Viagra, Frankenstein, and Us

In June 1816, Mary Shelley and her husband were enjoying a dinner party with a group of friends. They talked of books and poetry and swapped German ghost stories. The dinner led Shelley to write a short story that she later turned into her 1818 novel, Frankenstein. The book was a cautionary tale of a research scientist who successfully assembled a living being from corpses, only to have his creation turn on him and wreak havoc on the community. The book asks us to be aware of the Frankensteins of unintended consequences all around us. Let’s consider one.

Viagara and Frankenstein

One day in 1991, researchers working in England for the pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer, were taken by surprise. They had been toiling away to develop a chemical compound to treat heart problems. They had come up with Sildenafil. It looked promising but then, during clinical trials, older men who had been taking the compound reported rock-hard erections lasting more than an hour. Those in the placebo-taking control groups reported no such effects. The Pfizer heart research project took a quick turn. More tests were done, the discovery was deemed sound, and so a method of mass producing the compound as a pill in the proper dosage was quickly established. The research team had inadvertently invented Viagra.

Patents were obtained. Observers wryly noted the unusual lightning speed with which the predominately middle-aged men in charge of so many of the world’s government approval processes allowed the little blue pill to machete its way through red tape. Within six months of its American approval, in March 1998, 7 million prescriptions were written, rendering it the country’s most popular medication.

Viagara and Frankenstein2

Pfizer’s future changed and its stock and profits rose dramatically. Commercials changed acceptable public conversations by dragging discussions of impotence, or erectile dysfunction, as it was renamed, from the shadows. The research changed the lives of millions of men and couples for whom impotence had been a problem. All was well.

But then, retirement homes and senior-dominated communities began reporting skyrocketing numbers of cases of sexually transmitted diseases. Arizona’s Pima and Maricopa counties, for instance, have unusually large senior populations. From 2005 to 2009 the number of people older than 55 who contracted syphilis and chlamydia for the first time in their lives rose by 87%. As is the case with most corporate, applied research, Pfizer never released the names of those who created Viagra so we don’t know their reaction to the good and bad changes their work brought about. But Mary Shelley would have smiled.

What other research and inventions bring about Frankenstein change? What small decisions have we made in our lives, that ended up big ones in disguise, put us on roads we had hoped to never travel? How many political decisions made for expedient or partisan reasons have helped some but hurt many? Can we rise up as the torch-bearing villagers did in Shelly’s novel and defeat our Frankensteins? Let’s first identify them in our lives and our communities. Then, let’s light the torches.

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Leadership Lessons from the Moon

The Globe and Mail’s July 21, 1969 front page was intoxicating. Bold, green, three inch high print announced MAN ON MOON. It reported 35,000 people breathlessly glued to a big TV screen in Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square who cheered at 10:56 pm when Neil Armstrong stepped from the lunar module. Mayor Dennison delivered a brief speech calling it, “the greatest day in human history.” He may have been right. What he couldn’t know, and the Globe missed, were the important lessons contained on that front page.

Leadership Lessons from the Moon

(Photo: thedailydigi.com)

The moon adventure was the culmination of an effort begun by President John F. Kennedy on May 25, 1961. He had just returned from meetings with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. While Kennedy negotiated, Khrushchev had hectored. Kennedy became convinced that the Cold War was about to turn hot.

Upon his return he called for a special meeting of Congress and asked for a whopping $1.6 billion increase for military aid for allies and $60 million to restructure his military. He called for a tripling of civil defence spending to help Americans build bomb shelters for a nuclear holocaust that, he warned, was a real possibility. The president also said: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” His popularity surged.

It was daring and presumptuous. The Soviets were far ahead of the United States in space exploration. But that day and later Kennedy couched the courageous new effort in soaring rhetoric that appealed to America’s inspiring exceptionality and Cold War fears. When cheers arose from public squares and living rooms only seven years later and everyone instinctively looked up, it was the culmination of Kennedy’s dream for the world and challenge to America.

Kennedy had not micromanaged his NASA team. He set the vision and got out of the way. He did not badger them regarding tactics or berate them over temporary failures. He gave them the money they needed then trusted them to act as the professionals they were. His vision and leadership spurred the team and survived his death.

Leadership Lessons from the Moon.

(Photo: karmadecay.com)

The Globe and Mail’s July 21 front page declaring his vision’s realization did not mention President Kennedy. However, a smaller headline at the bottom noted, “Woman dies in crash, police seek to charge Kennedy.” The story explained that Senator Edward Kennedy, the president’s brother, would be prosecuted for leaving the scene of an accident.

On July 18, with the Apollo astronauts approaching the moon and their rendezvous with infamy, Kennedy had attended a party on Chappaquiddick Island for six women and two men who had worked on his brother Bobby’s doomed 1968 presidential campaign. While driving 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne back to her hotel, he took a wrong turn, then missed a slight curve on an unlit road and drove over a bridge and into eight feet of water.

Kennedy managed to escape the submerged car and later spoke of diving “seven or eight times” but failing to free Kopechne. He walked back to the party and was driven home. That night he consulted with advisors and then, eight hours after the accident, called police. A coroner reported that an air pocket probably allowed Kopenchne to survive for three or four hours before drowning. A quicker call for help, he concluded, would have saved her life.

Leadership Lessons from the Moon..

Car being pulled from river. Photo: www. www.latimes.com

In the 1990s, Edward Kennedy would become the “Lion of the Senate,” guardian of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, and model for bi-partisanship. However, when he ran for his party’s nomination for president against the incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980, many saw not a lion but liar and not a politician but playboy. Chappaquiddick appeared to reflect a belief that ethics, morality, and the law applied only to others. Voters punished his conceit by withholding support.

It was all there on the Globe and Mail’s front page, 46 years ago: the legacy of intrepid leadership by one brother and the price of hubris by another. They are leadership lessons of the moon. On this anniversary we are left to ponder questions inadvertently posed by the Globe that day regarding the difference between bold audacity and stupid risk, daring vision and manipulative reaction, planning and plotting, and between big decisions that positively affect millions and big decisions disguised as little ones that are always pregnant with unintended consequences. The front page’s historical coincidence urges us to wonder if, in their wisdom, people still reward leaders of selfless vision or selfish arrogance.

President Kennedy’s leadership lessons from the moon offer even more profound lessons for those willing to learn.

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The River’s Spirit for Those Who Can Hear It

It’s moving. It will be moving all day, all night, and for a billion tomorrows. The Otonabee River is a block from my home and on quiet nights we hear it relentlessly cascading over the dam. We smile at a loon’s mournful echo, nature’s saddest and most magnificent cry. The blue heron has his favourite spot near the Lakefield bridge and sometimes the osprey leaves his giant nest by the power station to perch in the tree above him. Both stare with infinite patience, waiting for the right moment to pounce into the gurgling water.

I walk home from work along the river and run the trail that hugs its banks. In the summer, when the city folks invade, canoes glide by and rented houseboats boom their music as they tack haphazardly along amid the mammoth floating mansions, always, it seems, with flapping American flags. The river splits our little Village in two and yet its bounty makes us whole and, in fact, possible.

The River's Spirit for Those Who Can Hear It..

Deeply respected Canadian novelist Margaret Laurence lived in Lakefield. Her most stunning book, The Diviners, begins by observing that the river runs both ways. It does you know, it really does – all rivers do. They run as natural facts but also as spirits and metaphors through our history, literature, music, and souls.

Science meets religion at the intersection of the Tigris and Euphrates. Between the two powerful rivers is the fertile valley where archaeologists insist human civilization first developed. Those ascribing to a literal translation of the Christian Bible agree, in a sideways sort of fashion, by claiming the junction housed the Garden of Eden.

Homer gave us one of our first stories. He told of the filthy waters of the Xanthus. Polluted by bodies killed in the Trojan War, the river rose up and nearly swallowed the hero Achilles. The river became a metaphor for war, a scourge so horrible that even the unworldly strength and courage of the greatest among us can neither defeat nor tame it.

War has too often soiled rivers with its evil. Battles have been won by fording armies, a bridge’s destruction, or an enemy trapped against a riverbank. During the American Civil War, the South named its armies after states but the North after rivers, hence the Army of Virginia fought the Army of the Potomac. Early battles had two names because the South considered the nearest town and the North the nearest river, so we have Sharpsburg or Antietam and Manassas or Bull Run.

Many civilizations developed along rivers from the Yangtze in China, the Amazon in Brazil, and the Nile in Africa. A predominant historian dubbed Canada the “Empire of the St. Lawrence,” arguing that without the natural highway to the interior, the country could not have developed when or how it did. Consider also the cities built upon rivers: Montreal, Calgary, Ottawa, New York, Washington, St. Louis, London, Paris, Moscow, Berlin, and…well…you can think of many more. Rivers are the veins through which so many cities’ lifeblood flows.

The Tennessee is the Singing River. To hear it you have to believe it. For thousands of years the Whana-le people heard the creator sing through the river’s sparkling waves. In the 1830s, the Whana-le were uprooted and banished to the barren Oklahoma Indian Territory. They starved beside tiny and silent rivers. One winter, an old woman named Te-lah-nay had enough. To save her family and people, she sought the wisdom of the river’s song and so walked from Oklahoma to her ancestral home, now called Alabama, on the banks of the Tennessee. Today, in northwest Alabama stands a long, winding, outrageously magnificent stonewall that her great-great-grandson Tom Hendrix created to commemorate the walk, his people, and the river that still sings for those with the spiritual faith to hear.

On the banks of the Tennessee is a town called Muscle Shoals. In the late 1950s, Rick Hall built the FAME recording studio and it soon produced hit records that reintroduced gospel, R & B, and soul to the pop charts. Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, and Wilson Pickett recorded there. When Hall’s studio band, the Swampers, formed their own studio, the Muscle Shoals sound was heard in records by the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, John Prine, Jerry Reed, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Alicia Keys, and on and on.

The Muscle Shoals feel was black but the studio musicians were white so the music was as colour blind as it was glorious. The singing Tennessee must have approved and maybe, just maybe, played a role in inspiring the magical sounds. Maybe it was the same enchantment that flowed from the mighty, muddy Mississippi that gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll in Memphis when, within blocks of the roiling river, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley all did their best work in the same little Union Avenue Sun studio. Maybe the same spirit sang from Liverpool’s Mersey River that created what the world came to know as the Mersey Beat of the Beatles and British invasion.

In his terrific novel that was turned into a fine movie, A River Runs Through It, author Norman Maclean wrote: “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

In Siddharta, Hermann Hess observed, “Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time? That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future.”

The River's Spirit For Those Who Can Hear It.

I am both haunted and comforted by those thoughts as I prepare for my run along the banks of my river, the Otonabee River. The heron may be at the bridge and perhaps the osprey, and down near the Sawyer Creek lock the turtles will be sunning themselves. The bald eagle may be about, soaring without a care above it all and swooping with breathtaking majesty to steal his lunch from the river that he, like me, knows will always be here: powerful, relentless, with soul but without judgement. And through it all I am happy that in my Village, and my life, a river runs through it.

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What Can We Learn from Leviticus, Wealth, and the Monkees?

As a historian, my job is to urge greater understanding of where we are through offering fresh perspectives on where we’ve been. My humble efforts constantly have me discovering things I never knew while challenging myself to reconsider things I thought I knew for sure. The curiosity quest has led to more questions than answers, which, I think, is as it should be. The following are among those issues and queries currently furrowing my brow.

Questions(Photo: http://www.cedar-rapids.org)

Science: In grade 4, Miss Haney taught me that man very early made jars stand up nearly perpendicular. The mnemonic device allowed me to remember the nine planets and their order from the sun. Look back and see what I mean; I’ll wait.

All was well until 2006 when scientists demoted Pluto to dwarf planet status because it had an unsteady orbit and was unable to “dominate its neighbourhood”. Then, thanks largely to the Hubble telescope, it was discovered that beyond our solar system there are perhaps a trillion planets. I don’t really know what a trillion is but it’s a lot more than eight. These new facts laid waste to Miss Haney’s old facts and ruined her perfectly charming memorization trick.

So, is science based not on facts but our best guess at the moment? If that is true, then what of mathematics, economics or anything else resting upon quantifiable truths?

Music: I used to sneak a small transistor radio into my bed every night. From beneath my pillow, so my parents couldn’t hear, I nodded off to a Buffalo radio station that skipped the latest rock ‘n’ roll across Lake Ontario just for me. I was ripe for the Monkees. I bought the records and every week enjoyed their TV show.

Although an enamoured nine-year old, I noticed that what I was hearing did not match what they were playing; especially Micky the drummer. It ends up that the Monkees sang but the music was played by a group of crack LA studio musicians called the Wrecking Crew. They were the same talented group we really heard when listening to The Byrds, Mamas and Papas, Beach Boys, Association, Partridge Family, Grass Roots, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and many more.

So, can music be enjoyed while accepting deceit in its creation? If so, does the same acceptance apply to other forms of artistic endeavour? If we accept deception in art, then where else will we wink at irony tilting toward lies – perhaps business and governance?

Bible: Until we stopped going to church for some reason, I attended Sunday school. Every week I fidgeted with the adults before we kids were led downstairs for a snack and lesson that we could actually understand. The rather violent portrayal of Jesus upstairs and the equally gruesome representation in the basement frightened me. The stories of God were thankfully reassuring as we were encouraged to consider Him as an old man who not only looked like Santa Claus but also acted a lot like him. Both had lists of naughty and nice and both meted out rewards and punishments although God seemed more quick to anger and a whole lot more spiteful and violent. I recall being shaken by the thought that I was apparently under constant surveillance.

I later enjoyed a university World Religions course, read a great deal, and, over the years, I have re-read the Bible four times. I learned to accept that Jesus was likely not the fair-skinned, blue-eyed, blond man with whom I’d grown up. I learned that crucifixion was the Roman’s chosen form of capital punishment. So wearing a cross as jewellery then would be like wearing an electric chair now. Further, I learned that God is no more a man than Santa but, rather, a concept.

All this was fine but I was more troubled to find myself cherry picking from the Bible. I read that Leviticus 18:22 says, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” Ok, I disagreed, but it was clearly stated that homosexuality is a sin. But wait, 25:44 says, “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.” So slavery, alternatively, is not a sin but, in fact, encouraged. It must be so because Exodus 21:7 says, “If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as menservants do.”

So, can we accept the good things a religion proffers while ignoring the questionable stuff? Can we use a part of the Bible to justify a particular belief while ignoring other parts? Can we treat the Bible as a smorgasbord without cheapening or even rejecting its core message?

Wealth: I once worked at a school for teenagers who were damaged, learning disabled, culture shocked, lost in the criminal justice system, or just lost. Later, I worked in a private school where those of means could buy their children’s peers and opportunities no longer available in the ideologically besieged and fiscally starved public system. I found about the same percentage of happy and unhappy kids in both schools.

Happiness, it turns out, has little to do with money. Last year, University of San Francisco psychology professor Ryan Howell determined that buying more stuff, having more clothes and cars and living in bigger houses do not make people happier. His findings supported a 2010 Princeton study showing that happiness rises until income hits about $75,000. After that, it was found that happiness goes up not one whit even if one’s income soars higher than poor old Pluto.

So, was John Lennon right? Is love really all we need? If the studies are true then should we re-examine the meaning of success, the efficacy of ambition, and the value of materialism?

There are folks I know who are deeply offended by questions that invite an exploration of opinions that they have hardened into facts. The questions should none the less be asked. I believe that we owe it to ourselves to ask questions of ourselves, even if the answers are difficult, illusive, or impossible.

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