Monthly Archives: May 2013

Endemic! Week: Earworms

Endemic! Week: an entire week of microfiction crafted around the word “endemic.” If you missed the introduction, read about it here.


Meth’s for amateurs. Heroin? Puh-leeze!

If you really want to influence people, look to Alka-Seltzer and Oscar Mayer.

Infectious. Addictive. They’ll be carriers before they realize. Their brains will form new neural pathways. Repetition will reinforce it. Unthinking, they’ll contaminate their friends. They’ll never be rid of it until the day they die.

They’ll all be mine, and by the time they realize what I’ve done, it’ll be too late.

All over the world, they’re putting in their earphones and cranking up the speakers on their computers and in their cars. Then the transmission begins:

“Jelly is a bouncy treat…”


Ah, earworms. What can we do about you? Like a vampire, we invite you in the first time, but once inside, you just. Won’t. Leave.

Photo of green gelatin
Jelly is a bouncy treat,
Never runny, always sweet,
Squishy underneath your feet,
Give us all some jelly!
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I composed today’s piece of microfiction after catching an earworm from Drabblecast Episode #43: Jelly Park. This infectious little jingle is an ode to tasty, tasty gelatin in all its shapes and forms. Now I like a nice bit of jello as much as the next kid, but I had this jingle in my head for weeks after listening to it. Weeks! Humming it in the morning while brushing my teeth. Humming it at night as I tried to fall asleep. Humming it later at night, when said earworm sent me back to my headphones for the only short-term cure I know: listening to it one more time.

If you think that’s bad, consider this: I once had Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” stuck in my head for over a month. Every time I got one part of the song out of my head, a new earworm from the same song would step up and take its place. (“Will you let me go?” “No, we will not let you go!”)

Earlier this week, it occurred to me that like Toxoplasma gondii and obesity, culture can be endemic too. Our music behaves much like an infectious endemic disease. A tune passes from person to person, spreading through localized populations, and settling in to stay. It won’t kill its host, but it’ll make you into another disease vector. Even the word “transmission” has a double meaning: it can refer to a music broadcast, or to infecting someone else with your disease.

And the most devious thing? Earworms really will be with you for life.

Earworms: they're coming for you.
Earworms: they’re coming for you. (Photo credit: Flats!)

Our brains create memories by building and reinforcing neural pathways called memory traces or engrams. Memorization teaches your brain a new route through the woods of thought. Each repetition digs the trail a little deeper. Do this often enough, and your brain will lay down pavement, set up road signs, turn that memory into a major highway through your cerebrum.

As we know, earworms just won’t quit playing in your head. And if you’re anything like me, you feel compelled to gorge yourself on the offending tune until it dies. The devious little earworm knows what it’s doing: it’s burrowing its way deep into your brain, reinforcing itself through repetition, so that on your deathbed, you’ll still be humming that dang tune about the jelly.

Some of the research on earworms suggests that musicians get them more often than the rest of us. I don’t know whether to pity them or to point a finger and laugh. After all, they’re the ones who write those catchy tunes to begin with. Musicians are basically Patient Zero. It seems only fair that their infections would be the most virulent.

So enjoy those earworms, musically inclined friends. You brought them on yourselves.

…Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to listen to the jelly song again. Maybe this time I’ll get it out of my head.

What’re you currently listening to? Got an earworm? Share some of your favorite music with me in the comments below!

Endemic! Week: Invasive Species

Endemic! Week: an entire week of microfiction crafted around the word “endemic.” If you missed the introduction, read about it here.

Vigilante Gardening

Joe surveyed the kudzu-covered water tower. An invader, that plant. It could take down power lines and uproot whole trees.

He grabbed the vines and climbed. It’d seemed innocent enough when introduced. No one anticipated its aggression. Bereft of natural competition, it choked out the local species, leaving ecological devastation in its wake. Native flora lived under siege, restricted to nature preserves by this newcomer.

What’s the best way to kill weeds? With herbicide, of course. Joe, last of his tribe, emptied the cyanide into the town water supply.

Kudzu, after all, wasn’t the only invader on these Cherokee shores.


Kudzu Light
Kudzu: looks innocent, right? (Photo credit: matt.forestpath (flash200))

Today’s Endemic! Week story uses the word endemic in its ecological sense. Local plant species are endemic to an area, as are Native Americans to America. The invader, be it kudzu or the colonial European settlers who arrived a few centuries ago, could be seen as a sort of epidemic which runs through the native populations, causing a sudden mass die-off. For those of us living in the United States, this is one of our great national shames.

For me, it’s not even the fact that disease caused such devastation among the Native American tribes at the arrival of the Europeans. Aside from the cases where smallpox was spread on purpose as a biological warfare agent, germ exchange happens when people groups meet for the first time. What really gets me is the failure of the European settlers to recognize the sovereign nations already present. Human beings who had lived there for generations were forced from their homes without thought or consideration. The colonial see-it-and-take-it mentality floors me.

Makes you want to do something about those invasive weeds.

Kudzu taking down a forest.
Kudzu taking down a forest. (Photo credit: SoftCore Studios)

Kudzu, by comparison, is a more recent invader. It was introduced to the United States in 1876, and reached the South by 1883 as an ornamental plant. Unfortunately, taken outside its native turf in Southeast Asia, kudzu has no natural competition to keep it under control. It thrives in hot, sunny conditions and is tolerant to drought, which makes it grow rapidly in Southern weather. It kills off local plants by shading them to death. Worst of all, it’s so aggressive that it grows over everything in its path, be it tree, car, or water tower.

Of course, people are not weeds, and poison is not an appropriate way to rectify a shameful historical genocide. Joe’s a sociopath, but one whose motivations I can at least understand, if not condone. Revenge fantasies are all well and good (who doesn’t enjoy seeing Hitler get what’s coming to him in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds?), but they don’t solve any problems or show us a better moral way. Answering murder with murder gets us nowhere.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure there’s an easy solution to the historical injustice. The epidemic weed has become endemic to the very regions it invaded. One problem with removing all the kudzu at once in the South is that it would open up vast amounts of land to erosion. Removing the invader would actually hurt the land more. In the same way, removing descendants of the European settlers at this point would be painful, difficult, and harmful. Still, the statistics show that the descendants of the Native Americans continue to feel the effects of evils done so many years ago. How do we find room for justice in this picture?

I’m in over my head on this question; I’d love to hear your thoughts. What do you think the United States and other nations dealing with the aftermath of colonialism can or should do to fix the evils of the past?

Endemic! Week: Obesity

Endemic! Week: an entire week of microfiction crafted around the word “endemic.” If you missed the introduction, read about it here.

A Midsummer Night’s Snack

Tintalle gave up brooding in her rose garden at the arrival of her son.

“Must you ride those things?” asked Tintalle, wrinkling her nose at his mount, a sturdy Clydesdale.

“It’s just a horse, Mother,” he replied.

“Unicorns are more respectable. At least make it a pony.”

“Those aren’t big enough to carry me, Mother,” answered her son. “And you can stop treating me like I’m the family secret. I’m a successful businesself, but all you can talk about is my weight.”

Tintalle colored. “It’s not that I’m ashamed of you. But shouldn’t you cut back on the cookies, Keebler?”


Keebler Chips Deluxe Chocolate Lovers cookies
Keebler Chips Deluxe Chocolate Lovers cookies (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Everyone knows that elves are better than you. It’s been a fact of reality from the moment Tolkien penned the background mythology surrounding what would one day be The Lord of the Rings. In The Silmarillion, Tolkien gives the elves pride of place in his creation myth as as the firstborn children of the creator Illuvatar. Elves are ethereally beautiful and immune to physical aging. They can die from sorrow or from physical violence, but not from heart disease or Alzheimer’s Disease.

What did mankind get in Tolkien’s mythos?

The gift of Death.

I’m not making this up. Elves get immortality, and humans get to die.


Given this, it’s fun to think how elves would cope with mundane problems like obesity. We often talk about the “obesity epidemic”, but I think it’s important to recognize that obesity is often more like an endemic disease. It doesn’t spread rapidly like the flu or the Bubonic Plague. It takes years for a person to put on enough weight to reach obesity. Additionally, while anyone can become obese, obesity is associated with specific, localized populations. Generally, obesity is more widespread in industrialized countries (where everyone drives cars) and in impoverished areas (this is complex, but partially it’s because sometimes the cheapest food is fast food).

The mouse on the left has obesity induced by leptin resistance, while mouse on the right is healthy.
The mouse on the left has obesity induced by leptin resistance, while mouse on the right is healthy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the more exciting bits of research on weight gain was the discovery of leptin resistance associated with obesity. Leptin and ghrelin are two hormones that regulate your appetite. Ghrelin sends the signal, “I’m hungry! Time to eat!” Leptin does the opposite – it tells your brain that you’re full. Mouse studies have demonstrated that certain diets can induce leptin resistance. This means that over time, the mouse loses the ability to realize it’s full. It thinks it’s starving, so it keeps eating way past the point of fullness.

Elves may be immortal, but I see no reason why an elf going into the cookie business wouldn’t struggle with sugar-induced leptin resistance as well. And you know what sucks? He’s got all of eternity to deal with all the associated issues.

Who’s laughing now, elves? That’s what I thought!

Endemic! Week: Brain Parasites

Endemic! Week: an entire week of microfiction crafted around the word “endemic.” If you missed the introduction, read about it here.

They Always Land on their Feet

“Brain parasite Toxoplasma gondii infects rats through cat feces. It reprograms the rats’ brains. Make them fearless thrill-seekers,” Erica shouted over the plane engine. “They’ll dance between a cat’s paws after infection. Cats give people Toxo too. Freaky, eh?”

“Not really. Imagine losing your fear of death–sounds exhilarating. The ultimate adrenaline high,” Dave answered.

“Suit yourself. See you at the bottom!” Erica leapt from the plane’s open door. Far below, Erica’s parachute unfurled.

Dave gazed at the mountain peaks below. Like fang-rimmed jaws. “I’m going now!” He jumped.

The skydiving instructor grabbed for him, missed. “Wait! You forgot your ‘chute!”


Hard at work producing brain parasites.
Hard at work producing brain parasites. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Do you own cats? Then there’s a chance that you’re already infected with toxoplasma gondii. The bad news is that Toxo is endemic among people who clean cat litter boxes, eat raw or undercooked meat, or eat unwashed veg. The good news? Provided you’re not pregnant or immunocompromised, Toxo appears to be relatively harmless.

Toxo’s a versatile protozoan (not the same thing as a bacterium or virus). All felines, from housecats to tigers, act as its primary host. Inside the intestines of cats, Toxo undergoes sexual reproduction and forms packages called oocysts in the intestinal lining. These oocysts, filled with dormant Toxo cells, get shed when the cat poops.

Next, the oocysts lie in wait for another warm-blooded mammal to stop by the cat scat. Someone like Dave, perhaps, scoops out the litter box, forgets to wash his hands, and with his next meal he consumes a few oocysts. When those oocysts hit his intestines, they spring into action, infiltrating the intestinal lining, but this time their goal is to release invaders directly into the bloodstream. These bits of Toxo ride your blood all over your body, setting up shop in your organs, muscles, and brain.

Yes, it infects your brain.

Life cycle of Toxoplasma gondii
Life cycle of Toxoplasma gondii. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Toxo forms cysts in the areas it settles in, and congratulations: you’re now permanently infected with Toxoplasma gondii. You’ve got ’em for life, buddy. Fortunately, this is as far as the Toxo can go. It just hangs out, hoping you’ll get eaten by a cat so that the whole cycle can start anew.

Unfortunately for Toxo, humans don’t get eaten much by felines these days. Perhaps we featured more prominently in Toxo’s life cycle back when lions and bobcats were a daily threat. Nowadays, it’s mice and rats that primarily perpetuate the Toxo cycle.

Here’s the interesting thing: in rodents, Toxo infection causes behavioral changes. Rats with Toxo lose their fear of cats. They’ll attack cats directly, or just waffle around when a cat comes after them. Obviously this is to the Toxo’s advantage — it wants the rat to behave dumbly so it can get eaten by a cat, continuing the life cycle. There’s evidence that Toxo causes personality changes in humans as well, making us more likely to take risks.

How common is Toxoplasma gondii? It’s one of the most common parasites found in humans. Up to a third of the world’s estimated to be infected. If you live in the United States, your odds are one in four. So wash your hands, wash your vegetables, and don’t eat cat poop. Otherwise you’ll join the standing army of Toxo carriers all around us right now.

Endemic! Week: Introduction

Vibrio cholerae, the bacterium that causes cho...
Vibrio cholerae, the bacterium that causes cholera. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m very excited to announce our first-ever theme week here at Medical Microfiction!

Endemic! Week: an entire week of microfiction revolving around the word endemic.

The word endemic has two meanings. The first meaning is ecological and refers to a state of being defined by a unique location. It’s sort of a synonym for “native”. Endemic plants and animals are the ones native to an area and not found elsewhere. Pandas are endemic to China. Goth teens are endemic to Hot Topic. Your brain is endemic to your skull.

The second meaning comes from disease pathology. Endemic in this sense refers to diseases that have a low mortality rate, but are widespread in a specific population or region. In parts of the world, endemic diseases and conditions include malaria, rickets, measles, and intestinal worms.

"Pandemic" is also one of my favorite board games!
“Pandemic” is also one of my favorite board games! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Endemic diseases are not the same thing as pandemic diseases. Pandemics tend to spread quickly over a very large area and leave a lot of death in their wake.

Sometimes the same disease can be either endemic or pandemic, depending on the conditions. Cholera, a bacterial intestinal disease, is such a disease. In endemic mode, cholera won’t kill you. The bacteria will multiply conservatively, making the host sick enough to pass it on but not sick enough to kill many people. This means you’ll have a village or town where at any given time, someone’s got cholera. It plays musical host, jumping from person to person. Human and disease reach a sort of equilibrium. Everyone’s miserable but no one dies.

In pandemic mode, the bacteria mutate so that they multiply extremely rapidly the moment they reach your intestines. The cholera induces such intense diarrhea that you can’t drink enough water to keep your body hydrated. Untreated, this leads to a very quick death, often within a day of falling ill. The bacteria has chosen an aggressive survival strategy in this case, infecting as many people as possible regardless of whether they’ll survive in the long run.

(I could talk all day about cholera. If I’ve piqued your interest, go read this book right now. It’s about how a cholera outbreak led to new discoveries about disease transmission. It’s amazing. I promise.)

Imagine this, but with intestinal worms.
Imagine this, but with intestinal worms. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Compared to pandemics, endemics sound pretty tame. Jerry Bruckheimer’s never going to make an exciting thriller about the CDC’s race to cure an outbreak of head lice or intestinal worms (although the actual CDC is quite concerned with these less flashy health issues). Therefore, I’m stepping up to the plate.

This week, prepare yourselves for exciting tales of things that’ll destroy you — very, very slowly.

Medical Microfiction: Hepatic

Drinking Buddies

Randy walked into the bar pushing a stroller.

“Well, whaddaya know? Randy, you look great!” Louis said. “How’d the surgery go? Let me buy you a round.”

Randy nodded. “I’ll have a bourbon. Scotch for my friend here.” He patted the stroller affectionately. “The transplant was a complete success. Never felt better!”

Louis peered into the stroller. Strapped inside was a dark reddish-gray meat blob wrapped in a blanket. Randy doused it with the scotch and sipped his bourbon. The blob twitched.

“My liver,” Randy explained. “They let me keep the old one. I never abandon an old drinking buddy.”


1792 bourbon whiskey
1792 bourbon whiskey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve got a thing for disembodied organs. No really, I love disembodied organs! One of the best parts about working on a second degree in the sciences is getting to do dissections again. Over the last year, I did two eyeballs and a brain (all of them from sheep or cows). There’s nothing quite like seeing for yourself how such complicated biological machines are put together. I have to buy a new laptop every few years, and yet the wads of meat inside me somehow keep chugging along year after year with nary an oil change.

Given that, if you ever get the chance to see one of your own organs outside your body, don’t pass it up. A great regret of mine is missing such an opportunity a few years ago. You can bet that I won’t make the same mistake twice! After all, how often do you get to look at one of your own organs and live to tell the tale?

Instead, we should follow Randy’s example. Randy’s a guy who knows how to pay homage to his excised organs. Today’s word “hepatic” means “pertaining to the liver”. Randy’s liver transplant would be a “hepatectomy”. This story was inspired by a piece of good news from the organ transplant world. Livers are historically difficult to transplant. A lot of them die en route to the patients that need them because it’s hard to keep an organ viable when it’s no longer hooked up to the body. That’s where this shiny new device comes in. It’s a liver habitat! Cool, right? At long last, we can finally take our livers out for a drink. Literally.

Treat ’em to the good stuff! They can tell the difference.

What beverages do you treat your liver to? Mine prefers Strongbow cider and stouts of all kinds. Rieslings are excellent, but my liver rebels when it’s not from the Rhine or Mosel River like all Rieslings should be.

Medical Microfiction: Monophagia

The Other White Meat

The investigators surveyed the grisly scene in the kitchen of the YT-1300 light freighter. Severed limbs stewing in pots. Bleached bones wedged inside the pantry. And fur everywhere, stuck to the sticky surfaces.

“What happened here?” asked Landry.

“Turns out the captain’s got a food fixation. Developed a taste for these little guys and couldn’t get enough. Apparently it’s been going on for years now,” said his lieutenant.

“Oh God. So the liberation of Endor…”

The lieutenant grimaced, nodded. “A harvest.”

“Where is he now?”

“They picked him up en route to the Wookiee homeworld. Loaded down with barbecue gear.”


Han Solo
Han Solo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Monophagia is the practice of eating only one kind of food. In the natural world, some species do this naturally, such as the Giant Panda, which only eats bamboo. Humans are usually not monophagous, unless you’re a toddler going through that phase when you’ll only eat orange things. In humans, monophagia is a disorder because (to my knowledge) there is no one food that will impart all the nutrition we need to survive. We crave variety because we need to.

We previously discussed the disorder pica and its links to iron deficiency, but that’s not the only dietary deficiency we’re up against. Notably, we humans do not produce our own Vitamin C. That’s a problem, especially since almost all other animals and plants DO produce their own without needing to get it from diet. This is why your dog or cat doesn’t have to eat oranges to avoid getting scurvy. Scurvy is a disease resulting from Vitamin C deficiency. Among other things, our bodies need Vitamin C to make collagen, which is found in our skin. Without collagen, the skin becomes weakened, which leads to fatigue, sores on the skin, loss of teeth, and eventually death.

Which is why man can’t live on Ewok alone, unless you eat the Vitamin C-rich liver while you’re at it.

Speaking of barbecues, a happy Memorial Day weekend to those of you living in the United States! I hope you have gorgeous weather and a relaxing long weekend off. We’ll probably take advantage of the excellent forecast here in Georgia to cook out. Blog updates may be spotty this weekend unless I’m feeling ambitious, but I’ve got something special planned for next week. Stay tuned for our first-ever theme week, starting Monday!

Creeper Guy vs. The Mongolian Deathworm

Creepers gonna creep.
Creepers gonna creep.

We interrupt your regularly scheduled medical microfiction to bring you a personal story. If you’re here for the flash fiction and prefer to skip, you won’t hurt my feelings. Check out the archives instead, or check back later for what I’ve got cooked up next. Otherwise, pull up a chair and pour yourself a cup of coffee. This tale is true, and mine.

As some of you may know , for the past year I’ve had occasional encounters with a creep in my neighborhood who likes to follow me in his car when I’m out running. These encounters have been very rare, perhaps once every couple of months. Nonetheless, Creeper Guy’s behavior’s been consistent enough that a pattern has emerged.

The pattern goes like this: on the way home from a run, I pass by his house, which is at the entrance to my neighborhood. He sits in his car with the engine idling. I pass him, reach the intersection just down the road, and he pulls out of his driveway and begins following me. Sometimes it’s the slow, creepy, driving-right-behind you following. More often, he does a few roll-bys at around 15mph up and down the street–perhaps to maintain the pretense that he’s “coincidentally” driving in my vicinity, over and over again. Historically, having a run-in with him prompts me to radically change my running route, and sometimes stop running altogether for a few weeks (sad but true).

Recently I’ve been ramping up my training in the hopes of running some more races in the summer and fall. And since it’s almost summer in Georgia, I’ve preferred morning runs to avoid the ridiculous heat. Mornings, unfortunately, are when Creeper Guy likes to make an appearance.

Steve Irwin
Steve Irwin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This last Wednesday was going to be special. I intended to reach a new training milestone. To motivate myself, I even picked out something special to listen to: Drabblecast B-Sides #9: Connor Choadsworth–In Search of the Mongolian Deathworm. If you’re not yet addicted to the Drabblecast, you have to understand that this particular episode is unique. It’s a hilariously inappropriate parody of nature documentaries, Bono, Dune, Dr. Seuss, Christmas carols and more, narrated by a character named Connor Choadsworth who’s something like a deranged Steve Irwin.

So on Wednesday, I hit the road. Everything went great until the homestretch, 15 minutes away from home. I was running along a major road with plenty of traffic when I noticed Creeper Guy’s car drive by. It’s easy to recognize by a large, distinctive decal on his back windshield. I didn’t think anything of it until I approached my neighborhood entrance a few minutes later. This is where it gets strange. Several hundred yards ahead, his car rolled up out of the treeline as if he were going to turn out onto the major road. He looked in my direction, saw me, and rolled backwards, back into the neighborhood!

Real subtle, Creeper Guy.

By now, I was beat. It was the end of an especially hard run, after all. Now I had to stow my iPod and deal with Creeper Guy. I had to pass his house to get home. Hoping he wouldn’t mess with me today, I pretended to talk on my phone as I ran past. Sure enough, he was sitting in his car in the driveway with the engine idling. Sure enough, he waited until I reached the intersection to pull out onto the road.

At this point, my body helpfully dosed me with some sweet, sweet adrenaline, which eased the pain in my legs but made me feel woozy. I prayed he wouldn’t try anything today. I had no strength left to give.

Fortunately, another car queued up behind him to turn at the intersection, which meant I got a head start booking it toward my house. He managed a couple of drive-bys before I got there, but the timing worked out so I was able to get home without him seeing where I live (this makes more sense if you see my street). It probably helped that I gave him the death-glare each time he rolled by and kept up my one-sided phone conversation. We both knew I was watching him.

Chicago police car
Chicago police car (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over the last year, many of you have told me to call the police on Creeper Guy, and looking back on it, you’re absolutely right. When I reflect on it now, I had some complex reasons why I didn’t.

For one, I’ve never had to call the police before. Before Wednesday, I failed to see my own predicament as something that deserved their attention. I thought they’d be annoyed if I bothered them about this problem. While Creeper Guy scared me, he’d never done anything outright illegal.

Another thing: filing a report felt like acknowledging that a problem did, indeed exist. It’s much easier to assume it’s all a misunderstanding or coincidence. I harbored Creeper Guy no ill will. He was a neighbor, after all. We all want to believe that our neighbors wish us peace. I’ve noticed that people sometimes employ similar logic with health problems. Something doesn’t feel right in your body, but you put off going to the doctor because it’ll somehow make the issue “real”. You’ll have to deal with your lung cancer or kidney stones instead of continuing to believe you’re hale and hearty. Same with my hangups about filing a police report.

But Wednesday was different. The treeline hide-and-seek irked me. But something else put me over the edge.

It was Connor Choadsworth: In Search of the Mongolian Deathworm.

As I was talking myself out of calling the police, I noticed my iPod lying where I’d dumped it on the table. In all the hassle, I didn’t get to finish the podcast I’d saved just for this run.

Just... 5... more... minutes!

Creeper Guy ruined Connor Choadsworth. And that pissed me off.

I was so pissed that I dialed the police on the spot. A few minutes later, a police officer stopped by my house. We had a nice long chat about the whole situation and came up with a plan for dealing with this guy while keeping me 100% safe. At long last, I’m reasonably confident that I won’t have another run-in with Creeper Guy, and if I do, I now have a plan in place for handling him much more effectively than I did in the past.

After the officer left, I finally finished Mongolian Deathworm. And it was awesome.

Lessons Learned:

  1. My local police officers are awesome.
  2. It’s okay to call 911. Really, it’s okay! No more fake phone calls while jogging.
  3. The psychology between creeps and the people they harass is complicated. Don’t be so quick to write folks off as dumb for failing to take action against a creep immediately. Hindsight is 20/20. (For podcast addicts, I find this apropos to a controversial Escape Pod story that ran last month).
  4. Fiction is compelling. Sometimes it can reach into the real world and influence your decisions. It’s why we write, even my medical microfiction. Thanks, Drabblecast.

Happy Friday, gang. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments below. Even better, leave me a link to something fun!

Medical Microfiction: Leukocytes

“The Charge of the White Brigade”

“Rodgers, stand down!” I commanded.

Behind his gun, Rodgers sneered. An army of clones swarmed behind him. “Screw that. I don’t take orders anymore. The universe is mine. Surrender.”

I touched my insignia. Meaningless. I’d lost my whole army fighting Rodgers. “The clone multiplication’s destabilized the universe. Your rebellion’s destroying it. We won’t survive the next radioactive shockwave.”

“You’re bluffing.” Rodgers took aim. “Die.”

The universe spoke. Its booming voice threw us to our knees: One more round of chemo. Then the marrow transplant.

I understood. For the universe’s sake, the faithful and corrupt must perish alike. “Rodgers. Please… proceed.”


Fighting Rodgers
Fighting Rodgers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Leukocytes (white blood cells) are your body’s military, responsible for defending the homeland against invaders. Leukemia is a cancer where immature white blood cells proliferate much too rapidly to the point where they crowd out other important cells. It’s a particularly vicious form of cancer. It’s a military coup, if you will. Rodgers is trying to call the shots, and the General’s outgunned.

Fortunately, many forms of leukemia can be treated with a bone marrow transplant. Leukocytes originate in the bone marrow, so if you can replace the marrow, you can stop the abnormal multiplication. It’s like doing a hard reset on your immune system. You nuke all the bone marrow in your body–the good with the bad–and receive bone marrow from a donor, which will regrow and return your leukocytes to factory settings.

There’s something inherently tragic about cancer treatments, in that they’re invariably destructive rather than constructive. Cancer’s hard for your body to fight because from your body’s perspective, the cancer cells look like they belong there. They contain the same identity markers as the other cells produced in your body. Treatments like chemotherapy kill off a lot of harmless cells with the harmful ones. This is why chemo often causes hair loss. The weapon that harms Rodgers also harms his neighbors.

From left to right: erythrocyte, thrombocyte, ...
From left to right: erythrocyte, thrombocyte, leukocyte (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today’s story is an homage to these innocent bystanders in the fight against cancer. Faithful, loyal, sticking to their jobs until the bitter end, these cells must die that the universe be saved. But their sacrifice is not forgotten.

A dear friend of mine will soon be undergoing another round of chemo for her leukemia while she waits for an update on a possible bone marrow match. This is cool: the doctors think they might have a match with someone on another continent! Amazing, huh? I never knew the network extended so far!

I recently joined the National Bone Marrow Donor Program. Please consider joining the registry too, if you meet the requirements. Leukemia is a terrible disease. Somewhere in the world, a much-loved man, woman, or child may be battling Rodgers, and reinforcements from your personal army might be the key to his defeat.

The odds of two people matching is roughly 1 in 20,000, which is why it’s so incredibly important to have lots people on the registry. If you’re between the ages of 18 and 44, the process is 100% free. Just click the link, fill out a short survey about your health, and they’ll mail you some cheek swabs to collect a few of your cells. After that, your data stays on file in case someone who matches you gets sick.

Donation is ridiculously safe and easy. It’s not often that we have the opportunity to help fight cancer in such a tangible way. This will help! Let’s join forces and fight off Rodgers.

If you or someone you know has dealt with/is dealing with cancer, I’d love to hear your story. Let me know in the comments section below!

Guest Post: C.J. Friend

The Meddlin’ Line, by C. J. Friend

Today I am proud to feature a work of microfiction by author C.J. Friend, who sent me the following piece of flash fiction and agreed to let me share it here. Last year, C.J. Friend published his first ebook, The Meddlin’ Line, a collection of short fiction and personal favorite of mine. He is currently working on a second collection of short fiction. I greatly enjoy his work and highly recommend you check out his book!

Two Indian men, both trying to learn English, were knitting blankets together.

Running Water asked, “…if I am weaving something, but I did it yesterday, did I “weaved” the blanket or “woven” the blanket?”

Elk Horn responded, “Neither.  You would say, ‘I wove the blanket.’”

Running Water, astounded, asked, “Elk Horn, how did you acquire such great learning?”

Elk Horn said, “Remember the White Man who was alone in the military outpost and who eventually adapted to our ways?”

“Ah, yes, I do remember hearing about him…what was his name again?”

Elk Horn smiled and said…

“Tenses With Woves.”


Scripps National Spelling Bee
Scripps National Spelling Bee (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English spelling rules are wretched. It tells you something that Spelling Bees even exist. Do other languages have this problem? When I first started taking foreign language classes, I marveled at how straightforward and elegant the spelling rules seem in other languages. Spanish, Italian, German – I didn’t struggle to spell words in any of these languages once I learned the basic rules. I get the impression that the idea of a Spelling Bee would be outlandish in a culture whose spelling rules are so sensible. And this is coming from a girl who’s been in several Spelling Bees!

The problem is that English has historically borrowed both words and grammar from lots of sources. It’s a Germanic language heavily influenced by French and Latin. The word “weave”, for example, comes from Old English, which had many more verb tenses than we normally use nowadays in Contemporary English. Because of the roots of the word, it has a more complex tree of derivatives to learn than verbs of other origins in English. Thus the confusion of the second language-learners in C. J. Friend’s story above. Thank Tenses with Woves for being around to explain to them!

I have a love/hate relationship with grammar. I love the fascinating history of the English language and the rich variety of words that history gives us with which to express ourselves. I hate how complicated English is for people learning it for the first time, especially our spelling rules, which are needlessly confusing.

What’s your relationship like with grammar? Love it, or hate it?