Friday, December 31, 2010

A Cure for HIV?

I believe in miracles. I believe that miracles come in two forms: those seemingly impossible happenings that can not be explained because the science has yet to be developed to explain them and those truly mysterious events that defy science, logic, rational thought and, sometimes, even hope.

When I first saw the headlines that a man called the Berlin patient, Timothy Ray Brown, had been cured of HIV, I believed the headline. Frankly, any credible news publication that would print that headline would have made sure that there was little to no doubt about the veracity of the claim. So, I believed the headline. What I didn’t know was whether this was miracle type one or miracle type two.

After reading the article, which outlined a bit about Timothy’s story, how he was HIV positive and had developed leukemia, which had been treated with a bone marrow stem cell transplant—with a little twist in that the stem cells were taken from a donor that had a genetic abnormality in which the CD5 receptor cells (the cells that HIV uses to invade white blood cells) were missing—and now he was seemingly cured of HIV. Immediately, I questioned whether or not the doctors had biopsied some of the places that HIV likes to hide out (the brain, lymph areas, etc.) where it is not detectable by regular blood test only to read in a further article that the Berlin patient had developed a neurological condition which required a brain biopsy. The biopsy confirmed that HIV was also absent from his brain and spinal fluids. After reading about the biopsy, I was convinced that I’d lived to see a miracle occur that I hadn’t allowed myself to dream about.

The best part of the miracle is that it is absolutely explainable by science. While I know and have seen the hand of God reach out and touch the world creating tremendous and powerful healings, the Big Guy is hard to reach, quite often booked for years, and sometimes when he returns your call, the news isn’t the news you wanted to hear. So, I offered up a little prayer of thanks—mostly because when a miracle can be explained by science it makes it easier for other folks to become miracle workers.

There are a group of researchers that are now working to try and find out exactly how to repeat this miracle. The fact remains that until this treatment is repeated successfully, it is still firmly in the “mysterious act of God” column on the miracle tracking chart. And even if the procedure is repeated successfully using donor stem cells, the cure will be extremely expensive and will wholly rely on finding other rare donors with the same CD5 genetic mutation that also happen to have a matching bone marrow donor type to the HIV positive person in need (please see the above paragraph about the likelihood of Type One miracles).

Frankly, I watched a family member that I loved dearly, my cousin Jim, go through chemotherapy and an experimental stem cell treatment for a rare type of leukemia. The chemotherapy ate at his body and his spirit, and though he fought and fought hard, he lost his battle. The pain that he had to endure during his fight was heartbreaking. A cure that demands that type of pain as its cost is one that may be more than many people are ready or able to face.

Researchers are also looking at developing gene therapies that would replace the need for donor stem cells. In 2009, a group of doctors were awarded a research grant to look at ways to substitute CD5 deficient stem cells as an alternative to the process that the Berlin patient underwent. It could be years before a successful and cost-effective gene therapy treatment is developed.

In the end, I am so very happy for Timothy Ray Brown. I am excited for what this cure means for the HIV positive community. I sincerely hope that the doctor’s that developed this treatment are on the short list for next year’s Nobel Prize in Physics and Medicine. But, for now, I am keeping this one-time, isolated event in the miracles column. All signs are pointing to a shift of this miracle from the Hand of God type to the scientific discovery type, but there are still too many “what ifs” standing between Timothy Ray Brown and a cheap and effective cure that, for example, will be easily available to people living and dying from AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa for me to recommend that the good people at start looking for new jobs in the post-AIDS era.

But, regardless of the caveats, this is a hell of a great way to ring in 2011. Perhaps by the end of the year, the miracle will become scientific fact, and next year, I will have many good friends at the sending out their resumes and looking for new jobs.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Filibuster Be Damned!

I have already written exhaustive rants about the filibuster, so I will keep this one short. There was a time when I felt emphatically that the filibuster had to remain as a defining element of Senate debate, as it has been an effective tool in keeping the Senate from passing truly heinous laws based on whatever particular craziness seemed to leap out of nowhere and grip the popular majority for a time before running its due course and returning to sanity. With the House, we get all kinds of super kooky bills that have been backed a majority of members and then killed (most often secretly) by this or that Senator that didn't poo poo publicly the House's legislation, which was the Congressional equivalent of a drunk text, but instead would send a nice handwritten note or while deliberating great deliberations in the world's greatest deliberative body would take a moment, perhaps over a nice cup of tea, and sidle to the Senate Majority Leader's desk, tap the House Bill, written out in an elegant hand, and then would shake his head ever so slightly. He would then move on to make a congenial jab at an old Princeton chum from across the aisle before returning to his chair, feeling proud of his tact and poise, something the barbarians in the House simply would understand (comportment! please!). Then he would congratulate himself for staving off another disaster and all before he drank his morning tea.

But don't be fooled, every now and again one of great lions would shake the dust and crumpet crumbs from his great mane, climb to the front of the room and roar. It was unthinkable before the 1980s to indicate that you would filibuster, and then when challenged, meekly step aside. No! You knew that every now and again, the cause of the moment was sometimes taken up by a dangerous majority of the Senate, and it was now not only a point of taste but a point of honor that you should enter into this contest of wills alongside your like-minded and right-minded colleagues and roar down those that challenged your power. And roar they did. Why Strom Thurmond (no lion was he...more like a sickly leopard) proved that he was made of the stuff of which Senators from ancient days had been hewn, when he spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes straight in his attempt to derail the Civil Rights Act!

But one by one the old Senators fell away until only the greatest of the last generation of gentleman senators, the grandmaster of the Senate Robert C. Byrd, remained. Now he too has passed. But long before he took his final rest, as the others were replaced by the Congressional equivalent of new money Senators, the filibuster, which was made great by the risk that you would actually, in rare instances, take the podium, became instead a veto pen wielded by exactly 100 legislatures, each of whom thinks of him or herself as a petty monarch at best or a Grand Duchess at worst.

Well fie I say! FIE! What I once believed to be an integral part of the Senate and the safeguard of the legislative process has now become, instead of a proceed with caution/dangerous roads ahead sign,there is now a stop sign and a checkpoint that makes the Berlin Wall look like it was made out of legos and guarded by Rainbow Brite and those creepy little star creatures.

To Hell with the filibuster! Let America do as the rest of practicing democracies do...pass legislation with a 50% majority (or now again 2/3rd as may be called for by those greatest of all procedural guidelines, Robert's Rules of Order aka my personal Bible). And, just in other countries, when we realized we passed some crazy bullshit, have the House Speaker and the Senate Majority Leader keep calling Congress into session until the ubercrazies take their meds and start talkin' sense again.

Damn...that was a long as rant. I believe it shall be my blog of the

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Everyday Heroes: Sue Sylvester

Generally when I write a blog post about one of my everyday heroes it is about a real life human being that has touched my life in some significant way. Most often the person I write about has no idea that I consider them an everyday angel. Today, not only am I writing about someone with whom I have never communicated, the person that is today's Everyday Hero isn't a real human being.

That's how Sue sees it.

Sue Sylvester, for those of you that have been sealed up in a cave with Osama Bin Laden somewhere in Kandahar for the last two years, is the role in Glee played by comedienne Jane Lynch. I have been a fan of Jane's work since the first time I saw Best in Show. The woman is a tremendous actor, and her dry delivery and comedic timing are flawless. I could watch Jane Lynch, Parker Posey, and Jennifer Coolidge discuss the fat content of a Nutri-Grain bar and probably rupture something internally from laughing.

In Glee, Sue is the woman that we love to hate. She is the arch-nemesis of the Glee Club, and her one aim in life is to the Supreme Commander and Boss of Everyone. When the show started, I was worried that her character would become a caricature. She seemed to be on the fast track to one dimensionality, and her role in the program was quickly becoming something like that of Old Man Withers from Scooby Doo. No matter what form the plot took, you knew, at the end, that when they pulled the mask off of the Abominable Swamp Monster inside you would find dried up Old Man Withers.

Boy oh boy oh boy did Sue Sylvester fool the hell out of me. Just when you thought she couldn't possibly do anything to prove that she actually has a soul, without losing any of her acerbic egocentricity, would show such a depth of compassion and incisive grasp on the human condition that for a moment (a brief brief moment), you actually forgave her for any of the other loathsome things that she has done and will do again.

I chose Sue as my Everyday Hero while watching the end of the latest episode of Glee. Sue, in grand Sue style, dresses up as the Grinch and steals the Glee Club's Christmas. It wasn't the well acted single line moment at the end that moved me to write this but something I realized about Sue in general.

Sue is the six year old inner child in us. Just as children can be absolutely and utterly cruel and self-centered, they retain a basic grasp of right and wrong that when piqued comes out in such a direct, forthright, and poignant way that it forces us to step away from our "grown up selves," and take a good look back at a time when all we really wanted from the world was to be loved, to be valued, and to be heard. It was when I felt that I was lacking in one of those areas that I would show out and do what it took to get the attention that I needed. Yet, it was all done within a moral framework that was simple, direct, and fairly uncompromising: sharing is good, hitting is bad, loving is good, being mean is bad, pick on kids your own size and put things back from where you got them.

Watching this latest episode of Glee, Sue reminded me that even though we leave our childhoods behind, we don't ever lose the need to be loved, valued and heard. We learn that we can't drop to the floor of Target and kick and scream when something doesn't go our way, so we get a whole new bag of adult ways to act out, but, in the end, it's the same process attempting to have the same needs addressed. Sue'a process is just a little more obvious than the rest of ours.

So, I am naming Sue Sylvester as my Everyday Hero. Thank you Sue for reminding me that big kids are just little kids in grown up bodies.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Voice of the Unemployed: NO DEAL OBAMA!

Dear President Obama:

What the goddamn hell are you thinking? As a recent addition to the masses of unemployed, please allow me to speak to you clearly: in what alternative reality does it make ANY sense to barter your assent to a temporary extension of the Bush era tax cuts (which, you pandering idiot, are at the heart and soul, along with these two wars and the shenanigans of Wall Street, of the reason are in this shit storm of a recession right now) for a short term extension of unemployment benefits?

You are a community organizer sir. Not only does your history prove that so did your campaign that landed you in the White House. Yes, it will be a shit shame and extremely hard to look people in the eyes that have exhausted their last week of benefits and are now desperate for an answer to their financial hardships. BUT this is the EXACT time for you to grow a fucking pair of balls and tell the honest to GOD truth about the situation in DC. You need to look these largely white and rural families and urban angry hungry poor and tell them that it is the REPUBLICAN SENATE that is holding back an extension of unemployment benefits. INDEED, you need to name names. In fact, you can refer them to the last extension of unemployment benefits in April 2010, and you can go ahead and name the names of every single Republican Senator EXCEPT Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA), Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Senator George Voinovich (R-OH), and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME). That leaves 40 people that you can present as concrete impediments to food on their table. These aren't some esoteric public policy concepts that you have to articulate and break down for the working person to understand and then somehow convince matters enough for them to pick up the phone or to march on their senator's office. This is straight forward community organizing 101: Identity your target, identify your allies, identify your goals and objectives, and then MOBILIZE.

Exactly how long do you think that the GOP is going to let people in their state slip into destitution and allow unchecked anger to build to the point of direct action? The last election proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the people could give a shit come election day about political labels. In 2012, the party in power that let them and their children starve is the party that is going to reap the harvest from the shit plantation.

AND HOW DARE YOU ATTEMPT TO PUSH FORWARD YOUR LIMITED SHORT TERM POLITICAL GOALS WITH MY FUTURE! The government stands to lose hundreds of billions in revenue from the WEALTHIEST Americans. Let me state this plainly for my readers: Obama is basically giving a big old multi-billion dollar Christmas present to the wealthiest Americans while, in my case, giving me $405 a week. Let me speak plainly Mr. Obama. I grew up on welfare. My family used the food shelves when we had to do so. I would gladly return to the food shelf ever week for a year if it meant in the end that the government finally stood up to the GOP and the wealthy elite exposing the GOP for what it really is and unequivocally demanding that the overindulgent and undeserving uber-wealthy pay into the system a tiny portion of that which they milked from its now desiccated teats.

I get it Obama. You are panicked. You got a major ass whooping in November. It really wasn't your fault. You were out organized. Not only were you facing anger at a system you inherited but you were also facing the full fury of a racist backlash by uneducated and threatened white folks in this country. TOUGH SHIT OBAMA. It comes with being the first black president. You knew exactly what you were facing when you decided to run. You knew that your life and your family's life would be in danger. You knew you would face hundreds of years of racism and all the historical baggage that entails. And you knew that you would face the full might and fury of a reactionary conservative movement that was going to cast you as the greatest and most terrible of bogeymen.

You may not be judged my history in how you and your policies were shaped, motivated, and resistant to these external forces. But I sure as hell am going to judge you based on that criteria. I was and am proud of you for your election. Though I had different goals for financial and health care reform, I am proud of the tremendous and historical wins that you have had legislatively. But your fight right now is not just about the goings on in Congress. The United States people NEED you. They need you to be the long term visionary that empathetically and strategically centers their hurt, anger, and poverty in a long term vision with short term solutions that do not compromise principles and our well being in order to placate political ambition and the ultra rich. IF YOU FAIL IN THAT, then, sir you fail as my president.

A temporary extension of Bush's tax cuts on the backs of poor folks is really what you are asking. You are once again asking poor people to accept crumbs...a temporary pain reliever that is supposed to replace necessary surgery. Surgery is painful. Recovery from major surgery is slow and also comes with pain and discomfort. But the alternative to avoiding pain and discomfort in the short term often means losing everything in the long term. Do not give us crumbs, Mr. President. I am tired of crumbs. I want a full, organic, multi-course, sustaining all you can eat buffet. If that means that between now and dinner all I can eat is ramen and spam, so be it. It's ok. I can smell the good stuff cooking, and I am willing to make due, to tighten my belt an to share in the labor and preparation if it means that I get to eat my fill with everyone else.

Please don't make of me a server that can only smell the food and eat the scraps of those most privileged that already have more sustenance than they could ever consume in any of a number of lifetimes.

Friday, December 3, 2010

She Blew My Mind: Tamar-kali

Yesterday afternoon I got a text message from my homeboy Kenyon Farrow asking me if I were free later in the evening to check out a concert with him. I had no idea who was performing, but I rarely turn down anything for free, so I said sure thing. Plus Kenyon ALWAYS knows the T, so I know better than to not show up to something he has dropped some ducats on.

So, around about 7:30, I met Kenyon at Better Burger on 19th and 8th in Chelsea, and we walked the couple of blocks to The Kitchen. The Kitchen is a multidisciplinary performance art space. Basically it is a good sized black box theater tucked away between 10th Avenue and the West Side Highway in a very unassuming building. It's actually fairly sterile looking when you walk in, which was a hell of a juxtaposition against the gorgeous and very colorful cadre of stunning black women with a sprinkling of men and a dash of white folks that was chillin' in the lobby.

Usually, I can tell whether or not a performance is going to be good either by the space that the show is in or by the crowd. Well the space was giving me one message and the crowd was giving me an altogether different message (space said...STERILE...crowd said...HOLD ON TO YOUR TITTIES).

Let me tell you I was not prepared for what went down.

The opening artist to take the stage was a petite spitfire Tennessee black woman with amazing locks and a baby doll face that reminded me of Lauren Hill. But when that country gal opened up her little throat and all that voice came out she was giving me Dolly Parton meets Tori Amos meets Ani DiFranco meets no one I've ever heard of before...and all that was Miss Valerie June. She reminded everyone in that audience that country, bluegrass, blues, and soul are all black music forms that may have been appropriated or expanded beyond the black community, but the soul of those genres is still black. Her musical storytelling and her brilliant voice was great to hear. She referred to the stage as her living room, and she and her accompanists were tremendous.

There was a brief intermission at which time folks mingled about and use the bathroom and the like. I figured the headliner was probably someone that sang along the lines of Valerie June.

Lord have mercy the minute that Tamar-kali took to the stage I knew I was wrong, so very wrong. This woman walked on stage looking like Miss Josephine Baker, but when she opened her mouth she gave us an experience the likes of which I have never had in my life. She joined a full band that included two back up singers, a percussionist, a grand piano, a cellist, a violinist, and during two songs she played the bass and the guitar. Her music was a mix of rock, soul, funk, punk, folk, and something else that I just don't have words to explain. And that voice...THAT VOICE....when she sang she not only brought you into the story, she demanded that you LIVE THE STORY. And I lived. Child I LIVED last night. She had us calling out like we were in church, and at one point, she was singing a song about someone that she had once loved, and I was no longer part of the audience. I was her. We were her. The vibrations moving through the floor from the audience stomping to her music was a living testament and a mighty praise to this woman's artistry.

Tamar-kali is music.

At one point, Grammy nominated pianist Vijay Iyer joined her on stage along with another vocalist, Somi, and they did a Bjork cover. Let me tell you that I would DRINK Somi's bath water. And I am not sure where the hell Tamar-kali found her guitarist, but that man was working that axe so hard that all I could think about was him working me in just the same way. Whoever that man is going home to at night is having the types of orgasms that you only hear about in fairy tales and Samoore's stand up routines. Sweet baby lord Jesus.

Let me make a sacred vow right here and right now. Unless I am sick, dying, poverty stricken. or at a birth, wedding, or funeral...I will NOT be missing another Tamar-kali show in New York City. Plus, I need to get as much of this woman into my blood stream before she starts selling out stadiums for ticket prices that make me want to slap someone at Ticketmaster.

If you are free this evening, then you need to get your ass down to The Kitchen. Tamar-kali and Valerie June will be performing again tonight at 8pm, Tickets are only $12, and the tickets are worth EVERY penny. You can buy tickets from The Kitchen.

Thank you Kenyon for the ticket to the show, and thank you Tamar-Kali for blowing my ever loving mind.