Free Speech

What Free speech is and isn't

Images used to make a point. They are not used to represent any connection with any of the pictured groups or companies, so please don’t sue me.

A friend asked me to expand on some comments I made on Facebook here. As loath as I am to engage in the ongoing battles of the culture wars (a war in which positively everyone loses, I might add), I feel the need to mention one thing. What is happening to Phil is free speech. What he said he said of his own free will, what A&E did they did of their own free will, what the show’s viewers do (whether that number is larger or smaller a month from now) they will do of their own free will. There are no government-sponsored jackbooted thugs who are empowered to enforce the will of GLAAD, nor are there pernicious masterminds with their own craven views of culture driving this whole fiasco. This is just people speaking, and people choosing to respond to that speech.

He said, broadly, that he believes in that section of Leviticus that says that homosexuality is an abomination, that he believes it is treated by the Bible as akin to bestiality, that religions that do not follow Jesus Christ are inferior to religions that do and that those religions/cultures (he appears to conflate the two) promote violence and cultural chaos. I don’t agree with him, personally, in fact I vehemently disagree, but I still feel it necessary to fairly and soberly represent what he said. So, there you have it.

A more coherent and topical discussion of our free speech rights and what threatens them can and should start, though. There are a few areas where the frontiers of these rights are being explored with case law, legislation, and questionably-legal or even explicitly illegal actions. People are and have been talking about things like radio censorship (by which I mean the FCC ‘bleeping’ things or having them ‘bleeped,’ not voluntary boycotts to speech that some dislike) and prosecuting hate speech for basically my entire life, and should keep talking about these things until we find a solution most or all of us can live with. We should also have a national conversation about why we think it’s okay to use pepper spray on peaceful college demonstrations or Occupy sit-ins, or why we feel it’s okay for the NSA to monitor our private conversations without any due process or transparent mechanism of law. We should have these conversations, but if things like Duck Dynasty occupy the bulk of our cultural landscape and news media air time, I doubt we ever will.

What makes me mad about this isn’t just the conversations we’ll never have and the related, much-more-important topics we’re not talking about, it’s also opportunism. For instance, my state’s Governor Bobby Jindal has said some silly things about free speech and whatnot as a response to this. I understand why he spoke up, and it’s really very simple. Duck Dynasty is filmed in Monroe, Louisiana and is highly lucrative. Gov. Jindal has been courting the film industry for at least four years, and wants their business. That A&E might end the show or take actions that imperil its future hurts Louisiana economically and Gov. Jindal politically, then. So, we have his comments. I’m sure he knows they are ridiculous, and most everyone who knows anything about law or common sense knows they are ridiculous, but still he said them. He said them not because they are true, but because this is an opportunity and a risk for him. It is an opportunity to court the Evangelical vote that he sorely needs for re-election (though at this point this may be a pointless exercise for him), and it’s a threat to the economic health of north Lousiana and the Louisiana film industry in general. His comments don’t come then from a place of good policy, responsible governance or common sense, but from political opportunism and fear. I find those to be deplorable reasons for an elected official to speak, and that his behavior will not only be condoned but rewarded makes me even more mad. But that’s the state of politics today, sadly. Both ‘sides’ in this faux dichotomy we call American political life do it with approximately equal efficacy, and will continue to do so until they stop winning elections and making money (in legal donations, mind) that way. Until we a an electorate stop rewarding that behavior, it will continue, and I’m sad to say I don’t see that ending any time soon either.

Gee, this entry is much more depressing than my original Facebook post. I guess that’s the cycle of things, though. Five hours ago I was angry, now I’m just tired and disappointed.

The Story of a Tumor: Surgery (pt. 2 of 5)

First, a quick recap. On the way home from the Christmas party a few years ago, I went blind. For about 8 seconds, starting as I hit the gas at an intersection a quarter mile from my apartment, I couldn’t see anything. Freaked out as I was, I managed to get home safely. Then I talked to my brother who is himself a doctor, and he suggested some follow-up appointments for me the following day. I went to them, and after an MRI I was diagnosed with a rather large (4.1 x 2.4 x 2.1 cm) acoustic neuroma, which was blocking an important cranial sinus cavity and causing fluid to back up around my brain. This caused my blindness, a deafness I previously believed was due to an ear infection, and swelling in my optic nerve. After I got the diagnosis and was scheduled for an ASAP surgery, my parents drove/flew into town, and we made ready for my surgery in New Orleans at Ochsner Medical Center.

The night before surgery was warmer than you’d expect for the middle of December, or maybe I just couldn’t feel the cold. That’s somewhat unusual for me, since I am usually very prone to feeling the cold and reacting to it rather poorly. Tonight was different, however. My phone would not stop ringing, and I had to do about a dozen different things before the night was done. Through it all it was important to reassure everyone that I wasn’t scared, even though I was terrified, because my showing fear would just cause them to worry more. Them doing that would hurt them, and not help me a whit, so I couldn’t abide that. So there I was, being stoic and cold about it, even though I was staring death in the face more plainly than at any time in my life to that point. Then, the phone rang.

It was always the same conversation.

“Oh, hello [person]. How are you?”

“[Answer, usually that they were generically good]. I heard what was going on from [person or Facebook].”

“Yeah, it’s… a Thing. I don’t know what to make of it yet. [concise explanation of pt. 1 of this post, summarizing events up to this point.]”

“Does it hurt?”

“No, oddly. I can’t feel it at all. The doctor said it has been in there for at least 4 years and I never knew it, but if they don’t remove it then the symptoms are only going to get worse.”

“Do you mind if I pray for you? I talked to [religious figure/group] in [name of church] and they said they would pray for you, but I wanted to make sure you wouldn’t mind.”

“No, I don’t mind at all! The more the merrier, really. I’m really touched they would do that, and I really hope you have a [happy holiday of choice].”

[2-5 minutes of polite conversation.]

I didn’t mind, and don’t mind, and certainly all the well wishes were really gratifying. I don’t think prayer in any form ever hurts, so I was happy to receive all the well wishes I did. That said, after about a dozen iterations that night alone, the conversation did become somewhat tiresome. The calls started to slack off around dinner time.

At around that time, I called the Notary Public. Although I had drafted the Living Will, Last Will and Testament, and Power of Attorney the night before, they needed to be signed and notarized before they were official. She arrived an hour or so later, and two of my friends witnessed the signatures and seals being placed on the document and in her official register. The whole thing took about an hour, and cost around $50. At the end of it, though, I had a document that ostensibly empowered Laura to take care of my affairs if and when and while I was unable to do so for myself, and two that made sure that if I was unable to do so then my will for myself and my things would be carried out in any event.

Afterward, with my parents arriving in town, it was time for dinner. We went to an Italian restaurant in town and ordered enough food for everyone, then tried desperately to avoid talking about the reason why we were all in town at once. It was actually a very good dinner, in which I was genuinely able to forget my cares and worries for an hour or two and laugh. We joked, we ate, and it was all over way too fast. Then we drove back home, and after about an hour my mother started obsessively cleaning. I took that moment as a good one in which to visit the apartment manager’s office.

When I told them what was happening, they were very concerned and upset and just as clueless about how or why I would need to be telling them. That I was about to go under the knife and might be dead this time next week, or have no income and thus no ability to pay for an apartment, didn’t seem to register with them at all. Just as irrelevant to them was the fact that this might violate the lease, and mean I was financially or practically unable to keep it. So talking with them was very frustrating and not at all reassuring. What I badly needed at that moment was reassurance that my life wasn’t going to implode when I was stretched out unconscious on a hospital bed, and from that particular source I got exactly none of it. That night, it turns out that I should have called my bank and made sure that they understood that my Power of Attorney was real, but I didn’t. That would come back to haunt me later. My employer knew what was going on and they generously gave me leave to not be at work until it was all resolved. I might have gotten short- (or as it turns out, long-) term disability as well, but because I was just that day transferring from a temporary worker ti a permanent employee I wasn’t eligible for that yet. Therefore, for the entire period I was out of work my income was $0/month, which is very hard to live on. Thankfully, my temporary employer allowed me to retroactively file for COBRA insurance, which allowed me to carry over my previously-paid-for medical insurance despite my officially changing employers and insurance plans. The irony is if they’d followed the exact rules, then I’d not have had any insurance and been responsible for the whole bill myself, losing my insurance *because* I was working, and the new insurance not covering the tumor because it was a pre-existing condition. Complain about the Affordable Care Act all you want, but that situation is ridiculous, so clearly there is a need for reform. It also would have been personally ruinous if the staffing agency hadn’t bent over backwards and bent the rules just for me. We’ll do that tally in the next post, though. For now, there’s more story to tell.

Unexpectedly, I was able to sleep soundly that night after about an hour of tossing and turning. I don’t remember my dreams, but remember thinking in the morning that they were the kinds of dreams one expects to have the night before one potentially wakes for the last time ever. When I woke up, it was time to get ready. I had an internal chuckle at the idea of packing for two weeks when I might die in five days, but ultimately it was better to pack more than I needed than not pack enough. We drove to the hotel, which was attached to the hospital, and reviewed the schedule of pre-op appointments. First, a meeting with the neurosurgeon. Then, a meeting with an audiologist to check my hearing. Then, a meeting with the otolaryngologist (ENT; Ear-Nose-Throat doctor) who would be assisting the neurosurgeon. Then, another MRI. The following morning, I was scheduled for surgery.

The meeting with the neurosurgeon was short, to the point, and somewhat reassuring. The surgeon was arrogant and haughty like experts often are, emotionally distant in the way one expects of a person who has done this dozens of times, and exuded an air of confidence that this was entirely within his capabilities. Although that kind of attitude sometimes bothers me, in that specific case it was just what I needed. The chief of neurosurgery would be operating on me, and if anyone could do this well he knew it was him.

The hearing check gave exactly the result I told them it would. I was deaf in my right ear, and my hearing in my left ear was completely normal. The ENT confirmed this, and played the “bad cop” to my neurosurgeon’s “good cop”. I came away from that meeting scared, but not unnecessarily or unreasonably so, and somewhat shaken but ready for the next step.

The MRI was kind of cool. They placed eight tags in specific places around my skull and then took a detailed picture or the structures of my brain, so that in the OR they could re-create my brain with holographic imaging and operate with that overlaid as a guide to their surgical implements in order to avoid important structures and remove the tumor more completely. I saw none of that, though. To me, it was just more clank-clank-boom whir-whir thud-thud-thud-thud-thud click-click-click buzzzzzzz, time for nachos. I didn’t actually get my nachos that time, though. I think I had a burger from the hospital cafeteria, which was overpriced and overcooked.

For dinner we had sushi at one of my favorite restaurants in Metairie, which I ate while ignoring the stares from patrons who wondered what those weird tags were on my head. They were the radiation tags from the MRI, and they enabled the technicians to map my head to the holographic image they’d generated earlier that day. At that precise moment, though, I felt rather like a plague victim from the stares I was getting. It wouldn’t be the last time.

Later that night, back in the hotel room, we watched movies. My stepfather played around on the X-Box that my brother brought, and we tried to again ignore why we were all there. There was nothing to be gained by dwelling on something none of us could control, and since we were all together it was an opportunity to spend some quality time together. It took some negotiating, because many years prior my parents had divorced and I needed to navigate their complex relationship and the complexities of bringing together my family and Laura’s family temporarily, but we managed. People have an amazing capacity for resilience and compassion when united by a crisis.

Unlike the prior night, I didn’t sleep very well that night. I tried, but I ended up wandering around the hotel and the grounds of the hospital instead of sleeping. At some point that day every person that came there to be with me had a moment where they had me to themselves, and in that moment they shared their words of reassurance or guidance or advice. Some helped, some didn’t. But I realized later that much of that wasn’t about me, precisely; they had a need to say what they did, and a need for me to listen and accept it without reservation. They wanted to help in some small way, and even though I knew that was in many ways utterly impossible I appreciated it for the genuinely altruistic sentiment that it was. There was no way I was going to not be worried or scared shitless at that moment, at that place, no matter what I did, but it was very nice of them to try to get me there and lighten the load. They also needed to feel that I was going to be okay, because me being scared scared them, made them realize I might not be okay, so for all I was scared I held it in for their sake. They needed me to, so I did. I’d do it again.

I remember talking with my brother and my fiancee at a few points, and confiding my fear in them. I wasn’t scared of death, not really. What I was really scared of was disability. There were things in my life that I feared losing, things I used every day that made me, me. My voice. My independence. My ability to walk, to eat, to think. My identity. More than dying, I feared being obliterated, being unmade by having my personality unwritten or capacities undone. I prized my voice and my ability to tell stories with it, and the mind behind the words that let me craft the stories the words made up. There was nothing I could do about that worry, though. It just was, and I had a whole day yet to live with it.

About 4:00 AM the morning of, I went into the surgery center and checked in. It took me about an hour to get seen by the pre-op nurse, who set me up for my 6 AM surgical start time. At 5:15 I was taken back into the prep room, and told to take off all of my clothes and put on The Gown. I did, and then hid under the provided blankets because I hate the cold and it hates me. Eventually, they placed an IV in my arm which I think was saline. They were kind enough to warm it up for me, so it was like an injection of 100 CCs of Warm straight into my left arm, which helped. Then I said goodbye to Laura, who I’m sure was trying hard not to cry, and they wheeled me back to the operating room.

At that point, the anesthesia was hooked up to my IV and things started to get fuzzy. I’d like to first give you the account that other people gave me later, and then the experience from my perspective. I think both are of value.

The surgery took 15 hours. During the surgery I needed to be resuscitated three times, meaning that at three points my heart stopped beating. Throughout that they removed most of the tumor, cut off the blood supply to the rest, and moderately impinged on my cranial nerves in the process. None of this was unexpected, given that they were operating right next to the part of my brain that regulated my heart beat, breathing, digestion, and other suchness. After the surgery, I was kept heavily sedated for about three days. I don’t remember those three days, though I am told that I tried to do some communicating during that time.

They told me I wouldn’t dream; I remember specifically asking about that. They were wrong. I had four dreams after I was sedated. I can’t say whether they happened during my surgery or after, but my gut feeling is that they happened during given the details of the dreams themselves. I remember them clearly, even now, and the order they came in.

The first was more an out-of-body experience than anything. I was floating above my body watching the surgeons operating on me, and the nurses moving around the room. The whole thing is very expressionistic, floaty, something like how things appeared in What Dreams May Come. Maybe it’s just a composite of my expectations of the experience, but whatever the reason, that’s how it manifested. It ended with the monitors beeping loudly and people starting to move more rapidly around the room. I got the distinct feeling that something had gone wrong, and then the dream dissolved into something else.

The second dream was very dark. I could hear faint voices in the distance that sounded like my doctors and nurses, and I got the feeling that they were trying to revive me. I felt but did not see a distinctly feminine (not necessarily female, but certainly feminine) presence next to me but out of sight. The realization that came after wasn’t so much in words, but it amounted to something like a hand beckoning me on if I wanted. I looked up, heard the voices, and felt that if I took her offer then I would certainly be at peace. Unfortunately, there were people that my peace would hurt, so I declined. The third dream started.

After the darkness and quiet of the last dream the third was riotous. I was placed on a table, spinning. There were impossibly loud klaxons and blaring lights all around me. I was spinning faster and faster, trying to tell myself to calm down and control it. There were voices that said that if I didn’t get control of myself then I would lose myself in the chaos and confusion. I took in a slow breath and felt the ground beneath me, felt that I was not moving, told myself that I was still and quiet and that the only thing moving was my mind. If my mind would kindly sit down, this would get much easier. As I did, I felt that same presence near me but out of sight. Thoughts rose in my mind that were simultaneously my voice and not my voice which said, at the speed of thought, that this was what I was going back to. That I would have this to look forward to if I chose not to move on. If my hold on life, if my attachment was that strong, then I would suffer. I knew that was true, but at the same time people I loved would suffer if I moved on, and besides I hadn’t even got to marry my fiancee yet so I still had some unfinished business. I made a promise. There was another option, though. That was the last dream.

In the last dream, I was being wheeled around in a wheelchair by my wife. It was the future I guess. In this future my recovery had been swift but incomplete, largely painless but left me unable to walk or do some things on my own. If I wanted to avoid pain, this would do that. I refused. Pain was preferable to disability, and pain is only a sensation. Suffering is a choice we inflict on ourselves, anyway, so if I stayed sufficiently focused and unattached then I would be able to avoid much of it. We reached an understanding; a choice had been made.

That’s when I woke up. It had been three days, and I was on a bed in the ICU. The Weather Channel was on for some reason. It was the middle of the day, and I tried to ask for a glass of water. When I tried no sound came out. I was mute.

A Beginning

This is the start of something – hopefully, something that will last a while. It is (rather obviously) my blog. It is not about one thing, but many things, because my life is not about one thing nor am I interested in just one thing. Everything from politics to geekery to science to journalism to my own personal journey with some rough topics is going to be covered. Before I get to that, though, I want to tell you some things about me and about this blog that will help you to understand what’s going to come later.

About this blog

As implied by the title and stated by the tagline and as already stated by me a couple of times now, this blog is not just about one thing. The things it is about are broken into a few categories, which are listed below. Posts will probably come every few days, sometimes more sometimes less. I will endeavor to split the posts into a couple of types. Opinions and comments are just that – my opinions or comments on issues, unsourced and unvarnished, though I will endeavor to make them valuable, thoughtful, and meaningful to you as best I can. You are free to disagree, with either my views or with whether I’ve achieved my goals in presenting them to you. I welcome disagreement, and I’m never absolutely sure of anything, so as long as you’re not just trolling I welcome opinions and comments on my opinions and comments. That’s what the internet is about, after all. Articles are researched, sourced analyses of some topic of particular importance, written after the fashion of the articles I’m used to reading (as I cover below, my education is as a molecular biologist). I’m going to go out of my way to use plenty of sources and to use them in such a manner that you can check them out for yourself whenever possible, and so say so when it is not. In exchange for that, I ask that you read my writing with an open mind, check my sources, and if you still disagree then to speak to the evidence or address its shortcomings in your disagreement. Finally, analyses are detailed looks at one or a small number of items, such as a news story or article on some other site or blog or something. They obviously have at least one primary source, the one upon which I’m making my analysis and which will always be linked if possible, but may have more if I feel it necessary to make my point. So, that said, the main topics of this blog are as follows:

  • Politics: I am interested in a number of political topics, and those topics will probably make up a substantial number of posts on this blog. They aren’t restricted to any one area, since I have about equal interest in economic issues as pro-democracy reform as foreign affairs asĀ  other areas. I’ll talk about them all as the fancy suits me, and try to keep the screaming to a minimum. I really don’t like screaming, and I’m tired of it dominating American political discourse. I’d like to do what I can to change that, however small or practically nonexistent the change ends up being.
  • Geekery: I’ve been a geek for a long time. I started playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons when I was 8 years old, and have been ever since. I started video games on the likes of Kings Quest, Zelda, Sonic the Hedgehog, Mortal Kombat, Doom, and others. Right now, I only really play a few – World of Warcraft and Guild Wars II being chief among them. I still play Dungeons & Dragons, now in its 4th edition, and run it as well. I’m developing a role-playing game of my own, and am hopefully soon to start playing in Dystopia Rising. So as far as nerd culture goes, I’m pretty deeply embedded. I hope you’ll enjoy sharing my view from time to time.
  • Science: As I said a minute ago, my primary training is in molecular biology. I went into that field because I’m interested in science, because the living world fascinates me, and because I think that science will, already has, and continues to save the world. Because of that, from time to time I will share science that I find really neat, or will cover some topic that is widely misunderstood. This could be GMOs or particle physics or evolution or something else; whatever it is, I’m going to try to cover it in a tone meant for non-scientists, that explains, educates, and helps you appreciate just why I think that thing is just so darn cool. It also might be worth mentioning here that two or three jobs ago, I taught Biology and Physical Science for the Jefferson Parish Public School System.
  • Media: While I find science damn cool, I find science reporting to often be far less cool. It is uninformed, uninformative, and sometimes downright wrong. Other kinds of reporting are no better, often times. Occasionally I will find something worth sharing as-is, but it seems lately that more often than not a popular story needs a rider or some contextual or clarifying information alongside it in order to truly understand what’s going on. These posts will focus on doing just that, on analyzing and improving on and pointing out articles that are either just plan right or just plain wrong. I’ll try to keep it fairly limited, though, because you really could go on forever with analyzing the constant stream of words produced by the media.
  • Religion: In America, religion is part of public life. It touches our every day lives and affects things from public policy and law to foreign relations to Thanksgiving dinner. This widespread impact, and my own unique perspective on religion will frame the handful of posts I have on this topic. I don’t talk about it very much in comparison to the last few topics, but it will probably be mentioned and it certainly is, for the reasons noted above, worth mentioning from time to time.
  • Recovery: A little less than two years ago as of this writing, I was diagnosed with a kind of brain tumor called an acoustic neuroma (or alternately, a schwannoma). It had made me deaf in my right ear, and subsequently caused a host of other symptoms. Its removal caused some more side effects, including the temporary inability to walk, talk, eat, or move the right half of my face. Posts on this topic will be personal tales and comments on my recovery from this, dealing with the remnant symptoms and therapy and such.
  • Louisiana: I live in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Some posts will be about life and issues centered on the city or the state, local politics or religion or any of the other categories listed above. In that respect it is really a meta-category, encompassing all of the other categories within it.

About me

In order for you to understand where I’m coming from on any of the above, it would help you to know a bit about me. I’m going to keep this fairly short though, so that you’re not just inundated with information about me.

I’m Luke, a 30 year old lab analyst from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. My views on politics are downright progressive, much more so than you’d think from where I live. I am also a Buddhist, waffling between a couple of different varieties and mostly in solitary practice. My training is primarily in molecular biology and genetics, and I’ve previously worked both in academic research about genetic regulation and in industry doing work on environmental and industrial analytical chemistry. My posts all come from that bias, and you should consider that in reading them, but those basic elements are just a short-hand as my particular views and life experience are much more complicated and nuanced than that. For instance, while you might think I think the opposite from reading the above, I support capital punishment in some instances and think that the world is much larger and more complex than a purely mechanistic explanation can possibly convey. I am not unchanging, though, so these statements may mean nothing a year from now.

This blog is called the “Renaissance Millenial” for the simple reason that I am a millenial (sort of, kind of, depending on who you ask – I was born in 1983), and I cannot manage to devote myself to one thing. Instead, I’m more of a Renaissance man, focused on writing and role-playing as well as science, politics, religion, and other topics. I posed a question to my friends on what they liked about my writing, and they didn’t come to a consensus, so I decided to dedicate this blog to my diverse interests and to turn it into a platform for expressing those interests to you. With that in mind, I hope you’ll find it useful.