Sunday, October 26, 2014


Do you already know what this is? Because I didn't. I was watching The Rachel Maddow Show the other night when it came up. She mentioned the word somewhat casually, as though we would have at least a basic understanding of its meaning, but frankly, it wasn't familiar. Luckily, she then explained it in more detail. Here's the segment.

Of course anyone who has watched any kind of dramatization of surgery knows about sterilized medical instruments, but I guess I'd never thought that much about how they get sterilized.

Basically, the autoclave is a kind of pressure cooker. Remember those? Apparently the microwave oven kind of wiped out their daily use, but my mom had one, and I remember being a little scared of it. According to a very helpful site called Explain that Stuff! the idea behind the autoclave and the pressure cooker is that the higher pressure inside forces the water to boil at a higher temperature, and for medical purposes, the resulting hotter steam kills microbes more effectively. (For kitchen purposes, things just cook faster.)

The autoclave has been with us for a long time--since 1879 as an actual object, invented by Louis Pasteur's colleague, Charles Chamberland, but as a concept for a lot longer. That's why I found it funny that I didn't know the word. Of course I had to look up the etymology, because I thought it was an odd name. I knew that "auto" had to do with self and "clave" probably had a relation to keys, But self-key didn't really get me very far. It's clever, though. It really means more like 'self locking' and the idea here is that the steam pressure causes it to seal itself at a certain point.

The Maddow show brought up the autoclave in relation to ebola, of course, and made note of a more recent use of them. Though in most places they are used to sterilize instruments, in a few specialized sites dedicated to caring for patients with infectious disease, they just go ahead and autoclave everything. Bedding, clothing, uniforms--I'm not exactly sure what they don't autoclave.

Presumably not the people. But you never know.

Friday, October 17, 2014

October 17th, 1989

It's the 25th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake. For some reason I haven't been much moved to commemorate it this 'big year' even though I have been more in tune with the memory other years.
But it is an important day in Santa Cruz history, so I thought I'd repost something I wrote for another blog I do on memory a few years ago. Five, actually. As for today, I'm just happy and yet still a little pensive about what it means to be among the living...

(In memory of Shawn McCormick and Robin Ortiz)

Every once in awhile, this blog is not about the lapse of memory, but memory, straight up. Today marked the 20th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake, which some people may remember because of the World Series being played at that moment, and others may remember for images of people crushed and trapped on the collapsed Bay Bridge. However, the epicenter happened right here in Santa Cruz County, in the Forest of Nicene Marks, at a spot I have actually hiked to, though even that was a long time ago now.

Most people probably won't remember this earthquake at all, or maybe only vaguely, which perhaps ties in to my usual theme more than I thought. But this earthquake destroyed our downtown, forcing businesses into tents for a couple of years, and was one of those decisive moments in a community's history that marks all who were present forever. I don't mean that everyone was traumatized. I mean that our town changed forever from the kind of town that it had been only the day before. Many people lost property or suffered property damage. Many people left, changed their focus or direction. Some people, luckily only a few, lost their lives that day. However two of those people, very young people just starting their adult lives, died just on the other side of a wall from me. The wall fell the other way. They were in a little attic office, going over the days receipts of the coffee roasting enterprise that they were working in, and the top of the wall collapsed on them and buried them. The report later was that mercifully they had died instantly. But for days, many people stood around that pile of rubble, pleading with authorities to work faster, hoping against hope.

Today I walked down to the observances of the day. I wasn't really sure why I was going, though I had actually skipped going to my high school reunion for that very reason. As I walked down, I was struck by the incredible, almost too incredible vibrancy of the town. It was the last weekend of Open Studios and everywhere were signs advertising where some artist who had opened his or her home to the public could be found. A banner at the high school welcomed bands from around the state to the annual high school band review, which must have happened this morning. I walked past the Civic auditorium, where some sort of conference of jiu jitsu was in progress, and outdoor booths and music were spreading its followers out on to the street. The Pacific Rim Film Festival was in full tilt. And all of these things were bringing people out of their homes and over the mountains to our town, and none of it had anything to do with remembrance of the day at all.

Except it did. It was the sign of the phoenix's rise from the ashes, the town continuing in a new way with its old quirky energy, and no one could be blamed if they didn't make their way to the post office and the town clock to remember what was really only a moment in time. And I myself didn't go to hear the speeches, which was just as well, because some of them couldn't be heard anyway, from the back of the crowd. And there was a crowd, an old timer crowd, you might even say a home town crowd, although for all my years' involvement with the place, it's never really felt like my hometown. It probably never could.

As the speeches ended, the clock tolled the number of the dead from that day in our county. A couple of silver balloons floated into the air. I saw a few people I knew, but no one felt like talking. I walked over afterwards to the chainlink fence that to this day surrounds the site of the store that I worked in and the coffee house that the dead worked in. My eyes teared up. I didn't care about the store, though many still lament it. The store rose again in another location, after all, as did the town. Bigger and better you could even say, unless you didn't quite feel that way about it. And a hole in the ground is just a hole in the ground.

But the dead stay dead. Robin Ortiz and Shawn McCormack have not been part of the rebirth. I was glad to see the signs on the fence, with sweet sentimental comments like "We still miss you, Shawn." "I haven't forgotten you, Robyn." People brought bouquets of flowers to stick in the fence. Silver balloons were tied to the fence and floated above it.

Twenty years is a long time to be gone. A whole lifetime for some. My friends' son was born in a hospital right here in town the day before. Twenty years is an awful lot of living. I can't help but think of all the last twenty years has given me, all I did and failed to do--all I was granted time to do and fail to do.

Earlier this week, in a coincidental recapitulation, a tree fell in my yard. It was exciting, dramatic, but it fell the other way--harmless. The other one, its twin, which was leaning over my house did not fall. The thing to realize, if we can, is that this is not extraordinary luck on my part. We are all, for the moment, living on the right side of that brick wall. We are all, for the moment, living in the shadow of the tree that did not fall. And the only thing to ask, really, is what are we going to do with the time that remains?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

OxyContin, Part 2

It's funny what happens when you put stuff out there in the world. Since writing that last exploratory post about Oxycontin, a lot has happened. To begin with, the very next day I happened to read the following in an early chapter of Gone Girl:

"...A lot of housewives, more than you'd guess, they pass the day that way. The days, they get long when you're by yourself. And if the drinking turns to drugs--and I'm not talking heroin but even prescription painkillers--well, there are some pretty awful characters selling around here right now."...

..."Had a housewife, nice lady, got her tooth knocked out over some Oxycontin."

Next, I learned from Adrian McKinty that there is a Steve Earle song called "OxyContin Blues".

Now as apt an interesting as these two sightings both were, they don't fall into the category where things feel somewhat uncanny. Coincidence in the first place and connection in the second pretty much cover it.

But on Monday I went to my usual Penny U discussion group, which is admittedly a kind of a grab bag free-for-all where people's thoughts on everything from ebola to remote viewing can surface. (Both of which did that day.) But even so, it was more than a bit odd that after a lull and truly out of nowhere, one of our leaders said, "So what's this about Oxycodone and prescription drug addiction?" At first I thought, well, it's not so strange, he probably saw the same show that I did. But no. What he really wanted to do was talk about his own experience on Oxycodone. He'd been given a few tablets for a surgical procedure last summer which he hadn't needed, and, experiencing a back spasm later, took one. Then Timothy Leary appeared to him and promised to take him on the drug trip of all drug trips, which he made good his word on. (He had known Leary back in the day, and done LSD with him in the Harvard experiments, so this wasn't coming entirely out of left field.) It also cured the back spasm.

It was funny sitting there and listening to everyone share information about the drug. I never heard anyone talk about the toll it's taken on the Salt Lake City community, which was what the program I had watched centered on. One woman explained that it had ravaged the small rural communities of Vermont and New Hampshire. So that's three relatively dissimilar regions that have gone through a  very similar experience: the Northeast, Utah, and Coal Country. Timothy Leary or no, this drug does seem to be a scourge.

One thing I did ascertain, though, as I sat there listening to people asking "Is it Oxycontin or Oxycodone? What's the difference?" or explaining how the drug interacts with the body's receptors.

None of them read my blog.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014


When it comes to drugs, I'm not exactly what you would call in the know. Even so, I was little surprised when I started watching Justified recently that a lot of the drama (and a lot of the crime) centered around the smuggling of something called Oxy, or what I thought was called Oxycotton. As may be obvious from reading this blog over time, it can take me awhile to get curious enough to find out more, and for the purposes of the show, it was enough to know that it was a profitable illicit substance that was finding its way into Harlan County, Kentucky.

Flash forward to a couple of nights ago when I happened to tune into a TV show on CNN in which Lisa Ling explores the drug culture of Salt Lake City. It's called "Unholy Addiction". I was pretty surprised to learn that non-smoking, non-drinking Mormon country has such a prescription drug problem, ironically in part because in such an idealistic society, addiction issues tend to remain in the shadows. Anyway, there was our old friend OxyContin again, one of the chief culprits. Although there is the usual pathway of kids taking their parents pills there is also the fact that OxyContin is incredibly and swiftly addictive and people who'd  never believe they could become junkies suddenly find themselves with a habit.

This morning I read a piece by Charles Ingraham at Wonkblog  which reports that despite the fact that heroin looms large in our consciousness thanks to high profile deaths like that of Philip Seymour Hoffman, and that its usage is said to be on the upswing, it's actually used by a very tiny percentage of people, a number so small statistically that its hard to track it reliably in traditional ways.

Just in case you were weighing up what your recreational drug of choice should be, Wonkblog goes on to say that in 2011, 4012 people overdosed in the U.S. on heroin, but 17, 241 people OD'd on prescription drugs, which is roughly the number of people who died by firearm homicide.

I was struck by the unintentional side effect that an idealistic society which values clean living had on drug use in Utah. But I was also struck by another possible unintended consequence. Ingraham goes on to say that as the Feds crack down on prescription drug abuse, they may actually be driving people to start into heroin, which is cheaper. This was also a point driven home on Ling's show.

So what is Oxycontin exactly? Well, it's a brand name, for one thing. The actual drug is oxycodone, with OxyContin being a time released version, "Contin" standing in for "continuous". Ironically, when people become addicted to these pills, they often chew, snort or ingest the drug as a means of overriding that time release mechanism.

According to How Stuff Works, oxycodone is an agonist opoid. The agonist bit means that it binds to a receptor in the body and causes a physiological response. Wikipedia tells us that oxycodone is a semi-synthetic opoid derived from a minor constituent of opium called Thebaine (and if you see Thebes in that word, you see correctly). It is similar to morphine and codeine, but instead has stimulatory effects rather than depressant effects. What separates oxycodone from say, aspirin, is that aspirin has a threshold to its effectiveness, while agonist opoids have no such threshold, so the more you take the better you feel.


Unfortunately, frequent use habituates the user to the effect and as with so much else in life, more and more must be taken for the desired effect. Hence, addiction. In a word, don't go there, people.

Etymologically oxy is just short for hydroxyl, and codone comes from codeine. Codeine goes back to the Greek kodeia or "poppy head".

Obviously, a lot of people in tremendous pain have derived great benefit from the invention--and intervention--of oxycodone, which the Germans managed to do in 1916. For those of us more fortunate, though, there was a lesson embedded in The Wizard of Oz which many of us would have done well to have heeded.

"Poppies... Poppies. Poppies will put them to sleep. Sleeeeep."
In case you've forgotten, the Wicked Witch of the West wasn't wishing Dorothy well.

Friday, October 3, 2014


No, this isn't a word that either you or I should necessarily have at the tip of our tongue. But it is one small piece of information I do retain from a visit my sister and our old friends paid to the Filoli Gardens last weekend. I had long heard of these gardens, which are located on what Northern Californians refer to as the Peninsula, meaning that they lie about 30 miles south of San Francisco.

Although I'd never been there before, Filoli Gardens is a familiar type of place to me, reminding me somewhat of the Huntington Gardens down in Southern California, or the Getty Villa, which I visited just last fall. It doesn't have quite the same interest in either art or literary collections that the former do, but it does have an interesting house to walk around in, and some very beautiful and extensive gardens.

There was one odd thing for a world class garden, though, as one of the docents was referring to it a she spoke to some other visitors nearby. She said that interns come from all over the world to study there, and I don't find that surprising. But what was very strange to me in a place with such a mission is the scarcity of signage. Now don't get me wrong, the docents were very helpful and knowledgable about the plant specimens we were looking at, and they were out in force. But it wasn't like you could just carry the docent along with you wherever you happened to be, and so we saw many plants we wondered about for the moment we were looking at them without ever really finding out what they were.

Of course, there's something to be said for looking without classifying something. Me personally, I like to look at gardens, but have much less interest in doing the hard work of planting and caring for things. But you have to think that a high percentage of people who had come out of their way to visit a garden had some interest in doing some gardening of their own, and it seemed oddly, well, retro, in this age of information that you couldn't make note of names for future reference. In other respects, propagation does seem to be part of the Filoli mission--they have a nice website, for example-- and I'd think giving people access to this kind of more immediate access to knowledge would rate a little higher with them than it does.

There was one plant my friends had noticed and expressed interest in earlier, and so while I was standing around I happened to ask one of the docents later. She told me the plant was called cleome, sometimes known more commonly as spider plant. It doesn't look like the kind of spider plant that I grew up with, so I prefer to remember Cleome. I mentioned our earlier inability to discover what other plants were earlier. She said "Very few plants have signage here." She had that kind of look on her face that people get when explaining that this is the way it's been and this is the way it's going to stay. "That's why we're here," she said.

I suppose a more persistent person would have said, "Yes, but why?" Instead I just took away the name "Cleome".

And wrote a blog post about it.