Bacterial Hosts

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Q: What portion of the human body consists of human cells?
A: About the amount from the knee of one leg down to the foot. The rest is bacteria.

This reminds me of commercial television. We commonly regard TV as a medium of art and communication financed by advertising. Actually, however, it is an advertising medium to which viewers are lured by the programming. Ironically, a small portion of this programming is sometimes thought to have real value and significance.

Similarly, we commonly regard human life as The Most Important Thing in the Universe, while bacteria are incidental fellow-travelers, sometimes useful, sometimes troublesome. Actually, however, bacteria dominate life on Earth, and human beings are merely hosts that provide food and shelter for bacteria. Ironically, some of these bacterial hosts occasionally write War and Peace or paint Guernica.

People are animals, too

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In 1968 millions of people were outraged when anti-war activist Kiyoshi Kuromiya announced that a dog would be burned alive on the UC Berkeley campus to protest the use of napalm (jellied gasoline, for you youngsters out there) in Vietnam. No dog was harmed: Kuromiya’s point was that Americans were less concerned about the Vietnamese people being napalmed daily by the U.S. military than they were about a dog being napalmed.

Comedian and anti-war activist Dick Gregory made a similar point around the same time when he proposed to end the war in Vietnam by drafting family pets instead of young men. People wouldn’t stand for that, he said; the war would end in a week.

This attitude toward animals is a form of sentimentality, i.e., the over-indulgence of easy emotions—and, inevitably, the avoidance or suppression of difficult emotions. It has been around for a long time. Geoffrey Chaucer, for example, in his Canterbury Tales (ca. 1400), describes the Prioress as a nun who really would rather be a lady. Against convent rules, she wears jewelry and she owns pet dogs. She feeds her dogs with roast beef, milk, and bread, and weeps if anyone strikes one of them. She weeps similarly if she sees a trapped mouse bleeding, or dead. Her sympathies, in other words, are directed toward small, cute animals because the suffering of such animals does not require her to do much more than weep and express her sorrow. Her sympathies are decidedly not directed toward the hunger, poverty, and suffering of thousands of people all around her in medieval England, because acknowledging human suffering would require her to do something about it, and this would be difficult.

Animals are, of course, widely mistreated, especially those that are raised to be slaughtered and eaten. Notice, however, that very few people like to think about this, and even fewer decide to stop eating meat. A sentimental story about a pet rescued miraculously from some natural disaster, on the other hand, gets lots of people talking and clicking and ‘liking’.

In one respect, however, we really do treat animals better than we treat our parents and grandparents. When people are fatally injured, or terminally ill, or when they are simply too old to go on living without suffering daily, we extend their suffering for weeks, months, or even years by medicating them, by force-feeding them, by hooking them up to machines that keep their hearts pumping and their lungs inflating, and deflating.

However, when the family dog or cat is injured, or is ill beyond cure, or is simply too old to live without daily suffering, we do the humane thing: we put it painlessly to death.

Chaucer would appreciate the irony.

Holden Caulfield on Smoking: a Pastiche

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In the first place, you have to buy the goddam cigarettes, unless you just bum ’em off other guys all the time and then don’t even say thanks like that sonuvabitch Ernie Morrow. Anyway, like I said, you have to buy them, and who do you buy them from?—these stinking-rich gigantic corporations with about as much social conscience as your average mass-murderer, that’s who. I mean, they probably hire all these poor people to grow the damn tobacco, pay ’em peanuts, then turn around and sell cigarettes to the poor bastards who can’t afford decent clothes, let alone cigarettes, but they probably can’t stop smoking on account of they’re so depressed about their lousy lives.

And in the second place, once you give your money to these fat corporations,
what do you get? You get to start stinking up everything in your life. Your breath stinks, your clothes stink, your house stinks, your car stinks, your whole life stinks, if you want to know the truth. Gorgeous.

The only good thing about smoking is, if you’re lucky, with the right genes and all, you’ll get lung cancer or emphysema or something and die an early death.

The problem is, you might not die an early death. You might live until you’re about seventy-five with yellow teeth and dried-up, papery skin and ashtrays all over your goddam house, and drapes that stink enough to kill a damn moose and then you get cancer and you spend about three years in the hospital with tubes sticking out of you all over the place and your grown-up kids come visit you and stand around your bed talking when they think you can’t hear them about all the birth defects they got from you and the asthma they got from you smoking around their cribs and playpens when they were little and all and then you wish to hell you’d given all that money to the Red Cross or something instead of buying all those damn cigarettes.

It just goes to show how stupid a guy can be who’s actually pretty smart, if you know what I mean.

—October 2003