skewing the demographics of transmission! Some people are much more likely to recover from Covid-19 safely than others! (Major risk factors include advanced age, diabetes status, and probably smoking status. But there are also unknown risk factors – we don’t know why certain young healthy people can get so sick from this.)
Masks don’t “work,” though, if the goal is to prevent cases of Covid-19.
By May of 2020, it was already clear that Covid-19 would become endemic. We’d spread the virus too widely by then. The virus will never go away. Cases will never fall to zero.
Everyone alive today, and everyone born in the future, will be exposed to Covid-19 eventually. (With the possible exception of people who happen to die of other causes within the next few years.)
There’s still a strong argument for using masks to delay Covid-19 transmission: with more time, more people can be vaccinated! The vaccines work, by which I mean that the vaccines save lives.
Everyone will be exposed to Covid-19! The people who have been vaccinated are much more likely to survive! This front page article in my local newspaper is fear mongering; it’s a sort of fear mongering that I wholeheartedly endorse!
Vaccination is a safe, effective, time-tested medical practice. The principles behind vaccination were independently discovered centuries ago by scientists and healers in Africa, India, and China. Their discoveries were the basis for Edward Jenner’s smallpox vaccine.
When scientists say that vaccines “work” – vaccines save lives – we mean something very different than when we say that masks “work” – masks delay exposure!
In conjunction with vaccination, masks can be helpful!
Which is why the argument that children should currently wear masks in school is reasonable. Covid-19 tends not to be very dangerous for children, but occasionally it’s deadly. There’s a definite cost to wearing masks in school – muffled voices, hidden facial expressions, increased hassle – but children could be kept safer by delaying their exposure to Covid-19 until after a vaccine is approved for them.
(I feel lucky that my kids have already safely recovered from Covid-19 – I’m not beset by the same fear over this that other parents are navigating. But I understand their concern: raising children often feels terrifying because my heart would shatter if anything happened to these tiny, willful, fragile creatures.)
Most of the people who say “masks don’t work” are planning not to get the Covid-19 vaccine. Which means, weirdly, that they’re right! Without the end goal of eventual vaccination, masks don’t work! Even if universal masking policies were kept in place forever, Covid-19 is so infectious that everyone would still be exposed eventually!
The vaccines can save lives; masks cannot.
Obviously, I’m not arguing that you should ignore local mask requirements: I’m currently wearing a face mask as I type this! And there are lots of people who do want to be vaccinated who don’t have access yet – this isn’t much of an issue for adults in the United States, but vaccine access is an incredible privilege for most of the world’s population.
Because Covid-19 can be transmitted by people who feel fine, wearing a mask is a way to protect others. And personal preference isn’t a good reason to endanger the lives of the folks around us! That’s why we have traffic laws! Even if I think it’d be fun to go out driving while buzzed on booze, or to cruise on the left-hand side of the road, I shouldn’t be allowed to do it!
But also, I think it’s worth acknowledging that, within the full context of their actions, people’s denunciations of masks are actually scientifically accurate.
“Follow the science” is an unhelpful slogan – scientific analysis doesn’t result in a monolithic set of inarguable conclusions. At the heart of any policy, there are goals and priorities. These are set by philosophical or ethical considerations, not scientific fact.
“Follow the scientific findings that help us all achieve my goals for the world” doesn’t have the same pithy ring to it, though.
Many toys for babies are designed to be loud. A baby moves, and suddenly there’s sound! Bells or jangling rings or stuffed animals that drink batteries to sing!
These toys delight! (Well, they delight the baby. Parents often find them aggravating.) These toys make a baby feel powerful.
With these small hands, I can change the world!
And, crayons! And paint! Oh, the apparent joys of non-toxic fingerpaint! As the baby moves, the world retains a visible memory of that movement!
The world remembers me! My presence here: it matters!
My eldest is now in second grade. Like most second graders, she has recently discovered that she is hilarious! She can read a joke in a book and then tell it to people. She can tell those jokes again and again and again and they are funny every time!
My younger child is now in kindergarten. Because her older sibling is telling jokes, she wants to tell jokes also. And her jokes are hilarious, too! She knows that they’re hilarious because she tells the same jokes as her sibling. One after the other, they tell me the same jokes.
Each time I say, “Hmmm, I don’t know, _______, what do you get when you cross a sheep dog with a rose?”
And each child in turn is hilarious when they tell me that it makes a collie-flower. Or that the cheese that isn’t yours is nacho cheese. Or that …
All the jokes that my children tell are funny (to them), but a certain genre is particularly loved. Yes, the knock-knock jokes! Because a knock-knock joke isn’t only a chance to feel hilarious – knock-knock jokes are power.
You can see the realization dawning: if I say “Knock knock,” people have to say “Who’s there?”
Knock-knock jokes are like sorcery. Like a form of puppeteering. Knock-knock jokes allow a child to control everyone around them!
But, oh! The moment when people decide that a particular child is too old for knock-knock jokes – when friends and family fail to respond with “Who’s there?” – must feel so disillusioning! Suddenly, a font of power has been wrested away! The child will have lost a way to control the people around them!
Eventually, this sense of power fades. Or rather, we grow older and become jaded. Inured to the sense of empowerment that children’s toys and knock-knock jokes once gave us. Being able to alter the world with a crayon no longer feels enough; we want to do more than make red marks on stray sheets of paper.
Many people age into these evolving expectations gracefully. Recognizing the increasing amounts of work and effort needed to change the world in meaningful ways. When an adult makes art, we expect rather more from their creations – the blobby monsters drawn by a child might seem less impressive if they’d been made by someone in their thirties. Children reap praise by building a fort from cardboard boxes; a grown-up might be expected to build a house.
Sometimes, though – and this is especially common among men – the world doesn’t make people feel as powerful as they think it ought to.
I was supposed to be master of my domain, and instead you’re talking back to me??
And so they attempt to wrest a sense of power from the world around them with violence. They find ways to circumvent their gnawing fear of being ignored.
When I say “Knock knock,” people have to say “Who’s there?” When I whistle and shout a lewd comment at a woman, she has to cringe!
Ah, right – aggrieved men don’t just wrest a sense of power “from the world.” Unfortunately, men are often given the false impression that power is synonymous with power over. And so their sense of power needs to come at the expense of someone else: someone perceived as weaker, lesser, lower in their imagined hierarchy.
By harassing a woman, a man might feel momentarily powerful again.
The aim of harassment … is not only to control women’s bodies but also to invade their minds. … Harassment is always a sexual demand, but it also carries a more sinister and pathetic injunction: ‘You will think about me.’ Like sexual abuse, to which it is affiliated, harassment brings mental life to a standstill, destroying the mind’s capacity for reverie.
Power: the sense that our actions will be noticed. For our 45th president, leading a nation was not enough: he wanted for people to pay attention to him. He kept shouting into the insatiable maw of social media; he needed to watch television news to see evidence that people had noticed his latest shout.
But not every aggrieved man has a bevy of journalists to amplify his inane blather. “My I.Q. is one of the highest,” “Windmills are the greatest threat to eagles,” “The concept of global warming was created by the Chinese” – lots of men say this sort of thing, yet still they go unnoticed! Which makes them feel powerless! It’s very unfair!
But there’s a solution: interject oneself into the world in a sufficiently awful way, and then it’ll be impossible to be ignored!
In Culture Warlords, Talia Lavin describes how it felt to immerse herself in the internet worlds of white supremacy and hate. In some ways, this might feel like a silly project: isn’t the goal of internet trolls to feel powerful by being noticed? By intentionally studying them, isn’t Lavin giving them what they want?
In a passage describing her observation of a flame war between pagan white supremacist trolls and Christian white supremacist trolls, Lavin writes:
While researching that religious expression, it was easy for me to get bogged down in who’s drinking goat blood for Satan and who thinks a cone-shaped Crusader helmet is an extremely cool fashion accessory and who’s climbing mountains to sacrifice to Odin in hopes of awakening the white race.
Sifting through the details, and observing the nonstop, puerile nature of their speech, it can be easy to wonder precisely what the point of decoding all this hate is. Isn’t it just hate? Aren’t these just losers pontificating and arguing on the internet?
The thing about hate, though, is it metastasizes. The thing about channels that are filled, twenty-four hours a day, with stochastic violence – testosterone-filled megaphones shouting for blood – is that, sooner or later, someone is going to take them up on it.
In many ways, a person who has studied martial arts for decades is just as dangerous as a person with a gun. Either person, if they felt sufficiently threatened, could cause someone to die.
But there’s a difference: the power from martial arts is earned. During long years of training, a person learns not to feel threatened. Having put in the work, they’ll feel powerful and so learn to control that power.
Whereas it’s trivially easy to buy a gun. There’s no impetus for psychological growth. You’ll be left with the same weak, scared, angry person – now suddenly more dangerous.
Boorish men. Internet trolls. Self-appointed militia men asserting their Second Amendment right to feel powerful without effort. They’re like aggrieved children, furious if you’re not responding to their knock-knock jokes.
You have to notice me!
Harasser, internet troll, attention-starved man with a gun: in the modern world, this might well be a single individual. Which is why Lavin’s journalism matters: these men’s hate speech can lead so easily to physical violence.
The hateful internet troll who murdered 49 people in an Orlando nightclub (while wounding & traumatizing many others) was checking Facebook during the act. As though the only way to be noticed – to feel any sense of power – was to be awful.
My spouse, two children, & I recently visited an amusement park called “Holiday World.” We stood in line to ride the Halloween area’s “Scarecrow Scrambler,” which was, aside from a small painted scarecrow, apparently identical to amusement park Scramblers around the world.
A “Scrambler” is a giant metal hinged contraptions that send passengers hurtling toward each other, and toward the concrete outer walls, at alarmingly high speeds. Again and again, the Scrambler evokes an illusion of narrowly avoided collision. Certain death.
Phew, that was a close one!
My spouse and our five-year-old rode in a car together. My spouse had loved this ride when she was growing up in Albany – and, since her family was often broke, she typically could only ride it after winning tickets from the local library’s summer reading program. Her glee was intense. Her laughter and loud “Wheeeeee!”s filled the air, a nice contrast to the wooshing wind that rushed past my ears each time my car accelerated toward another wall.
At the end of the day, our five-year-old unhesitatingly announced that the Scrambler had been her favorite ride. Happiness is infectious. It helps to have an unremittingly joyful tour guide.
On the Scrambler, I’d sat in a car with our seven-year-old. She too was laughing and giggling – but also, midway through the ride, she turned to me and said, “You’re not enjoying this much, are you?”
Amusement park rides are interesting. The counter-intuitive physics of each contraption, the illusions they create, the sensations evoked inside the human passengers’ bodies – all of that is interesting.
And I’d even argue that the rides are psychologically helpful for most people. In contemporary society, we suffer from an unfamiliarity with death. A reckoning with our own mortality can help us re-calibrate our priorities – what matters to us enough that we should spend our time on it, given that our time is fleeting?
In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, the Christ-like character Myshkin speaks repeatedly about how it might feel to be pardoned from imminent execution. (An experience that Dostoevsky himself went through. He was sentenced to death for revolutionary activity, stood with his co-conspirators before a mock firing squad, then learned with mere moments to spare that the Tsar had pardoned them all. At least one person suffered an irreparable mental breakdown. Dostoevsky became a reactionary conservative.)
To feel certain, at one moment, that your life is ending. And then to find yourself reprieved, given time to make amends, to live and laugh and love some more. The world might seem so bountiful! There’d be no reason to squander time. No reason to waste hours worrying – each mere moment might be seen, again, as the precious gift it is.
During graduate school, I earned extra money as a study subject for Stanford’s psychology department. A team of researchers wanted to show that thoughts of impending death make people more likely to want to spend time with family members and close friends. So they had me listen, daily, to a twenty minute meditation on my own mortality.
“We do not know what will happen next, but one thing is certain: this life is drawing to a close. You will die. We all will die.” And on it went, in a nice calm voice, for twenty minutes.
My brain tends toward depression. Even without the guided meditation, I think about death fairly often. Daily? Yes, probably. During bleak times, perhaps hourly. My first love in philosophy was Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus. His reasoning seemed sensible to me. Before determining how we should live, first ponder: should we?
Still, the meditation was nice. Helpful, even. In ways that, for my brain, the Scrambler was not.
In July of 2020, I attended a funeral for a twenty-nine year old friend. He’d died of a heroin overdose. His death was almost certainly intentional.
My friend had also overdosed the week before. That time, somebody had Narcan’ed him back. Often, people return to life swearing and angry. Narcan blocks opiod receptors, so a person sharply transitions from extreme placidity into a world of hurt. With Narcan, suddenly the whole body aches.
But my friend had resumed breathing, blinking and beatific. A smile bloomed across his face. “That was so easy,” he said.
A week later, he was gone.
The word ‘easy’ hurts. Lots of people experience a moment, here and there, when it seems as though it would be better to be dead. But the act of transition would be hard – it is difficult to kill oneself. And that difficulty can save us. That difficulty gives us time to reflect, to consider all the other people whom our absence would hurt, all the future happiness that a present act might steal away.
Our nation suffers from an epidemic of gun violence. These deaths are ill-tracked – the NRA aggressively opposed all efforts to collect data on gun deaths, and the CDC didn’t begin studying the problem until 2019.
But it appears that around 60% of all gun deaths are suicides. And it appears that around 50% of all suicides are gun deaths.
Humans are a rather dangerous species. Especially among young men, it’s common for arguments to flare into bursts of physical violence. People can kill each other even with sticks and stones. With swords, with knives, with slingshots.
But guns make death come easier. There’s less time for friends or bystanders to break up a fight – within seconds, the fight is over. Somebody might be dead.
Similarly, people attempt to end their own lives in myriad ways. With ropes, with knives, with pills. Or by making increasingly risky decisions. But guns make death come easier. Less time passes between making a (bad) decision and a person’s life ending. No nearby friend can Narcan you back from a bullet.
For some people, it’s helpful to make the approach of death seem easier. Recently, researchers have tried using psychedelic medication as a part of hospice care. Someone who is near the end of their life is given a vision of the infinite. Often, these patients report that their fear of death has waned. They are better able to enjoy the limited time they have remaining.
But for a young, healthy person with depression, we wouldn’t want the sensation of hurtling toward death to feel easy or familiar. That might reduce the likelihood that bad decisions would be second-guessed. That dangers would be avoided. Subsequent suicidal ideation might have a concrete vision to latch onto – this is what the car crash would feel like in the moments before impact.
In Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing, Lauren Hough writes:
The fundamental misunderstanding of depression is the idea that the suicidal want to die. I didn’t want to die. But some misfire in my brain treats existential pain like a dog reacts to vomiting: Fuck it. I’m gonna dig a hole to die in.
Even on a good day, my brain will point out a few easy ways out: Take a hard left in front of that truck. It’ll be over before you feel it. But when it’s dark, when I’m hopeless, I’m just white-knuckling my way through the nights for no reason but instinct.
Rides like the Scrambler ought to exist! For a lot of people, they probably have great benefit! The sensations are scary, but also safe, and that makes them fun!
Yes, fun! Big surprise twist here, which surely you’d never guess from the long line of people waiting their turns to get on: amusement park rides are fun!
And also: folks with minds like mine probably shouldn’t be on the ride.
During the acute phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, I kept thinking of Margarita Engle’s poem “More Dangerous Air.” The title seemed particularly resonant, and its a beautiful poem about growing up in an atmosphere of fear.
Newsmen call it the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Teachers say it’s the end of the world.
Engle documents the way we might flail, attempting to protect ourselves & our loved ones. We know enough to be afraid; we don’t yet know enough to be safe.
Early in the pandemic, people left their groceries on the front steps for days before bringing the bags inside. A year in, we were still needlessly scrubbing surfaces with toxic chemicals.
During the missile crisis, school children practiced fire drills, earthquake drills, tornado drills, air raid drills. (They didn’t yet need the contemporary era’s most awful: the active shooter drills.)
Hide under a desk.
Pretend that furniture is enough
to protect us against perilous flames.
Radiation. Contamination. Toxic breath.
The blasts are dangerous. But warfare with atomic weapons is different from other forms of violence. A bomb might kill you, suddenly; the poisoned air might kill you, slowly; the poisoned ground might maim generations yet unborn.
Each air-raid drill is sheer terror,
but some kids giggle.
They don’t believe that death
Radiation is invisible. Marie Curie didn’t know that it would kill her. Rosalind Franklin didn’t know that it would kill her.
We know, now. At least, some of us do.
Others – including a perilously large cadre of politicians – still think we ought to stockpile a behemoth nuclear arsenal.
Viruses are invisible. And they act slowly. Breathe in an invisible virus; a week later, you might begin to cough; three weeks later, your cough might worsen; a month after that seemingly innocuous breath in which you sucked a microscopic package of genetic code into your lungs, you might be in the hospital, or worse.
Connecting an eventual death to that first dangerous breath is actually a tricky cognitive feat! The time lag confuses us. It’s much easier for human minds to draw conclusions about closely consecutive events – a vaccine followed within hours or days by fever or heart problems.
Greenhouse gases are also invisible. If we drive past a power plant, we might see plumes rising from the towers, but we can’t see poison spilling from our cars, our refrigerators, our air conditioners, our meals. This is just good food on a plate! It doesn’t look like danger.
But we are changing the air, dramatically, in ways that might poison us all. Or – which is perhaps worse – in ways that might not affect us so much, but might make this planet inhospitable to our unborn grandchildren. Perhaps we will be fine. It’s humans born twenty years from now, or fifty years from now, who will suffer more.
Each individual can take action. You, as an individual, could fly less, buy less, eat plants.
You, as an individual, can only do so much.
When I hide under my frail school desk,
my heart grows as rough and brittle
as the slab of wood
that fails to protect me
We aren’t the first. Go outside and look around – the vibrant bursts of summer green are delightfully entrancing.
Our minds are plastic things – we make ourselves through the ways we live – but certain scripts were sculpted by our ancestry. Over hundreds of millions of years, the bearers of certain types of brains were more likely to be successful in life.
Creatures like us – who need air to breath, water to drink, shelter from sun and cold – often feel an innate love for the way summer light plays over a heady mix of blue and green.
We need all that green. The plants, the trees, the algae: for humans to survive the climate crisis we’ve been making, we’re depending on them. We need them to eat carbon dioxide from the air, and drink in hydrogen atoms from water, and toss back oxygen for us to breathe.
We’ve been poisoning the air, and they might save us.
Which is ironic, in a way. Because all that green – they wrought our planet’s first global devastation.
Saving us all this time would be like a form of penance.
Early in our planet’s history, there was very little oxygen in the air. Which was a good thing for the organisms living then! Oxygen is a very dangerous molecule. When we fall apart with age, it’s largely because “oxidative damage” accumulates in our cells. When grocery stores market a new type of berry as a “superfood,” they often extol its abundance of “antioxidants,” small molecules that might protect us from the ravages of oxygen.
The first living organisms were anaerobic: they did not need, and could not tolerate, oxygen. They obtained energy from sulfur vents or various other chemicals.
But then a particular type of bacteria – cyanobacteria – evolved a way to eat air, pulling energy from sunlight. This was the precursor to modern photosynthesis. Cyanobacteria began to fill the air with (poisonous!) oxygen as waste.
Many years passed safely, though. There was abundant iron then, on land and in the seas – iron drew down oxygen to rust.
Approximately two billion years passed without incident. All that iron buffered our planet’s atmosphere! It must have seemed as though the cyanobacteria could excrete a nearly infinite amount!
But then they reached a tipping point. The iron had all become iron oxides. The concentration of oxygen in the air rose dramatically. This hyper-reactive poison killed almost everything alive.
Perhaps cyanobacteria were punished for what they’d done. By filling the world with oxygen, they enabled the evolution of organisms with higher metabolisms. Creatures who lived faster, shorter lives, turbocharged by all that dangerous air. And these creatures – our forebears – nearly grazed their enablers out of existence.
Cyanobacteria were once masters of the universe. Then they were food.
And they were imprisoned within the cells of plants. Look up at a tree – each green leaf is a holding cell, brimming with cyanobacteria who are no longer free to live on their own. Grasses, ferns, flowers – every photosynthetic cell home to perhaps dozens of chloroplasts, the descendants of those who caused our planet’s first mass extinction.
A few outlaws linger in the ocean. Some cyanobactera still pumping oxygen into the air, the lethal poison that’s gulped so greedily by human lungs. Their lethal poison now enables our growth, our flourishing, our reckless abasement of the world.
And we are poisoning the air in turn, albeit in a very different way. In our quest to use many years’ stored sunlight each year, we dig up & burn the subterranean remnants of long-dead plants. The prison cells in which cyanobacteria once lived and died, entombed for millions of years within the earth, now the fuel for our own self-imposed damnation. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the air is slowly rising. Our atmosphere is buffered; for a while, our world will seem unchanged. Until, suddenly, it doesn’t.
Some species, surely, will survive. Will thrive in the hotter, swingier, stormier world we’re making.
Here in Bloomington, the time of cicadas is drawing to a close.
Some trees are still fairly loud, with pulses of sound that pour down, compressing & rarefacting the air like the thrum of an alien turbine. But two weeks ago, the loudest trees were excruciating, with sound levels that could dispel all thought, inducing headaches & nausea as we walked beneath.
More & more often now, I’m able to pick out the plaintive kreeee of individual singers, their voices divorced from any chorus: males who arrived late to the party and are wondering whether any nearby females might be similarly tardy.
Molted exoskeletons still litter the ground, or cling to flowerstems & the lower bark of trees. But my kids are finding few fresh ones. Nearly all the cicadas who are going to emerge in our town this year have already done so.
My kids (like most kids) collected the shed exoskeletons. And each morning before school, they would search our carport for newly emerged adults – although it does feel strange to refer to cicada nymphs as somehow youthful when they’re a decade older than my eldest child. She cradled the bugs like babies; they were more than twice her age.
My kids would move the newcomers – bodies & wings still soft from metamorphosis – to a safe sunny spot in our yard. They’d be able to fly sooner, & our car wouldn’t squish them.
In the afternoon, we would go on walks – again stepping carefully to avoid squishing anyone – and we’d stop every few feet to inspect the cicadas whom we found.
And it was alarming. Most of the insects we encountered then were oddly shaped, with twisted legs or crumpled wings; or exceptionally small; or otherwise malformed. We found some who had only partially emerged from their exoskeletons and then stopped, trapped within their own old skin.
Which I can’t chide them for too severely. At times, we humans also have difficulty sloughing off our past selves.
Now that the cicadas’ brief orgy is ending, they will expire. Many have already died: not just the cicadas who were eaten by birds, chipmunks, squirrels, pet cats & dogs, but also the cicadas who simply plummet from the sky, collapsing from the various internal depredations of old age.
They decompose. The air reeks now of an acrid ammonia tang. On certain sidewalks – beneath especially popular trees, those that a few days ago had been deafeningly loud – we walk through a bevy of corpses. Viscous goo spills from their split sides where other people have stepped on them.
And it’s interesting, the perspective that my children and I have had upon the cicadas’ lives.
For all those years, they were invisible to us, burrowing rootward through the soil and sipping the delectable sap of trees.
After the cicadas emerged, we still rarely saw the cicadas who were feeling actualized. Who were up high in the trees, singing, seducing, laying eggs, living their best cicada lives. Those who lingered on the sidewalks where we might find them had often suffered some mishap or misfortune. Cicadas whose heads had been bitten off by birds. Cicadas who were bamboozled by the sky’s reflection in a puddle or pool of water and plunged in to drown. Cicadas whose developmental differences left them unable to fly.
I felt really happy that my children, even after interacting with thousands of cicadas, still felt compelled to help each and every one. My children never stopped searching the carport to ensure that nobody would be squished. If any cicadas fell into nearby water, my children would splash in to the rescue.
But it felt strange for me, knowing the limits of our perception. As though some insects had visited a human hospital and drew all their conclusions about our way of being based on what they saw there.
And you can buy t-shirts that have the word “sexy” crossed out & replaced to read “consent is sexy mandatory.”
I dislike this slogan, and the word “mandatory” doesn’t fix it for me. Yes, it’s true that respecting people’s bodily autonomy is mandatory, that it’s not just some extra added spice that makes an evening better.
But the specific wording bothers me. Because “consent” means agreement. Consent means saying yes.
According to the dictionary definitions of the words, the phrase “consent is sexy” means a sexy person would say yes.
Now, you might protest. “Nobody is going to interpret the phrase that way!”
And, sure. The intent of the phrase is to convey that “asking first is sexy,” that “respecting another person’s right to say ‘no’ is sexy,” that “cherishing your partners’ autonomy is sexy.” The word “consent” here is just a shorthand, standing in for the full script of seeking consent, & waiting to proceed until you’re certain that you have your partners’ consent, & checking in often, & being willing to stop if anyone involved doesn’t consent to what’s going on.
But using the word “consent” to mean all that is pretty ambiguous. And the whole function of the phrase – of the practice of affirmative consent – is to protect people from harms that can emerge from ambiguity.
I’ve discussed some of this previously – that, for example, different interpretations of common words & phrases can cause people to mistakenly believe that everyone involved has agreed to a proposal. If I think the phrase “make out” means kissing, and you think that “make out” means having sex, and you’d asked if I wanted to make out, then we might run into problems even after I enthusiastically consent.
I’d be approaching the situation thinking that we’ve agreed to kiss. You’d be under the belief that we’re about to have sex. That the kissing is just the first phase of what we’ll soon be tumbling through.
And, sure, I could speak up later. To say “no,” to stop things from progressing past what I thought we had agreed to. But it can feel pretty overwhelming to extricate oneself from unwanted physical intimacy after it’s already happening.
At issue, generally, is whether we respect the right of others to be the protagonists of their own stories. Whether we see the world around us as a backdrop for our own glories, or whether we’re willing to recognize that we are no more important than anyone else.
Unfortunately, modern technological developments often nudge us in the opposite direction. Away from empathy, toward self-importance. Facebook, Google, Spotify – their predictive algorithms lend the illusion that our desires reshape reality. If we like a certain sort of music, that’s what we encounter. If we hold a certain set of beliefs, then all the news we’re shown seem to agree!
Cultivating these private spheres of individual experience can make us less empathetic. We might not mean to, but our relationships with technology cause us to inadvertently deprioritize the thoughts and feelings of those around us.
So many of the arguments against sex robots focus on their impact on women, but the rise of the sex robot is going to affect us all. It’s not just about the objectification of women – although the robots do objectify women. It’s not only about men being given an opportunity to act out rape fantasies and misogynistic violence – although a small number may well want a sex robot for that reason.
It’s about how humanity will change when we can have relationships with robots.
When it becomes possible to own a partner who exists purely to please his or her owner, a constantly available partner without in-laws or menstrual cycles or bathroom habits or emotional baggage or independent ambitions, when it’s possible to have an ideal sexual relationship without ever having to compromise, where the pleasure of only one half of the partnership matters, surely our capacity to have mutual relationships with other people will be diminished.
When empathy is no longer a requirement of social interaction … we will all be a little less human.
The world isn’t ours to command. The world isn’t something owned. The world around us is a gift that we are permitted temporarily to borrow.
But modern technologies often inculcate a false belief in our mastery of the world around us. That our surroundings should be here to please us. A fantasy land where we fully expect our desires to be consented to – hey siri, what’s the average rainfall in Australia? Your phone isn’t too busy to look that up right now. Your phone has been patiently waiting, listening in, just hoping you’d ask for something like this!
If everything else is easy, shouldn’t sex be easy too? Why should it take so much work just to build a relationship with another human being?
For affirmative consent culture to work, everyone’s autonomy must be respected.
But women’s authority over their own selves is often discounted.
In Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, Katherine Angel discusses experiments in which cis-gendered women were shown a variety of pornographic video clips. Many of these women said that they disliked the violent scenes.
“But wait!” the researchers exclaimed. “The women’s bodies responded with physiological signs of arousal! Clearly, these women are lying!”
Angel writes that:
Women experience genital responses to all manner of stimuli, including, yes, bonobos, and including sexual threat stimuli – whether images or fantasies of rape, or actual experiences of assault. Hastily inferring from measurements of genital arousal to the truth of what women are aroused by, and even further to the truth of what they desire, is spurious.
If we care about pleasure, and if we care about consent as well as enthusiasm, then the subjective is precisely, vitally, what we should attend to. We should prioritize what women say, in all its complexity, rather than fetishizing what their bodies do in the name of a spurious scientism.
It’s an extreme form of objectification, that we might trust a physiological responses measured from a woman’s body instead of the actual words articulated by her brain.
And it’s in stark contrast to the way we typically treat disagreements between men’s brains & bodies.
Many cis-gendered men have claimed to be aroused even when their bodies’ physiological response clearly indicated that they weren’t. If somebody with a penis doesn’t have an erection, the message from their body is every bit as loud & clear – if not more – as vaginal lubrication measured in a laboratory.
But with cis-men, we trust what they say.
Angel writes that:
His subjective sense of interest in sex, despite his impotence, is taken as the truth. It is he, not his body, that speaks the truth – and we believe him.
Personhood, and its relationship to the body, is different in men and women: men are authorities on themselves, while women are not.
Sommers proposes a situation with limited physical danger: a man claiming to be romantically available in order to have sex with a woman who’d say “no” if she knew that he was monogamously attached.
And it’s a nebulous situation – the New York Times received many aggrieved letters to the editor after printing this column – because the shared touch seemed desirable, and only became unwanted later (or perhaps never) when more information was unveiled.
Two people had sex, perhaps enjoyed it, and went their separate ways. If the woman never heard another word about her partner, she might remember the experience fondly. But if she learned that he was married at the time, she’d feel betrayed. The remembrance shifts. Now, upon recollecting an event that happened fully in the past, she might feel violated.
Mental harm is real, and it matters. But perhaps these issues of trust seem simpler when it comes to STI status – in that case, lying before sex is also a physical threat. A physical assault.
Whether the risk is borne by a person’s mind or body, though, the underlying issue is the same – do we respect our potential partners as autonomous individuals, or not?
Affirmative consent requires mutual trust. A space where an invitation can be earnestly extended without threat of reprisal, and where an answer can be freely given & respected.
But I had never considered what we, as loving, sexual people, might lose in a world where the only way to feel safe from unwanted touch is to unambiguously state our desires in advance.
In Pleasure Activism, adrienne maree brown questions, “Is it possible for the world to be as sexy if there’s consent and permission and openness about our deepest desires, if we truly bring our nakedness into the light?”
“I don’t know. I still love touching into the forbidden places – partially because they are forbidden. I know for sure that part of this is conditioning, being raised in a culture of repression, sex shaming, patriarchy, and danger. But it’s also how my desire is wired, even after decades of therapy and somatics.”
In an essay on unwanted touch, Melissa Febos describes her experiences at a “cuddle party.” The rules for this event, articulated forcefully in advance, were that “If you’re a yes, say YES. If you’re a no, say NO. If you’re a maybe, say NO.”
But “maybe” is an important psychological space. As the protagonists of our own stories, we will grow and change. What we want may not be a static thing. Part of the pleasure of being alive is that we tentatively approach our own selves – our knowledge of ourselves – throughout our journeys.
“Maybe” is a way of being, and of learning, that we risk excluding people from if we prioritize an aggressive or sexually-dominant partner’s need to hear an unambiguous “no” in order to refrain from causing harm.
It’s tempting to insist that women are themselves the authority on their desires; that they categorically know what they want. But is anyone an authority on themselves, whether on their sexuality or anything else?
I don’t think so – and I’m not sure that insisting so gets us very far. Women are not the authority on themselves – not because they, unlike men, have difficulty detecting their ‘true’ desires, but because no one, perhaps especially when it comes to sex, is an authority on themselves.
And why should women have to know themselves in order to be safe from violence?
The negotiation of imbalances in power between men and women, between all of us, occurs minute by minute, second by second. And there is no realm, whether sexual or otherwise, in which that act of negotiation is no longer necessary.
Whatever we do, in sex and elsewhere, we calibrate our desires with those of the other, and try to understand what it is that we want.
But we don’t simply work out what we want and then act on that knowledge. Working out what we want is a life’s work, and it has to be done over and over and over.
We were walking our dogs past our neighbor Katie’s house when she stepped onto her front porch. Katie is a philosophy professor specializing in the works of David Hume. She is also a phenomenal baker of holiday treats (her collection of cookie cutters is prodigious) and a generous guardian to several cats.
“Your flowers look beautiful!” we called out from about twenty-five feet away.
“I hope they don’t die right away,” she said. Then she shook her head and laughed. “God, what a year. They do look beautiful. And that’s the first thing I thought?”
We’re feeling traumatized. Nearly all of us.
The marshmallow test: a researcher leaves a young child in a room with a marshmallow. “You can eat it now, but I’ll be back in ten minutes, and if the marshmallow is still there, you’ll get to have two.”
The marshmallow test has been written about extensively. The children who waited used a variety of strategies to distract themselves from temptation, like closing their eyes or singing to themselves.
Some children impulsively ate the marshmallow. Here’s a treat, nom nom nom! But the children who waited, the researchers reported, grew up to be more successful.
A variety of claims were made, like that the willpower needed to delay gratification allowed children to prioritize their futures, to keep struggling and striving even when things were hard, to turn down drugs and alcohol.
Here’s another interpretation: children who have been through trauma might be making a perfectly logical decision if they eat the marshmallow right away. Because lots of kids have been taught, by past experience, that despite a recently met grown-up’s promise, waiting might cause them to get zero marshmallows, not two.
If a child has learned that any situation might suddenly turn dangerous, they might not feel safe closing their eyes to ignore the marshmallow. If a child has learned that the money and food often run out by the end of the month, they might rightfully eat treats when there’s still a chance.
The pandemic has made me more impulsive. Like my neighbor Katie, I worry that the beautiful flowers might die –almost to the point of forgetting to enjoy them while they last.
Like a child, I worry that the marshmallow might be gone.
I am – or at least, I have been for almost my entire life – a patient, resilient person. My graduate degree took six years. I merrily undertook a writing project that lasted another six. I’m raising children, which feels both hectic and achingly slow.
But right now, I can feel it in myself. Signing up for a vaccine and having the appointment be two and a half weeks away! felt interminable. Every delay aches. The future feels like a distant blur.
Especially amid all the outbreaks of violence – mass shootings in the national news, seemingly unrelated spates of murders in our local paper, all of them likely rooted in impulsiveness, isolation, & stress – delaying any source of joy feels agonizing. As though we might not make it another whole week, or month, or year.
Today, at least, I set aside time in the morning for self-care. I dropped the kids off at school. I went for a fast run, five kilometers just under eighteen minutes. I stretched.
Most importantly, I took the time to meditate.
Meditation is the marshmallow test writ small.
Set a timer for twenty minutes. Sit down. Close your eyes. Choose some small phrase, meaningful or not – “sat nam,” “love more,” “I am calm” – and intone it silently in your mind, half as you breathe in, half as you breathe out. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Your mind might wander – if you notice, try to resume your small phrase. Silently repeated sound can anchor you, give yourself space to wash away some mental turmoil.
And, if you are like me, you’ll want to open your eyes and be done with it. This is taking forever! See if you can stay. Keep your eyes closed. Repeat your phrase, and breathe.
If you can last the entire time – well, no researcher will bring you a second marshmallow. But you’ll still receive a gift. A bit of inner peace that wasn’t there before.
I could not have passed the marshmallow test yesterday.
The shape of things determines what they can do. Or, as a molecular biologist would phrase it, “structure determines function.”
In most ways, forks and spoons are similar. They’re made from the same materials, they show up alongside each other in place settings. But a spoon has a curved, solid bowl – you’d use it for soup or ice cream. A fork has prongs and is better suited for stabbing.
In matters of self defense, I’d reach for the fork.
On a much smaller scale, the three-dimensional shapes of a protein determines what it can do.
Each molecule of hemoglobin has a spoon-like pocket that’s just the right size for carrying oxygen, while still allowing the oxygen to wriggle free wherever your cells need it. A developing fetus has hemoglobin that’s shaped differently – when the fetal hemoglobin grabs oxygen, it squeezes more tightly, causing oxygen to pass from a mother to her fetus.
Each “voltage-gated ion channel” in your neurons has a shape that lets it sense incoming electrical signals and pass them forward. Voltage-gated ion channels are like sliding doors. They occasionally open to let in a rush of salt. Because salts are electrically charged, this creates an electric current. The electrical current will cause the next set of doors to open.
Every protein is shaped differently, which lets each do a different job. But they’re all made from the same materials – a long chain of amino acids.
Your DNA holds the instructions for every protein in your body.
Your DNA is like a big, fancy cookbook – it holds all the recipes, but you might not want to bring it into the kitchen. You wouldn’t want to spill something on it, or get it wet, or otherwise wreck it.
Instead of bringing your nice big cookbook into the kitchen, you might copy a single recipe onto an index card. That way, you can be as messy as you like – if you spill something, you can always write out a new index card later.
And your cells do the same thing. When it’s time to make proteins, your cells copy the recipes. The original cookbook is made from DNA; the index-card-like copies are made from RNA. Then the index cards are shipped out of the nucleus – the library at the center of your cells – into the cytoplasm – the bustling kitchen where proteins are made and do their work.
When a protein is first made, it’s a long strand of amino acids. Imagine a long rope with assorted junk tied on every few inches. Look, here’s a swath of velcro! Here’s a magnet. Here’s another magnet. Here’s a big plastic knob. Here’s another magnet. Here’s another piece of velcro. And so on.
If you shake this long rope, jostling it the way that a molecule tumbling through our cells gets jostled, the magnets will eventually stick together, and the velcro bits will stick to together, and the big plastic knob will jut out because there’s not enough room for it to fit inside the jumble.
That’s what happens during protein folding. Some amino acids are good at being near water, and those often end up on the outside of the final shape. Some amino acids repel water – like the oil layer of an unshaken oil & vinegar salad dressing – and those often end up on the inside of the final shape.
Other amino acids glue the protein together. The amino acid cysteine will stick to other cysteines. Some amino acids have negatively-charged sidechains, some have positively-charged sidechains, and these attract each other like magnets.
Sounds easy enough!
Except, wait. If you had a long rope with dozens of magnets, dozens of patches of velcro, and then you shook it around … well, the magnets would stick to other magnets, but would they stick to the right magnets?
You might imagine that there are many ways the protein could fold. But there’s only a single final shape that would allow the protein to function correctly in a cell.
So your cells use little helpers to ensure that proteins fold correctly. Some of the helpers are called “molecular chaperones,” and they guard various parts of the long strand so that it won’t glom together incorrectly. Some helpers are called “glycosylation enzymes,” and these glue little bits and bobs to the surface of a protein, some of which seem to act like mailing addresses to send the protein to the right place in a cell, some of which change the way the protein folds.
Our cells have a bunch of ways to ensure that each protein folds into the right 3D shape. And even with all this help, something things go awry. Alzheimer’s disease is associated with amyloid plaques that form in the brain – these are big trash heaps of misfolded proteins. The Alzheimer’s protein is just very tricky to fold correctly, especially if there’s a bunch of the misfolded protein strewn about.
Many human proteins can be made by bacteria. Humans and bacteria are relatives, after all – if you look back in our family trees, you’ll find that humans and bacteria shared a great-great-great-grandmother a mere three billion years ago.
The cookbooks in our cells are written in the same language. Bacteria can read all our recipes.
Which is great news for biochemists, because bacteria are really cheap to grow.
If you need a whole bunch of some human protein, you start by trying to make it in bacteria. First you copy down the recipe – which means using things called “restriction enzymes” to move a sequence of DNA into a plasmid, which is something like a bacterial index card – then you punch holes in some bacteria and let your instructions drift in for them to read.
The bacteria churn out copies of your human protein. Bacteria almost always make the right long rope of amino acids.
But human proteins sometimes fold into the wrong shapes inside bacteria. Bacteria don’t have all the same helper molecules that we do,.
If a protein doesn’t fold into the right shape, it won’t do the right things.
If you were working in a laboratory, and you found out that the protein you’d asked bacteria to make was getting folded wrong … well, you’d probably start to sigh a lot. Instead of making the correctly-folded human protein, your bacteria gave you useless goo.
But fear not!
Yeast can’t be grown as cheaply as bacteria, but they’re still reasonably inexpensive. And yeast are closer relatives – instead of three billion years ago, the most recent great-great-grandmother shared between humans and yeast lived about one billion years ago.
Yeast have a few of the same helper proteins that we do. Some human proteins that can’t be made in bacteria will fold correctly in yeast.
So, you take some yeast, genetically modify it to produce a human protein, then grow a whole bunch of it. This is called “fermentation.” It’s like you’re making beer, almost. Genetically modified beer.
Then you spin your beer inside a centrifuge. This collects all the solid stuff at the bottom of the flask. Then you’ll try to purify the protein that you want away from all the other gunk. Like the yeast itself, and all the proteins that yeast normally make.
If you’re lucky, the human protein you were after will have folded correctly!
If you’re unlucky, the protein will have folded wrong. Your yeast might produce a bunch of useless goo. And then you do more sighing.
There’s another option, but it’s expensive. You can make your human protein inside human cells.
Normally, human cells are hesitant to do too much growing and dividing and replicating. After all, the instructions in our DNA are supposed to produce a body that looks just so – two arms, two eyes, a smile. Once we have cells in the right places, cell division is just supposed to replace the parts of you that have worn out.
Dead skin cells steadily flake from our bodies. New cells constantly replace them.
But sometimes a cell gets too eager to grow. If its DNA loses certain instructions, like the “contact inhibition” that tells cells to stop growing when they get too crowded, a human cell might make many, many copies of itself.
Which is unhelpful. Potentially lethal. A cell that’s too eager to grow is cancer.
Although it’s really, really unhelpful to have cancer cells growing in your body, in a laboratory, cancer cells are prized. Cancer cells are so eager to grow that we might be able to raise them in petri dishes.
Maybe you’ve heard of HeLa cells – this is a cancer cell line that was taken from a Black woman’s body without her consent, and then this cell line was used to produce innumerable medical discoveries, including many that were patented and have brought in huge sums of money, and this woman’s family was not compensated at all, and they’ve suffered huge invasions of their privacy because a lot of their genetic information has been published, again without their consent …
HeLa cells are probably the easiest human cells to grow. And it’s possible to flood them with instructions to make a particular human protein. You can feel quite confident that your human protein will fold correctly.
But it’s way more expensive to grow HeLa cells than yeast. You have to grow them in a single layer in a petri dish. You have to feed them the blood of a baby calf. You have to be very careful while you work or else the cells will get contaminated with bacteria or yeast and die.
If you really must have a whole lot of a human protein, and you can’t make it in bacteria or yeast, then you can do it. But it’ll cost you.
Vaccination is perhaps the safest, most effective thing that physicians do.
Your immune system quells disease, but it has to learn which shapes inside your body represent danger. Antibodies and immunological memory arise in a process like evolution – random genetic recombination until our defenses can bind to the surface of an intruder. By letting our immune system train in a relatively safe encounter, we boost our odds of later survival.
The molecular workings of our immune systems are still being studied, but the basic principles of inoculation were independently discovered centuries ago by scientists in Africa, India, and China. These scientists’ descendants practiced inoculation against smallpox for hundreds of years before their techniques were adapted by Edward Jenner to create his smallpox vaccine.
If you put a virus into somebody’s body, that person might get sick. So what you want is to put something that looks a lot like the virus into somebody’s body.
One way to make something that looks like the virus, but isn’t, is to take the actual virus and whack it with a hammer. You break it a little. Not so much that it’s unrecognizable, but enough so that it can’t work. Can’t make somebody sick. This is often done with “heat inactivation.”
Heat inactivation can be dangerous, though. If you cook a virus too long, it might fall apart and your immune system learns nothing. If you don’t cook a virus long enough, it might make you sick.
In some of the early smallpox vaccine trials, the “heat inactivated” viruses still made a lot of people very, very sick.
Fewer people got very sick than if they’d been exposed to smallpox virus naturally, but it feels different when you’re injecting something right into somebody’s arm.
We hold vaccines to high standards. Even when we’re vaccinating people against deadly diseases, we expect our vaccines to be very, very safe.
It’s safer to vaccinate people with things that look like a virus but can’t possibly infect them.
This is why you might want to produce a whole bunch of some specific protein. Why you’d go through that whole rigamarole of testing protein folding in bacteria, yeast, and HeLa cells. Because you’re trying to make a bunch of protein that looks like a virus.
Each virus is a little protein shell. They’re basically delivery drones for nasty bits of genetic material.
If you can make pieces of this protein shell inside bacteria, or in yeast, and then inject those into people, then the people can’t possibly be infected. You’re not injecting people with a whole virus – the delivery drone with its awful recipes inside. Instead, you’re injecting people with just the propeller blades from the drone, or just its empty cargo hold.
These vaccine are missing the genetic material that allow viruses to make copies of themselves. Unlike with a heat inactivated virus, we can’t possibly contract the illness from these vaccines.
This is roughly the strategy used for the HPV vaccine that my father helped develop. Merck’s “Gardasil” uses viral proteins made by yeast, which is a fancy way of saying that Merck purifies part of the virus’s delivery drone away from big batches of genetically-modified beer.
We have a lot of practice making vaccines from purified protein.
Even so, it’s a long, difficult, expensive process. You have to identify which part of the virus is often recognized by our immune systems. You have to find a way to produce a lot of this correctly-folded protein. You have to purify this protein away from everything else made by your bacteria or yeast or HeLa cells.
The Covid-19 vaccines bypass all that.
In a way, these are vaccines for lazy people. Instead of finding a way to make a whole bunch of viral protein, then purify it, then put it into somebody’s arm … well, what if we just asked the patient’s arm to make the viral protein on its own?
Several of the Covid-19 vaccines are made with mRNA molecules.
These mRNA molecules are the index cards that we use for recipes in our cells’ kitchens, so the only trick is to deliver a bunch of mRNA with a recipe for part of the Covid-19 virus. Then our immune system can learn that anything with that particular shape is bad and ought to be destroyed.
After learning to recognize one part of the virus delivery drone, we’ll be able to stop the real thing.
We can’t vaccinate people by injecting just the mRNA, though, because our bodies have lots of ways to destroy RNA molecules. After all, you wouldn’t want to cook from the recipe from any old index card that you’d found in the street. Maybe somebody copied a recipe from The Anarchist Cookbook – you’d accidentally whip up a bomb instead of a delicious cake.
I used to share laboratory space with people who studied RNA, and they were intensely paranoid about cleaning. They’d always wear gloves, they’d wipe down every surface many times each day. Not to protect themselves, but to ensure that all the RNA-destroying enzymes that our bodies naturally produce wouldn’t ruin their experiments.
mRNA is finicky and unstable. And our bodies intentionally destroy stray recipes.
So to make a vaccine, you have to wrap the mRNA in a little envelope. That way, your cells might receive the recipe before it’s destroyed. In this case, the envelope is called a “lipid nanoparticle,” but you could also call a fat bubble. Not a bubble that’s rotund – a tiny sphere made of fat.
Fat bubbles are used throughout cells. When the neurons in your brain communicate, they burst open fat bubbles full of neurotransmitters and scatter the contents. When stuff found outside a cell needs to be destroyed, it’s bundled into fat bubbles and sent to a cellular trash factories called lysosomes.
For my Ph.D. thesis, I studied the postmarking system for fat bubbles. How fat bubbles get addressed in order to be sent to the right places.
Sure, I made my work sound fancier when I gave my thesis defense, but that’s really what I was doing.
Anyway, after we inject someone with an mRNA vaccine, the fat bubble with the mRNA gets bundled up and taken into some of their cells, and this tricks those cells into following the mRNA recipe and making a protein from the Covid-19 virus.
This mRNA recipe won’t teach the cells how to make a whole virus — that would be dangerous! That’s what happens during a Covid-19 infection – your cells get the virus’s whole damn cookbook and they make the entire delivery drone and more cookbooks to put inside and then these spread through your body and pull the same trick on more and more of your cells. A single unstopped delivery drone can trick your cells into building a whole fleet of them and infecting cells throughout your body.
Instead, the mRNA recipe we use for the vaccine has only a small portion of the Covid-19 genome, just enough for your cells to make part of the delivery drone and learn to recognize it as a threat.
And this recipe never visits the nucleus, which is the main library in your cells that holds your DNA, the master cookbook with recipes for every protein in your body. Your cells are tricked into following recipes scribbled onto the vaccine’s index cards, but your master cookbook remains unchanged. And, just like all the mRNA index cards that our bodies normally produce, the mRNA from the vaccine soon gets destroyed. All those stray index cards, chucked unceremoniously into the recycling bin.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine also tricks our cells into making a piece of the Covid-19 virus.
This vaccine uses a different virus’s delivery drone to send the recipe for a piece of Covid-19 into your cells. The vaccine’s delivery drone isn’t a real virus – the recipe it holds doesn’t include the instructions on how to make copies of itself. But the vaccine’s delivery drone looks an awful lot like a virus, which means it’s easier to work with than the mRNA vaccines.
Those little engineered fat bubbles are finicky. And mRNA is finicky. But the Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses a delivery drone that was optimized through natural selection out in the real world. It evolved to be stable enough to make us sick.
Now we can steal its design in an effort to keep people well.
Lots of people received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine without incident, but we’ve temporarily stopped giving it to people. Blood clots are really scary.
You might want to read Alexandra Lahav’s excellent essay, “Medicine Is Made for Men.” Lahav describes the many ways in which a lack of diversity in science, technology, and engineering fields can cause harm.
Cars are designed to protect men: for many years, we used only crash test dummies that were shaped like men to determine whether cars were safe. In equivalent accidents, women are more likely to die, because, lo and behold, their bodies are often shaped differently.
Women are also more likely to be killed by medication. Safety testing often fails to account for women’s hormonal cycles, or complications from contraceptives, or differences in metabolism, or several other important features of women’s bodies.
Although more than half our population are women, their bodies are treated as bizarre.
For most people, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is safe. But this is a sort of tragedy that occurs too often – causing harm to women because we’re inattentive to the unique features of their bodies.
I haven’t been vaccinated yet, but I registered as soon as I was able – my first dose will be on April 26th. Although I’ve almost certainly already had Covid-19 before, and am unlikely to get severely ill the next time I contract it, I’m getting the vaccine to protect my friends and neighbors.