Thursday, December 23, 2004

If You're Screwed, You're Screwed

For today's column I want to talk about how "Science Marches On!" I am very excited about a new discovery that finally gets at the underlying truth about life neither being a rose garden nor a bowlful of cherries. It also deepens the theory that the Rich Get Richer While the Poor Get Poorer, by sinking it to the level of biology and the reproduction of cells. It’s a very factual new discovery that is so scientific and at the same time so scary that it could make the basis for a great new film to bum out kids in high school.

The discovery is a long time coming. I remember reading in history books that way back in the Dark Ages the silly Dark-Ages-people all thought that life was "essentially" a waiting room experience with one good magazine that everyone fought over until they remembered that none of them could read, and then you died and went to heaven.

Then, in the Renaissance, science started, and all the beginner scientists started to believe that life blew. It wasn't until the 1800's before science-greats like Darwin and other guys who actually knew things figured out that life really sucks, as we now know today.

But it is one thing to know that life sucks. It is quite another to know HOW life sucks, or to possess the video. This is where 21st century scientists have it all over 19th century scientists: even though they aren't as smart, there's lots more of them, so when you put them all together they end up knowing more. Besides, they have cell-phones and digital cameras and laptops.

Anyway, here it is. Scientists just learned last month that if you experience long-term hardship, and if you experience it as chronic stress, then your telomeres will shrivel up. This is bad, the scientists say, because telomeres are the tips-of-the-shoelace thingies at the end of your chromosomes that need to be big and long so that your cells can divide and multiply. So it's like, you know, with shriveled telomeres your cells might as well be neutered, and pretty soon the cells you have die without replacements, and so do you.

There's more: they've actually figured out how much shriveling happens. As much shriveling happens in a typical case that we are talking about losing roughly a year of lifespan for each year of stress experienced. Give or take a month or two.

So let's say someone, we'll call him Herbert, was genetically predisposed to live 70 years if his life went as well as it does for normal people. But suppose instead the beginning of his life, for the first 35 years, is a genuine living hell, comparatively speaking. According to our old understanding we would have thought that at least Herbert would have had a second 35 years left to him during which things might start looking up. But now we know that Herbert's telomeres will be entirely useless as of his 35th birthday and Herbert will die of premature old age within days. Or a couple of years. Or he's already dead. Approximately.

Now, some see a silver lining to this discovery. They point out that the telomeres only shrink if you experience the stress. In other words if you don't know you're miserable you won't suffer the ill effects of it. Right, that's it, I could just whack myself up-side my head so hard I don't notice anything at all ever again.

No, there are only two alternatives. Either you're so stupid you not only don't know when you're suffering you also can't fully know when you're having a good time, i.e., you're a fish, metaphorically speaking. Or else you're a sentient being and every year that you suffer you lose that much opportunity to make up for it.

So we may sum up this new discovery as follows. If you're screwed, you're screwed. Unless you're stupid, in which case you're screwed.

Has there ever been a time when we could so clearly see the need for justice as this? Let's stop putting people through genuine living hells, at least until we can find a way to enlarge telomeres.

Thursday, December 9, 2004

Get Rich Quick

Last time we mentioned the homeless Kenyan teenager who found a roughly $5000 prize while urinating in a Nairobi park. As we said then, our motivation in mentioning that story was mainly to be able to use the word "urinating" repeatedly. As you can see, it can continue to serve that purpose.

But just when we were thinking that the Kenyan's story was one of a kind, we saw this one concerning a homeless Dallas man. Jay Sherman found out that a plate that his great-aunt passed on to him really came from the Titanic, the sinking of which she survived. The Czech company that originally made the plate has corroborated the story of Jay Sherman's great-aunt, certifying that the plate is one of theirs and one of a set made exclusively for use on the Titanic. So Mr. Sherman put it on E-bay with an asking bid of $49,995. As of this writing we don't know if any bids of that magnitude have been made but we are definitely rooting for Jay.

We are so happy for him and so much want him to succeed that if anyone out there were to come up with $49,985, we would kick in the last ten dollars to make the sale happen. That's a promise from me, Wes "Always Poised to Help in a Token Way" Browning. (I am subtly acknowledging a failing. Please forgive.)

In my own experience the finest way to get out of any one particular bout of homelessness is to have someone related to you die and leave you money. I highly recommend that the inheritance be in the form of cash, preferably small bills, personally handed to you in a sack by the dying relative just at the last moment, so they can hear you graciously thank them before you get the hell out of there and rent an apartment.

In my own case I didn't get cash. The money was held up in probate for three years. It came in the form of a check from a lawyer and I had to split it 50-50 with the ex as per the divorce decree or I wouldn't have been allowed to cash it at all. But my half paid for a deposit and a month's rent, new clothes, and three month's worth of groceries, so I didn't complain.

Another technique that you can use to get out of being homeless is to have a close friend leave the state and bestow upon you his apartment with the deposit and a month's rent already paid, just because he thinks you’re a cool guy who deserves a break. It's not as good as cash from a dead person because you don't get to choose the neighborhood, but it beats the freeway underpass, on account of the extra walls.

Some people get out of homelessness by selling drugs. I don't recommend this technique at all because it is not only illegal but puts you in dangerous company. I only mention it in passing here because I hear a lot of people say that they're afraid of homeless people because they're all "drug dealers and prostitutes." I guarantee you, if anybody you meet is a drug dealer or a prostitute, and they're any good at it, they're making enough for a room. The same goes for diamond smugglers and professional car thieves. In fact, the only diamond smuggler I ever met owned a house near Wedgwood outright, with a huge yard and cherry trees and a turn-around driveway. People like that don't get rained on.

Another way to get out of homelessness is to have the incredible good fortune to live in a society where the general public understands that (a) homelessness is the result of long-standing public policy decisions that have over time eroded the supply of affordable housing causing hundreds of thousands of people to be priced out of the housing market and to thereby lose the means necessary to maintain their employability and make themselves viable consumers of commercial housing, and that (b) the same public (the general public who originally stood by and allowed those public policies to go into effect and in some cases even clamored for them) has the moral responsibility to correct the effects of those public policy decisions, even to altogether reverse them.

But we've got a long wait now before anything like that will ever happen. In the meantime, let's keep our eyes open while we urinate in parks used by treasure hunts to hide prizes, and let's inherit plates imagined to have great historical value by folks with more money than they need.