Tuesday, March 18, 2008

*** I wrote this blog entry this weekend in Spokane, and now I am back in L.A. I read the comments on my last entry and I'm so happy that here are other Bravo reality show junkies out there! I am into Make Me A Supermodel too - even though I really, really hate that show. Mulan is the one who makes me watch it. (See how I blame her?) Anyway, here's my entry today **

I am in Spokane, visiting my mother, who is recovering from a surgery to her foot, and she is in a wheelchair. My brother, who broke his back last summer after falling backwards off of a tool case while changing a light bulb, (hospital for months, five surgeries, walks slowly with a cane now and still recovering) is living with my mother and caring for her. My mother got MRSA while she was in the hospital – which is that horrible Superbug that is mostly anti-biotic resistant, and she has to be on this specialized super-specific-anti-biotic drip for an hour a day and my brother Bill is administering the drip. He’s gotten good at it. That’s because while he was in the hospital in Seattle, he also got MRSA (!) and had to be on a drip for several months. He also had to have many surgeries where they opened him up and put these anti-biotic beads right on the infection (in his back – ug!) Now he’s taking care of my mom. MRSA is really scary. For example, more people die from MRSA infections in the U.S. than from AIDS. (Now if I were online right now, I would go check if that were true, but my doctor told me that.) Not all hospitals test for it when patients arrive. I know Cedars does, in Los Angeles. According to my mother’s nurse who was here when we arrived in Spokane yesterday, it’s not contagious unless someone actually touches the open wound, or if the person has MRSA in their lungs, which means they could cough and someone else could get it that way. While I had the flu last month, I did a lot of reading about MRSA. I’m tell you, MRSA is so frightening.
So, we can’t do much, because my mom is in the wheelchair. But we did manage to go downtown to the movies last night. Mulan and I saw “Horton Hears A Who.” My mother saw “The Other Boleyn Girl” in the theater next door. We wheeled her in, and I am so appreciative of those wheel chair spaces now – for parking and for movies. Mulan and I absolutely loved “Horton.” She was laughing so hard – truly guffawing, big deep belly laughs. It’s really a great movie and adults will like it too. I would see it again. And it looks fabulous and it moves along and it’s really funny.
This is what I’m thinking about on the religion front lately, which is this: how it’s so useful and why it evolved. Well, I guess I’m always thinking about that, but I am turning over a certain aspect of it now. I think that’s because I have been marveling of late over the migration of humans. Michael, Mulan and I all had our DNA tested by this National Geographic migration of humans thing (you can find out about it on their website.) They test the mitochondria of your dna – which runs through the female line, mother to children – the father’s mitochondria doesn’t get inherited. This way they can follow a path of migration from Africa, through the world, through the mother’s line. (Men can get their Y chromosome tested, too, as well as their mitochondria.) Anyway, I found it to be really interesting and since we got our results back – all of ours were typical and no surprises for our race or heritage – I’ve been thinking about humans on the move.
As a species, we are so migrating-y. I’ve been musing about how many people, in the history of our species, picked up and left and never saw their parents again (or friends or loved ones) and how did they do it? Just think of how many generations of this – pre-phones and pre-mail, and pre-knowledge even of what was ahead. The terrifying decisions to setout, the millions of times this has happened, the slow and random and deliberate and desperate and determined journey. And they would never see their loved ones again. And likely die along the way because there was so little knowledge of what lied ahead. I mean, a lot of the time.
I have been thinking of more recent history too; and about my own genetic history, which is predominantly Irish. So many of my relatives left Ireland, never to see their country again, never to look in the face of their parents again. And how typical that really is – how traveling we (as a species) are, how daring and brave and probably stupid too. And anyway, I have just been thinking about that a lot.
And then that made me think about faith and belief and I imagine that if you believed you were going to see your loved ones again, somehow, someway, after death, in some enlightened place, well, the leaving would be much, much easier. If we didn’t believe in reunions after death and fate and destiny and all that – well, we might not have traveled all that far.
I have been reading a lot lately about those recent experiments – about the placebo effect in regards to the price of painkillers. They gave patients with pain two pills – both of which were sugar pills which did nothing at all – and one pill cost a low price and one pill cost a high price and the high priced pill gave significantly more relief than the lower priced pill. This kind of study – while its results are not surprising to me, are deeply unsettling. It makes me ask questions of myself – like about my own skepticism. I am still on the fence over whether it has really enhanced my life in some ways. In some ways it definitely has – on balance it is a great thing. But believing in something – which this study proves is real – can deliver real physiological effects. And, well, it all just makes me think about, well – all of that.

Today we are going to go to a tux shop to rent a tux for my brother for the wedding and we are going to the carousel downtown and probably to Auntie’s Bookstore where Mulan wants to get a book about dinosaurs. And it’s the St. Patrick’s Day parade today here too.

Okay, I wrote that this morning. Now my mother and my brother and I are in a big discussion about generic drugs. My mother says she believes the name brand drugs do work better. She really believes they do. She thinks that the name brand drugs come from companies that are more reliable and care more about their products having the accurate, quality ingredients. And so naturally she feels they work better. Hmmm… I don’t know if that is an elaborate excuse or a good reason to get name brand and not generic.

I can say this, believing is useful. So, the question becomes, how far do you want to look into something that is working for you if you believe it? It’s not just about religion, it pervades everything.


Anonymous said...

Best wishes to your mom and brother. That's alarming that they both got the super bug.

re: beliefs. It's all about the power of the mind. I wish we could harness that power and still avoid being fooled by things like placebos (the drug kind or the religion kind). The truth should count for something.

Someday I want to read that Steven Pinker book you recommended, "How The Mind Works." I look forward to understanding more about that.

mleiv said...

I don't think I have or ever had a choice to be a naive and blissfully happy believer - just not my personality type. :( I could have remained a miserable, unsatisfied theist who never let myself explore that final question because it scared me (and I know lots of people there). But I didn't. And after that... well, you can't just hand in your skeptics badge and say you believe in God again. At least I can't see how.

And all-in-all, I don't think it's the worst exchange. Death scares the bejeezus out of me, certainly, but religion made me very unhappy. I didn't like the whole karma idea where bad things are because you are bad. My life is full of shit, and I'd rather believe in blind fucking luck than some deity that really has it in for me. :)

Anonymous said...

A Course in Miracles says that belief is an ego function, which means that it is ultimately a distraction. The Course is channeled from Jesus and prides itself on its logical rigor. Jesus recommends a good spiritual practice because it gives peace and happiness; the ego gives suffering.

Interestingly, the Course was channeled by a Jewish psychologist, Helen Shucman, who claimed to be an atheist. However, her biography indicates she used to be drawn to Catholic churches and had all kinds of medals and did novenas. I think complicated people are wonderful and true. David

Anonymous said...

I agree with timmyb -- if only we could utilize the power of the mind without being fooled!

redbean said...

I'm doing research on Chinese religions, and the more I look into non-monotheistic belief systems (through Campbell and Mircea Eliade, too), the more belief and religion seems more complicated. For example, it was really common to worship a local earth god in China (and local earth goddess in pre-Christian Ireland), that could not move its location. And of course, your ancestors required you to take care of their graves--or they could wander free and cause problems for you or the community you left behind. So picking up and leaving a place altogether was not an easy decision. Death could also be seen as local, too--some claimed you met up in the afterworld, but others said people in different areas went to different locations in the afterlife (and what are the implications in all this for Buddhism, which has such a social-climbing view of the afterlife?).

It's likely that many people who took part in the great human migration had to actually amend their religious beliefs to be okay with the implications of all this. In China, for example, merchants would often focus on the great gods that covered big ideas--and therefore their jurisdiction was theoretically everywhere--abandoning their local cults and the ancestor cults. Dealing with these issues has been a huge part of the overseas Chinese community in the past century, too, which are often grouped around people who come from a similar place.

I guess what I'm saying is that I think you're on to something, and this is a fascinating subject I'd love to know more about. I only see a tiny piece, but it seems like there's a lot here to explore.

Incidentally, when me and my highly-Irish family did the mitochondria project, we found out our ancestors were Jewish! Go figure.

js said...

I don't know. Experience taught me early not to hang too much on belief. I remember, when I was in third grade, feeling nauseated in the middle of a spelling test. This galled me. I'd studied hard and I wanted to do well. I fought my way through the test, but my teacher could see from the way I was doubled over that I was sick, so she shipped me to the school nurse, who told me I had chicken pox.

The nurse wanted me to call my parents, but they'd moved their office to new digs on Pico Boulevard, and I hadn't yet memorized the new number. The only number I did know was my grandmother's, and at times like these I dreaded calling her. My grandmother could be a fun woman--any charter member of the Southern California Porsche Racing Club possesses deep wells of fun. But she was also a devout Christian Scientist, and I knew from grim experience what was coming if I called her. The nurse didn't give me a choice, though, so I gave her my grandmother's number. Fifteen minutes later, my grandmother's maroon 911 roared up to the school. She collected me with a curt acknowledgment of the nurse and drove me home.

I spent the next seven hours on the hide-a-bed in the living room, nauseated and itchy, while my grandmother read from the Bible and Science and Health in a vain effort to convince me that my chicken pox was an illusion. Whenever she paused for a glass of water or a bathroom break, I'd scratch my back on the hide-a-bed cushion's rough fabric and strain to remember 213-555-2723 or 213-555-2327.

Once my grandmother finished her tenth reading of the Scientific Statement of Being, my parents arrived and started the well-known family ritual of Get Grandma Out So The Medicine Can Go Down. Mom handled my grandmother while my dad slipped out to the drugstore to pick up the calamine lotion and aspirin. Their plays worked, and I was soon relieved. It was how I learned that CS didn't work, but medicine did.

Sadly, my grandmother never learned that lesson. She'd tried the same cures on my aunt, who went deaf in one ear because of an ear infection when she was eight; my grandfather, who died of a series of strokes; my great uncle, who died similarly; and finally on herself. We never learned the name of the disease she died of, but I lived with her for most of her last three years. Her unwillingness to admit that anything was wrong when we all saw it made life unbearable. My dad said that my grandmother's attitude made a kind of sense. Having staked so much on her religion in the past, how could she abandon it here? I didn't understand that then. I do, now, I suppose, but that doesn't make it easier. My grandmother finally died in 1988, four months before my high school graduation.

So, for whatever it's worth, that's how I learned about belief and its costs. I don't think that, by itself, it made me an atheist, but it did instill in me a general caution against counting on anything too much. After all, just because you think something's working, it doesn't mean it really is.

So much for that.

Anonymous said...

Off-topic: Julia, I know you're busy and I wish you all the best with The Jill and Julia Show (the clips I've seen are hilarious, BTW) but PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE tell me you're coming to TAM this year! I've wanted to go for so long and I finally have the assets to be able to go this year. And I was hoping I'd be able to meet you there because, well, LGoG is one of the reasons I no longer believe there is a god today. You have made a huge impact on me, and as someone who is an aspiring writer/performer myself, I would love to get the chance just to say thank you for all that you've done.
(No, I'm not a stalker; I'm just a fan and a fellow female skeptical atheist liberal theatre-type person, and we're rarer than we should be in the skeptical community these days. :))

Fargofan1 said...

Wow, Julia-when your family has health problems, they don't go halfway. Best wishes to them. Re: Steven Pinker's book, I confess I couldn't get through it. How does my mind work? Not well enough, apparently.

Sheldon said...


Much research has been done on generic versus name-brand meds. Most experts drone on and on about how they're precisely the same compounds, so any differences must be in patients' expectations. Some recent research, however, has resulted in evidence that there may, indeed, be a difference in some cases.

A recent article in the periodical "Prevention" offers this detailed advice:


If your doctor or pharmacy switches you to a generic, this checklist will help you stay safe and ensure that you're getting the correct dose...

1. Ask if your drug has a "narrow therapeutic index" (NTI): This means the dose needed for the medicine to work isn't much lower than the dose that can cause side effects. (Go to prevention.com/genericdrugs for a list of common NTI drugs.) If your doctor says this is true of your drug, ask him to specify do not substitute or dispense as written on your prescription.

2. Track your progress: If you're on blood pressure meds, buy a home BP monitor, take readings a couple of times a day for a while, and write them down. Do the same with your blood sugar checks if you're diabetic. Also, keep results of lab tests. Bring these records to your doctor if you suspect that your drugs aren't doing their jobs.

3. Pay attention to how you feel: This is especially important if your meds are for a condition with no lab tests, such as depression.
"Challenge" your generic If you suspect it isn't up to snuff, ask your doctor to put you on the brand-name drug for a month; then try the generic again. (Researchers call this a drug challenge.) The exercise may help convince your insurance company to charge you the generic co-pay for your brand-name drug.

4. Be prepared to appeal: If your insurance company has decreed that it will cover only the generic version of your medication, you may need your doctor to go to bat for you. This can be a drawn-out procedure, but it's often worth the effort.

5. Pay out of pocket, but shop around: Insurance company won't budge? If you decide to pony up for the brand, a discount pharmacy can save you money. ConsumerLab.com's sister site, PharmacyChecker.com, searches out the best prices from pharmacies that meet rigorous, posted standards.

6. Ask the pharmacist for the name of the manufacturer: Not all generics behave the same way--and if you keep track, you may find that you have better results with a drug from a particular manufacturer. However, because your drugstore can switch makers whenever it finds a better deal, you may have to call around to find the particular generic you want.

7. Switch versions: If a once-a-day formulation isn't working for you, a drug designed to be taken two or three times daily might be better.

8. Report problems to the FDA: The agency is supposed to investigate drugs with a pattern of problems reported to fda.gov/medwatch--though budget shortfalls mean that many reports go nowhere. Or tell us at peoplespharmacy.com. We continue to press this issue with the FDA.


By Joe Graedon and Teresa Graedon

Anonymous said...

"I can say this, believing is useful. So, the question becomes, how far do you want to look into something that is working for you if you believe it? It’s not just about religion, it pervades everything."

This got me thinking really hard about my exit from Christianity. Couldn't we say that Christianity isn't really working for people, even though they might THINK it is working for them? Is it just the fact that we perceive something as functional or is it the "thing" itself that is working? I mean if you give me a pill and tell me it's going to cure my cancer....I can believe it will all I want, but it's not going to really cure it, right?...not to mention the fact that I'd probably be really pissed off when reality actually sinks in. However, I do know that I do better in general when my head is in a "good" place. This is way too deep and I'm having a hard time wrapping my brain around it. Isn't it harmful to believe in something false because it could possibly blind you to a real danger? I do see the benefits though, psycholgoically, in bringing yourself comfort in order to survive something terrible....but what are the long-term consequences? Plus, I guess there might be categories where holding a false belief in one area of your life would be safer than holding false beliefs in another area of your life. This probably makes no sense whatsoever, so I'll quit while I'm ahead.

Carlo said...

2 books you need to read if you haven't already: White Noise and The Brothers Karamazov. It's all there.

Unknown said...

I am a social worker in a nursing home and there are people right and left admitted to our nursing home who have MRSA they contracted from the hospital (not to mention 2 other main bacterial infections-VRE and c-diff). I have come to fear hospitals after working in this facility and the health care system in the US, in general which I already knew was/in in shambles esp for the poor and disenfranchised. And navigating the system can be a nightmare in an of itself. I hope your mother heals soon. love your blog-keep postin'!

Anonymous said...

Hi, Julia. I used to work in the R&D lab of a large generics manufacturer, and during my time there I learned that generics are, in fact, often *better* than name-brand drugs. This is because in order to make a generic drug based on a name-brand that has already been patented, the generics manufacturer must prove to the FDA that something about their process makes it different from and better than that of the innovator product. Oftentimes, this means that the generic drug you are getting is purer than the name-brand you would have gotten (the actual dosage strength will be the same, but there are fewer impurities and "unknown" substances present in the final formulation). Maybe I just bought into some amount of myth-making on my corporation's behalf, but based on my experience and all that I learned while I was there, I believe that in many cases this actually is the truth.

Anyway, I used to be a big name-brand-believer myself. After working for a generics pharmaceutical company, I'm a little more open-minded about it all. Except when it comes to things like paper towels. My partner and I get into arguments because he is always buying storebrand paper towels! Ick. They just aren't as absorbent don't hold together as well!!

BiPolar Wife said...

Just wanted to say hi...I'm a native Spokanite, stayed and am now raising my children here. Love Auntie's... and the carrousel....I used to work there in high school. Got motion sickness from all the go-rounding but what a place to meet cute boys it was!

wcgillian said...

Good healing to your mum and brother. You know I used to ride that carousel when it was at its original location in Nat Park. I think that is where it was. God I hate getting old. Can't remember shit anymore!


Anonymous said...

you DO NOT deserve to have a child.