Life as an Extreme Sport

Rights and Passage

It seems like it must be a passage of adulthood, a rite that no one wants to pass but everyone eventually does, that one of authors becoming people, people flawed and awful. For some of us, that rite of passage is picking up beloved books of childhood comfort and realizing just how horribly racist they are, and that no amount of the warmth from Polgara’s kitchen can change the fundamental bedrock of racism that forms the faults and seams of the stories.

For others, the stories remain beloved comforts, heavy and warm and rich with the scent of a fresh bound book slowly worn by the repeated readings, the track of the digital scrolling past on a thin electronic tether to the most wonderful libraries. For those people, the rite of passage is different, worse and better, because what changes isn’t the story but the author, who reveals that they weren’t the person who wrote the beauty that comforted, consoled, and inspired you. But in some ways, you’re lucky. The text? It no longer belongs to the author; it’s your love that sustains it, that breathes life into it, that forms the bonds between people with that shared passion and love. You can take it and make it what you want and will; you never have to give the author another cent, never have to support them, never have to acknowledge them, and you can still have the beautiful, inspirational people living within the boundaries of that book binding, digital or otherwise.

You might have to let them go; it might be the only way you can handle the taint of the author, to turn away forever. But it’s a choice. You can keep the characters, and get rid of the author. They began living beyond the author when you began reading, when your mind gave them form. They are embodied by your imagination, your passion, your love.

It’s not just gods that are made real by your belief in them.

OutbreakChat: A Livetweet of a Movie That Gives People Nightmares,…

Outbreak-ForBlog…and probably not for the reason you think. Outbreak is one of those movies people seem to either love or hate (or possibly love to hate); almost everyone I know who has anything to do with public health, infectious diseases, or virology tends to swear up a blue storm when the movie comes up.

So naturally, a group of us are going to watch it in real-time tonight, drinking and live-tweeting our thoughts on Twitter. This will include fact-checks, snark, and almost certainly questions and answers from the crowd-at-large. Who is doing this? Well, you might remember David Shiffman (@whysharksmatter) from my Virtually Speaking Science interview a few months ago; while he might seem like an odd choice to organize this, remember he has significant experience with pop culture/movie portrayals of sharks, mermaids, and other scientifically incorrect portrayals of the ocean.

Tara Haelle (@tarahaelle) is a freelance journalist probably best known for her excellent article that debunks flu myths. She’s written extensively on science and the need for accuracy in media imagery and discussion.

Nicholas Evans (@neva9257) is a post-doctoral bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy, based in the Perelman School of Medicine. He specializes in biosecurity, bioterrorism, and the ethics of pandemic preparedness, and recently wrote a piece for Slate explaining why Ebola is not a bioweapon, despite media myths. (He’s also my husband.)

And what am I (@rocza) doing involved in this? Well, aside from spending much of the last couple of months educating Twitter about Ebola, blogging extensively about Ebola, and doing Justice Putnam’s “The Morning After” radio show to talk about the ethics of science journalism and Ebola coverage, I once upon a time was pursuing a PhD in bioethics and philosophy, looking at how popular media portrayals of medical issues affects our medical-decision-making (a continuation of my undergraduate thesis on autonomy and medical ethics). I’ve taught courses through pop culture (Stargate and Applied Ethics), and one of my most popular and invited lectures was on why we watch reality TV. I also have a weird affinity for Ebola; I once intended to become a virus hunter, and I’ve been studying Ebola, outbreaks, and the research for going on 20 years.

We are, of course, hoping more people will join in the viewing party-both experts and lay people alike. So pop up some popcorn, grab your favourite beverage of choice, and join us at 8pm ET tonight (#OutbreakChat) to see firsthand what set the foundations for the Ebolanoia that has raced through the world these past few months.

Edited to add: Bingo cards are available on Twitter.

Chobani Learns That HowMatters – and so Does Science

HowMattersChobaniDuring the last Super Bowl, Chobani debuted an advertisement focusing on their use of natural ingredients and limited preservatives. It was an innocuous, somewhat bland, typically feel-good commercial, emphasizing that how things are made matters. And it probably would have gone largely unnoticed by media critics, science writers, and scientists, save for one wee problem:

Chobani extended the thought of the commercial to messages inside yogurt lids. But a commercial is 90 seconds of words and images; a yogurt lid is a lot less space. And in that space, they opted for the fatefully bad phrase:

Nature got us to 100 calories, not scientists. #HowMatters.

They might as well have painted a bullseye on the label.

Since then, Chobani’s social media team mistakenly tried to take the tongue-in-cheek approach, realized it was backfiring even further, apologized, explained they use science, and reassured consumers that the #WordsMatter and they’ve discontinued the lids.
ChobaniDiscontinued
Overall, I’ve seen worse responses from companies, and chances are excellent that this will blow over and be nothing but Google search memories in another week or so. But a couple of us were chatting on Twitter about what Chobani’s ideal response would be, even if it included a bit more risk for the company.1 We spitballed for a bit and then the conversation moved on, but the idea didn’t leave me. During what was undoubtedly procrastination on another project over the weekend, I realized that my ideal? Would be for Chobani to modify their #HowMatters commercial with the opening voice-over from Numb3rs:2

Chobani uses science every day:
to pasteurize milk, to tell temperature, to isolate probiotics.
Science is more than formulas or equations;
and it’s not something to be afraid of.
Science is using our minds to solve the biggest mysteries facing food production and safety in America.3

How does matter, and so does the science behind our yogurt. At Chobani, we’re committed to using the best advances in science to benefit everyone. We’re not saying we’re perfect, but our minds are in the right place.

#HowMatters
#SoDoesScience

Chobani is right: how they got to 100 calories matters, and they have a great opportunity to support and boost the positive benefits of science and STEM in America, peeling back the curtain a bit to let people see how science is truly part of everyday life. In a society where fear of chemicals (and thus science) is growing, thanks in large part to misinformation4 and lack of education, and when we need more rather than less people interested in STEM, this would be a small but significant gesture of goodwill–and it’d probably generate some positive PR, too.5


Shame, Stigma and Angelina Jolie’s Breasts

As reactions continue to race around the internet about Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery – the actual discussions, not the Monday-morning quarterbacking of her decision or the utterly vile “but what about her boobies” reaction from that particular subgroup of men who manage to amaze me by their continued ability to manage basic functions like breathing – I’ve been sent links. And more links. And then a few more. Most are relatively easy to dismiss because they’re quarterbacking a personal decision or they’re vile, but then you get the ones that tiptoe closer to decent – and they still have problems.

One that’s been flying around the internets today is the Maria Konnikova piece on Salon. I’m actually not terribly fond of this piece, or other pieces that hinge their complaint on the cost of testing and Jolie’s supposed privilege by virtue of her wealth. For one, let’s put the cost of testing squarely where it belongs: on the fact that Myriad owns the patent for the test (something that is being challenged in front of SCOTUS this June).

Secondly, almost no one remembers that the Affordable Care Act considers BRCA1 and BRCA2 tests to be part of preventive care, and that by January 2014, it must be covered for everyone, period. Yes, the pre-existing condition limitations and grandfathered insurance clause limitations means some women won’t have coverage for the test between now and January, but it’s not the doom and gloom exclusionary process that seemingly everyone wants to focus on when it comes to cost.

Finally, and most importantly, the notion of reducing stigma and shame by simply talking about these things – and in Jolie’s case, taking ownership of a body that has been extremely sexualized in media and popular culture – is incredibly important. In particular, even though we’ve moved society to a point where people talk about breasts and cancer together, it’s still in a “race for the cure” dialog, rather than in mastectomies and surgeries and things that shame. For example, within a day of Jolie going public about her mastectomies, Zoraida Sambolin (CNN) announced her own breast cancer and the mastectomies she’ll be having in June – and she credits Jolie for her decision to go public with her own health concerns.

This is dialog that’s important. It continues to de-stigmatize and remove shame from very basic aspects of women’s biology, and doing so is only a good thing: we need people to be able to talk openly and honestly about medical issues, illnesses, and diseases that affect women, not just men, and the sooner we can normalize aspects of the dialog that include frank discussions of biology and body parts in non-sexualized terms, the sooner we can embrace the idea that a woman – and her sexuality – is more than her breasts.

Living in Shatner’s World

I grew up in an ecumenical household. There was no battle between the Stars – Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica. As long as it was space opera, it was welcome, and this was the influence of my father. I don’t have any memories of this starting, because it always was.

What I do remember, however, is my first.

Oh, you typically hear of “the first” – genre-wise – with regards to Doctor Who; who was your first Doctor? And while I certainly have a first Doctor (Nine, thankyouverymuch), it doesn’t have the same hold on me as my first captain.

Oh captain, my captain – Captain Kirk.

Yes, Sir Patrick Stewart was wonderful as Captain Picard, and I suspect you can trace much, if not all, of my interest in philosophy and history and most importantly, ethics, to Captain Jean-Luc Picard and his thoughtful troubleshooting and conflict resolution. I will happily debate episodes, quote Darmok to you (and Jalad, at Tanagra), and discuss all the ways in which John de Lancie was a fantastic foil to Picard.

But it’s William Shatner that is my captain. Every afternoon, Dad would make sure he was home in time to watch Star Trek with me (in reruns, obviously). We watched Kung Fu, also, but it just wasn’t the same. There was something about Star Trek. Maybe it was because I had been raised on science fiction, Dad choosing to read me scifi novels instead of children’s books. Maybe it was because of NASA and the shuttle and the sense of the potential out there – space, that final frontier. Maybe it’s because as they’ve aged, William Shatner and my father have become similar, in posture and appearance and voice. Maybe it’s a little of it all, bound together with those afternoons watching the TV, rapt, with Dad.

It’s that ephemeral thing that makes something yours, and that fondness hasn’t faded over the years, even if I haven’t always followed Shatner’s career closely.

So it was with some apprehension I looked at the Philadelphia ticket sales for Shatner’s World, William Shatner’s one-man play. While I came of age after that particular incident that was so soundly mocked on SNL, I was a con-goer when I was young, and I’d heard the stories, and I was wary. I have these wonderful memories and an enduring warmth for Shatner; did I want to risk it on a play that might snuff that out and, for lack of less poetic a term, shatter illusions?

I did what any girl in my position would do: I called my father and asked him what he would do. Was it my only chance, he asked me. I confirmed that it was, and Dad held the beat for just long enough before asking, nicely, if maybe I was a little wrong in the head.

William Shatner. When would I ever have the chance again? Sure, he’s going to be here for a comics convention in May, but that’s crowded and… different. Perhaps it’s my con-going youth, but crowds of people paying large amounts of money for a signature and perhaps a photo is just not what a con should be, and not how meeting someone you admire should be. You can call me old-fashioned, I’ll do the yelling to get off my lawn.

So I shrugged and I bought a ticket. The play, after all, had been getting wonderful reviews – at worst, I would lose a few more of the illusions that I had clung to into adulthood. At this point, there aren’t too many left, so they’d be in good company if they did go away.

But oh, oh, they didn’t. I came out of the theatre more starry-eyed and head-in-clouds than before, and so did everyone else. I have never left a show where everyone is talking about the same thing: how amazingly profound what they just saw was, and yet, that’s exactly what happened.

Shatner’s World is a retrospective of William Shatner’s life. It’s a narrative, so while it starts with him as a young man, the stories are what link the show together, rather than strictly linear narration. Shatner’s. Famed. Delivery. is not on hand here, save for casual mocking – instead, it was more like listening to a good friend tell a story – a long, engrossing story that you don’t want to end. This play wasn’t polished; he stuttered and stammered, he got lost in his story, he slipped up and misspoke and corrected and laughed – or then again, maybe the play was just that polished, that these slip-ups that felt natural were worked in to feel natural.

That, right there, is the genius of the experience – while clearly being rehearsed, it felt not-rehearsed-at-all. And Shatner is fast on his feet; he had quippy remarks for the crowd, especially as they reacted to young and shirtless images of him, and the poor person handling the spotlight had a rough time of it when his (or her) aim was off, and Shatner started deviating from his story to give staging directions.

Or was that scripted, too? I couldn’t tell you.

Here’s the thing: I’ve been a fan for my entire life, so I know these stories. I know about his horses, I know about the tragic death of his beloved Nerine and how he found love again. I know the Star Trek saga inside and out, the rivalries and friendships. I know the jokes about him doing anything for money, about the CDs and Priceline and on and on…

And yet I sat, rapt. I was leaning forward on the edge of my (very nice, thank you again lovely usher who moved me to a plush box seat with generous leg room) seat, absorbed in everything Shatner said. And I wasn’t the only one. When I did pull my eyes off the stage to see how the crowd was reacting, rather than just hearing the sighs and laughter, it was hard to miss the fact that almost everyone else was leaning forward, too. Drawn in, and to, attention.

I don’t know that I expected to laugh, but I hoped, and I did – hard and often. What I didn’t expect was to tear up, which I also did at several points, and where I also know I wasn’t the only one, because you could hear the sniffles traveling through the crowd. And it wasn’t at the necessarily expected points, either – it was in moments like hearing his sorrow over his horse, his acceptance at being Captain Kirk, his pride at the house his kidney stone bought, in his first trip to NASA and his final recording for Discovery.

It was in the tender, and the funny – and he was able to turn a story from one to another in the span of a few steps across the sparse stage.

Shatner gets mocked a lot for saying yes – he’s known for doing almost anything put in front of him. But he explained this philosophy in his show, and it makes sense: it’s easy to say no. It’s easy to stay inside, away from the world, disengaged. But one of the hardest things you can do is say yes. Yes to opportunity, yes to life, yes to potentially making a fool of yourself, yes to wonder and awe – yes to love.

Is it Shatner’s World? It is while he’s on the stage, and I’m lucky enough that – even in such a culturally distant way, he’s so central to mine. So perhaps it’s not surprising that I think the ultimate answer to that question, is yes.