Brain Games

I’ve been re-experiencing my youth lately as DVDs that replay at random times inside my own head.Sometimes, it’s the one where I’m rushed to the emergency room, age 10, after accidentally stabbing myself in the guts while climbing the spiky gate in front of my childhood home. Or when my father, home from the hospital, gathered his children in the back bedroom to tell us that our cancer-stricken mother, age 45, had “gone home to God.”It’s not surprising that my brain films usually contain highly emotional or fear-charged content, since those are ones we all are said to recall most vividly, and with the greatest detail.But recently I’ve wondered: Are these memories even accurate? (Continue reading)

How To Die in California

 The call comes on your cell when you least expect it, while in line for coffee at Peet’s in Midtown… “The telephone isn’t the ideal way to deliver test results, but …” You urge the doctor to proceed. So, he tells you about your brain cancer. It has metastasized with a vengeance…Now, you find yourself at a new stage, with six months to live. You’re aware that people who die with your disease may face distressing events before the end: seizures, loss of functions, dementia, anguish and undeniable pain. What are your options in the above hypothetical? (Continue reading)

Return of the Messenger

 This one has all the ingredients of a dreamed-up Hollywood blockbuster: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist uncovers a big story involving drugs, the CIA and a guerrilla army. Despite threats and intimidation, he writes an explosive exposé and catches national attention. But the fates shift. Our reporter’s story is torn apart by the country’s leading media; he is betrayed by his own newspaper. Though the big story turns out to be true, the writer commits suicide and becomes a cautionary tale. (Continue reading)

The Science of Being Happy

 With a wild grin and orange cowboy hat, flanked by women friends (her de facto bodyguards) in Johnny Cash-black and dark shades, the rail-thin blonde with the contagious laugh rolled up to the microphone and launched into her one-woman show Die Laughing With Cathy Speck.“Was it Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn who faked his death so he could go to his own funeral?” Speck began her performance. “Right now, I feel like I’m at my own funeral! So here we go!”Diagnosed in 2009 with a familial form of ALS, Speck has dedicated her life to raising awareness and funds for the fatal malady (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). Why is she so happy? (Continue Reading)


 The room is dark and silent. Inside, a young computer scientist with a shaved head and intense blue eyes sits alone at a desk facing a pane of sound-absorbent foam. Above him a video camera points straight down at a high-tech tablet; his right hand is poised to scribble out code on its screen. Taped to the camera’s microphone is a yellow Post-it with one word scrawled on it—“ENERGY”—a curious message to the professor in his own handwriting. UC Davis’ John Owens begins teaching a class —Introduction to Parallel Computing—to a vast audience of learners via the Internet– 42,000 students across the globe. (Continue reading)

Doctors’ secret for how to die right

 Dr. Ken Murray wrote an essay for the web-only magazine Zócalo Public Square, thinking he’d be lucky to attract a few dozen readers and generate an online comment or two. Instead, the physician—a UC Davis medical-school graduate who taught family medicine at the University of Southern California—drew an avalanche of responses. In fact, what he wrote put him center stage in a swirling debate about life, death and doctors. (Continue reading)

Hack the climate

 Like a Bad Robot mega production from J.J. Abrams, the story of geoengineering—wherein scientists propose using large-scale technologies to manipulate the Earth’s temperature as a way to avert global warming—seems straight out of science fiction’s playbook. (Continue reading)

Game changer

 Drive south along the Garden Highway just past Chevy’s and find an unexpected office complex of pale stone and dark wood nestled up against the Sacramento River. Perhaps this elegant headquarters, with its spectacular view of the waterway and downtown skyline, is ground zero for wealthy lawyers or high-rolling political lobbyists? (Continue reading) 

The climate changers

 Floods, droughts, wildfires. Rising sea levels and disappearing coastlines.

The world’s scientists have warned for decades that our planet is warming and—thanks to extreme storms like Hurricane Sandy—we finally seem prepared to believe it. A recent Rasmussen Reports poll found that 68 percent of Americans now agree that global warming is a “serious problem.” (Continue reading) 

Net neutrality: World War Web

 You know the routine. We all do.

Monday morning, 6:30 a.m: You wake up, shower, coffee and go online to check e-mail and CNN for gossip and news of the world. You forward a proposal you drafted over the weekend to your work e-mail. Next, since you compulsively sang it in the shower, you play again that YouTube video of the woman from a Bulgarian version of American Idol crooning Mariah Carey’s “Without You” in her own personal version of English: “Ken Lee … dulibu dibu douchoo … (Continue reading) 

Everybody dies

 My friend, the late poet Diane Callum, wrote a cover story for SN&R back in 1994 that described her journey through diagnosis and into treatment, at age 50, for ductal cell carcinoma, stage 4. In “Breast cancer diary,” she shared with our readers her passion, her anger, the fight she staged against that dreaded disease.  (Continue reading) 

Ruleboy lives

 There’s no way to start but with the truth about Marty.

In the spring of 2004, my brother, a medical doctor living near Placerville, began experiencing symptoms of a neurological disorder. He couldn’t make his fingers move in certain rapid alternating patterns—couldn’t tap his thumb to his ring finger, index finger, and so on, as fast as normal. After multiple tests and a process of elimination, my brother diagnosed himself with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.  (Continue reading) 

The big happy

 Pilar Rivera was devastated by the diagnosis. Breast cancer was the last thing the single mom from Davis thought she’d be facing at age 37. Rivera prepared for an aggressive treatment of chemotherapy and worried about what would become of the life she’d built for herself and her nearly 3-year-old daughter. Then, somewhere along the path on what she calls her “big journey” with cancer, she was surprised to find what she least expected.  (Continue reading) 

2 hours to L.A.—why not?

 The year is 2020. It’s Friday after the workweek from hell, and John Bowie can’t wait for 5 p.m. to roll around. An Analyst II at the state Department of Education, John is set to sprint to the Sacramento rail station, jump on a bullet train and hang out with friends over beers in the café car during the two hours it takes to get to Los Angeles. When the train pulls into Union Station, John will catch the Metro or walk over to the Staples Center and watch the newly reorganized Sacramento Kings slug it out playoff-style with the L.A. Lakers.  (Continue reading) 

Our man in space

 You’d have to live underground to have missed the news: NASA sent seven human beings into orbit on the space shuttle Discovery a little over a month ago, and one of them was a guy born right here in Sacramento. Astronaut Steve Robinson and his crewmates reintroduced the American public to the space-shuttle program following a long hiatus after the shuttle Columbia broke apart in the sky more than two years ago.  (Continue reading) 

Bringing down a dam

 Stand at dead center on top of the giant dam.

Consider for a moment that you live in a world that builds improbable things like this enormous, sloping water gate in this most spectacular of settings deep in the forests of Yosemite National Park. The O’Shaughnessy Dam—with its magnificent arch of concrete, curved inward like an enormous white punch bowl—was thought in its day to be a marvel of industry, a covenant with progress. It didn’t arrive here in this remote place because of a miracle. You just decided to build it.  (Continue reading) 


Running man (the other one)

With less than a month left until Election Day, gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides’ ability to get within fighting distance of incumbent Arnold Schwarzenegger in the race to be California’s next governor is in serious question. Yes, the polls spell out doom and gloom for the state treasurer’s chances at the state’s top post. They also predict all-time low voter turnout on November 7—a phenomenon that gives the advantage to Republican candidates.

Angelides is trying hard to ignore the doomsday talk. (Continue reading)

Red, white and byte

 Ask Joan Blades to show you her office, and she gets a wild grin.

The co-founder of bounds into her North Berkeley living room, with its overflowing bookshelves and kids’ backpacks, and lifts an artfully lacquered hat box. She returns to the dining room and places it on the table. With a flourish, she sets a Sony notebook laptop on top of this base, throws out her arms with dramatic flare and laughs. “Ta daaaa!”  (Continue reading) 

Journey to Cuba

 I boarded a charter plane in Miami thinking a trip to Cuba would involve awesome beaches and a Cold War-, frozen-in-time-style society, where truths come only in black and white. Yes, simple would have been good; black-and-white would have made writing easy.

But as it turned out, Cuba is 8 million shades of gray.   (Continue reading) 

Witness to war

The people had been waiting forever for the bombs to drop.

So, when the first of them fell out of the sky over Baghdad on March 20, Charlie Liteky was as prepared as anyone. Jarred awake just after 4 a.m. on the fourth floor of the Andalus hotel in the eastern part of Iraq’s capital city, Liteky soon was patrolling the hotel corridors floor by floor, making sure everybody was awake and ready for what was happening.

The war was finally on. (Continue reading)

The junk-food wars

 Chomp down on a Big N’ Tasty with Cheese.

Make that a Double Whopper with a side of Biggie Fries, or, instead, why not a Western Bacon Cheeseburger with Great Biggie Fries! Better yet, think outside the bun: Order a Double Burrito Supreme or maybe a Super Supreme Stuffed Crust Pizza. To wash it down, how about a large or extra-large soda or even a 52-ounce X-treme Gulp?  (Continue reading)

Breaking away

 Tens of thousands of men quit the priesthood because they decided not to remain celibate. In Sacramento, many of these ex-clerics wonder if the Church would be stronger today if it didn’t require mandatory celibacy for its priests.  (Continue reading)

Forbidden Medicine

 Curled up barefoot in an overstuffed armchair, the woman delivers grapes to her mouth one-by-one to keep the post-chemo nausea at bay. Her right forearm is attached to a passageway of plastic tubing that climbs straight up over her shoulder to a standard IV drip unit. But these drips contain something much different from the toxic chemotherapy she’s been receiving. The serene woman, with her shock of just-barely-there gray hair, accepts this intravenous nourishment gladly because she believes it will help combat the mutation, the deviation, the thickening in her breast.  (Continue reading)

A Center of Compassion

 It’s a bustling lunch hour at Il Fornaio’s in downtown Sacramento as lawyers, politicos and businessmen dip their bread and twirl their pasta. When a reporter asks the hostess at the upscale Italian bistro if Vlade Divac has arrived for lunch yet, she is assured, “Not yet. But believe me, when he shows up, you won’t miss him.”  (Continue reading)

Prisoner of conscience

 The loudspeaker crackles on and the call goes out across the prison yard for inmate No. 83276-020 to report to the administration building. Within minutes, a lanky man in khakis with white hair and clear blue eyes enters the interrogation room. The prisoner is tanned and wears an unexpected beard. He has the large hands of a working man—powerful and full of intent.  (Continue reading)  

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