Friday, June 6, 2008

Náhuatl tongue-twisters

Warning: doggerel directly ahead!

Sure, it's a volcano.
But it's also a word that'll test your mettle.
Sacred dog of the Aztecs, beloved by Frida Kahlo,
ugly as a Sharpei but not quite as crinkly
Not just a plumed serpent god beloved by D.H. Lawrence among others,
but also a word that's hard to say, in fact if it doesn't make you stammer and stutter,
I dunno what'll.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

¿Qué pasa?

Just catching up since Sunday. Monday evening was the long-awaited "cena de bienvenido" (not a moment too soon, as this is my last week). There were many new students, including a big group from California, but none at the advanced level. Which means that it's back to one-on-one in my conversation classes with Manuel every day. Learning a lot, but I tend to be pretty exhausted by the time 3 o'clock rolls around. Yesterday evening I had a very nice dinner with Renee and her husband Steve, both from Huntsville. Renee was my housemate at Aurora's during my first week here, and Steve just joined her on Saturday, staying for the week. I give him major points for signing up for the beginners' class at the school for the week. Tonight is the regular Café Social, probably followed by drinking and debauching at the 'Bar Ocho', which has the distinct advantage of being only a block from the hotel, so that I can roll home easily.

On the cultural side of things, not all of one's choices can be successful. I walked out of "Sin Lugar para los Debiles" (No Country for Old Men) somewhere around the half-hour mark, just as Javier Bardem was racking up his 10th victim, with disturbing relish and no end in sight. On the literary side, Paul Auster's "New York Trilogy" (which I picked up second-hand last week when my craving for something to read in English became too great) was a major disappointment. More accurately, the first 'story' of the trilogy, "City of Glass" was such an irritatingly self-referential, hyper-cerebral, 'what a clever boy am I', piece of vacuous pomo garbage that I have sworn off this particular 'writer' for life....

The plain people of Ireland: What was that? You're reading porno now?
The management: No, idiots! Not 'porno' as in 'pornography'. 'Pomo' as in 'post-modern'.
The plain people of Ireland: Are you sure? Looks like porno to us.
The management: What we have here is a font kerning issue. Look it up.
The plain people of Ireland: 'keming' - what's 'keming'?
The management: Oh, never mind....

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Mysteries of Guanajuato

Like any good travel destination, Guanajuato does not reveal all of its charms at once, preferring to retain that certain air of mystery to keep the traveler is intrigued. There are at several mysteries of Guanajuato which continue to keep this particular visitor baffled. Here are two:

1. The bells.

Mexico is a Catholic country, and there are plenty of churches here in the city. Each equipped with a belfry. The mystery is what possible benighted schedule, if any, governs the sounding of the bells. On a typical evening, 8 o'clock will come and go, with barely a tintinnabulation (or whatever it is that bells do) to mark the occasion. Then, for no apparent reason, completely out of nowhere, 8:15 comes and every church in town goes crazy. It can take 5 minutes for the assorted pealing to come to an end.

Not that it's the same every night. That would be far too simple. Some evenings the eruption might be at 8:45. Or there might be two, one at 7:45, another at 8:30. The only consistency appears to be that the full campanological power is rarely unleashed directly on the hour. Because that would seem altogether far too reasonable.

2. The hotel furniture.

I've had two weeks to ponder this, and it still has me beat. Did they have a contest? Did someone actually come up with a competition to see who could design the worst furniture ever? I'm not talking aesthetics here (though God knows some of it is pretty ugly). I'm just talking in terms of actual - you know - function. Because most of the furniture in my hotel room is actually completely useless. Bulky. But useless.

Unless, of course, you happen to be paraplegic. Or a midget. Or both.

You doubt me? You want photographic documentation? Be my guest:

writing desk for the paraplegic

Not actually usable by anyone who has, you know, knees.

for the vertically challenged

Useful if you were thinking of entertaining a couple of the seven dwarves, maybe.

bulky, but useless

This almost hits the trifecta. It's bulky, hideously ugly, but is not completely useless, I suppose.

Best. Breakfast. Ever.

Sometimes life just hands you a little gift. Out of the blue, for no apparent reason. This morning was one of those times. (Out of respect for privacy, I've changed the names - everything else is just as it happened).

About 11am, and I had gone out in search of breakfast. I ended up in a little courtyard cafe near the center, and decided to risk the "hot cakes" with my coffee. Passing the time alternating between doing my homework for tomorrow's class and watching the world go by. At one of the other tables in the cafe, there were what appeared to be two elderly U.S. couples - with all the appearance of retired academics. Which is nothing unusual here in Guanajuato - at a guess, at least a quarter of the audience at the symphony on Friday night had been retired Americans. What was unusual about these folks is the way they were staring at me. Which bordered on being a little rude, to tell the truth.

At this point, I should explain something about my wardrobe. When you work at a company like Genentech for as long as I did (16 years), you end up with a lot of T-shirts. At times it seemed as if every company milestone, every new product launch, was celebrated with free T-shirts for all employees. Sometimes you ended up with T-shirts for projects you had barely worked on. Anyway, as luck would have it, this morning I was wearing one of my Lucentis T-shirts. Lucentis was a product I had done quite a bit of work on, and remains one of my proudest Genentech memories.

In brief, Lucentis is a drug that was developed to fight AMD (age-related macular degeneration), the leading cause of blindness in the elderly, and a condition against which there had previously been few effective treatments. Left untreated, AMD leads to a gradual, inexorable loss of central vision, with losses of 4 to 5 lines on an eye chart within 2 years being typical. Often it strikes otherwise healthy, active people and the effect on the quality of life can be devastating. As it turned out, Lucentis, which was approved for use in the U.S. before I left Genentech, is spectacularly effective in treating the disease. Its particular mechanism of action causes it not only to slow the loss of vision associated with the disease, but in many cases results in subjects regaining previously lost vision, often after only a single treatment (its major drawback is that it is given by intraocular injection, so there's a thqueamishness factor, but given the terrific effectiveness, this didn't seem to bother patients all that much).

Anyway, it's rare to get the chance to work on an experimental drug whose eventual results turn out to be as good as those for Lucentis, so I've always had fond memories of that particular project. But, back to this morning. What was causing my neighbors in the cafe to stare at me so oddly? You've guessed - it was the Lucentis T-shirt. Eventually, one of the two women approached and asked if I worked for Genentech. Upon learning that I had, pointing at my T-shirt, she asked if I had worked on Lucentis. When I said I had, she just burst into tears and hugged me. By now, I was a little teared up myself. She dragged me over to their table, saying all the time "You saved Frank's life. Mine too."

After introductions all around, it turned out that Frank, her husband, had developed wet AMD (the aggressive form of the disease) several years earlier, had been losing vision rapidly, when his ophthalmologist suggested enrolling him in one of the ongoing clinical trials for Lucentis, which was still an experimental therapy at that point. In his particular case, results had been immediate and striking, and he had been able to maintain vision with just a couple of maintenance shots since the trial had ended a couple of years ago.

It's a little embarrassing, truth be told, to be on the spot, soaking up all the credit for an effort you knew actually involved hundreds, if not thousands, of other employees. But I'd be lying if I said it didn't feel good. It feels awesome. I've been roaming the streets of Guanajuato since then, with a huge grin on my face, humming to myself in a way that is making people look at me funny.

I didn't get to pay for my pancakes this morning. We chatted for a long time over breakfast, and I just kept thinking to myself - "what a gift". It's the kind of experience that life rewards you with occasionally when you work for a company like Genentech. I remember, on my first sabbatical, when I was travelling in Europe, this Dutch woman I'd never seen before in my life came up to me on a train in Germany, threw her arms around me and thanked me for saving her father's life (he had been treated with tPA during a heart attack). But I just wasn't particularly expecting anything unusual when I went out to breakfast this morning. Which made it all the more sweet, somehow.

This post is dedicated to all my former colleagues at Genentech, and to those on the Lucentis team in particular.

(And yes, I'm sorry, but it goes well beyond my current blogging skills to put that little trademark sign by Lucentis)