I never expected that this is what would become of my life.
I never expected that the boy who grew up on the fourteenth hole of Roundhill Country Club would become an activist against the pharmaceutical companies which are pursuing actions which might well lead to the wholesale destruction of our species.
It’s enough to ruin your whole day.
Like many activists who have fallen down this particular rabbit-hole, I have often found the immensity of what is at stake with vaccines to be over-whelming. I can only look to historical examples, sometimes for inspiration, and others for what to avoid.
I think of nineteenth century Hungarian physician, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, who decades before the hygiene theory of health, had the presence of mind to notice that women who delivered their children with mid-wives had a much lower rate of death than women who had their children delivered by doctors. Attempting to account for this discrepancy, he noted that the doctors of the day were often dissecting human cadavers, then were going straight to delivering. Semmelweis thought that maybe something from those human cadavers was sticking around on the hands of those doctors. Maybe they needed to wash their hands after doing a dissection. What a revolutionary thought.
Semmelweis decided to put his theories in practice and opened his own clinic where doctors washed their hands before delivering a child, and sure enough, the rate of death of women delivering in his facility was just a fraction of that found in similar facilities. Surely, he thought to himself, all I have to do is present these “facts” to the other physicians and they will fall all over themselves to follow his example.
No such luck. They ignored him and laughed at him, even as their patients continued to die. Semmelweiss called the other doctors “murderers,” which is a pretty accurate description. The writer Atul Gawande, in his review of the Semmelweis history, suggests the doctor would have done better if he took a less aggressive approach, maybe bringing fruit baskets to the other doctors, and gently cajoling them into following practices which wouldn’t kill their patients.
Maybe Gawande has a point. Semmelweis ended up in a mental hospital and his findings were ignored for decades. Let me make a point. Falling apart in the middle of such an important battle is self-indulgent.
Imagine of Oskar Schindler had fallen apart in the middle of World War II and the more than one thousand Jews he was protecting had been turned over to the Nazis. The stakes are too high to fall apart.
I think back to my boyhood self and the world in which I grew up. My next door neighbor ran for Congress twice. Across the street from me lived two nuclear physicists. Just up from the street from me lived our area’s biggest radio personality, Dr. Don Rose. His kids were some of my best friends. Every year on my birthday, Dr. Don Rose would wish me a “Happy Birthday” on his show that was the Bay Area’s most popular AM station. Across the golf course and down a path of no more than a quarter mile lived basketball great, Rick Barry, of the Golden State Warriors, arguably the greatest Warrior since Stephen Currey.
While Simon and Garfunkel were asking the musical question in their song Mrs Robinson, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you . . .” I knew the answer. He could usually be found two doors down in a party at our neighbor’s house. I also met golfing great, Lee Trevino at that house, as well as party animal, Johnny Jacobs. (My brother and his buddy once spent a weekend with Johnny Jacobs in Palm Springs where they hung out with motorcycle daredevil, Evel Knievel, who liked to win bar bets by lighting his chest on fire with various types of high-proof alcoholic beverages.)
Even the people I didn’t think were very interesting often revealed themselves to have hidden depths. I remember the father of one of my friends, a quiet man who I knew was an engineer, start talking to me at a party about how he flew a couple times on spy planes over Russia, to check out the performance of the aircraft.
If my parents had died when my brother and I were young, our finances would have been taken care of by the man who was one of the largest owners of rental properties in San Francisco.
This was the world in which I grew up. I don’t think it’s the typical background of somebody who later becomes an activist. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s when you see what’s behind the curtain, that you’re really not that surprised when you find out that things aren’t always what they seem.
And maybe you learn how to change the world because you’ve seen those people who in some significant way, did exactly that.
I learned that you work really hard to change the world, but at the same time there are those hours that you don’t try to change the world. Yes, it’s all falling apart, but you’ve got to take care of yourself, if you’re going to be of any use to anybody else.
I remember the attorney who wrote the definitive legal text on California real estate law, coming to our house on one Fourth of July, his trunk loaded with illegal fireworks he’d purchased in Chinatown. In lighting them off, one of the rockets hit the 12,000 square foot mansion across the fairway, nearly setting it on fire. (I’m pretty sure we could have put out the fire pretty quickly!) He was a brilliant man, but he could also play like a child.
And where was I in all of this? I had my books. That’s where I really lived. I certainly enjoyed throwing the football around with the wide receiver for the Oakland Raiders, hearing Lee Trevino tell stories, getting my birthday mentioned on the radio by the area’s biggest radio celebrity, but it seemed a little removed from the life of the mind that I found in books. On a gut level I’ve always understood the Biblical admonition to be “In the world, but not of the world.” With apologies to the Almighty, however, my holy place was a bookstore.
And I really think that’s the way to stay sane in an insane world. You need to find that quiet place where there is no anger, just joy or gratitude, or whatever calm feeling restores your soul. I take up my weapons and fight the evil of this world for several hours of each day, then put those weapons down, and enjoy the goodness of this world.
In some Zen sort of way, it all depends on me, and yet at the same time, it’s all out of my hands. I’ve lived long enough to see once mighty forces crumble into obscurity, and those who were once outcasts become great leaders.
The evil will fall, and goodness will rise, and a different evil will rise, only for the cycle to repeat itself in a new form. And I intend to be here for as much of it as I can, pushing humanity to a better place. I hope you will be there with me as well.
Let’s be like Oskar Schindler, and not Ignaz Semmelweis.