Family Portraits: Jeff Antsen

The motto of the University of Pennsylvania is “Leges sine moribus vanae,” which translates to “Laws without morals are useless.” Thus, it’s probably a good school for someone going for a master’s degree in bioethics, as Jeff Antsen can attest.

PGN: Origin? JA: I grew up in Fairfax, Va., right outside of D.C., and lived there until college.

PGN: Was your family into politics? JA: Not per se, but both my parents worked for the government. My dad worked for the Department of Labor and my mom still works for the Department of Defense.

PGN: What was something you liked about Fairfax? JA: Well, I would never move back there, which is not a ringing endorsement. It was quaint, but there’s nothing to do, everyone’s a 10-minute car ride away, so if you don’t have a car, it can get pretty tedious. And I went to a magnet school for science and technology, so my friends were all over the place.

PGN: Was it a good experience? JA: Yes, I had a phenomenal experience in high school. You had to test into the school, so I was there with other people who wanted to go to school. I took a lot of great classes like AP biology and philosophy and a really interesting government course. All my classmates were the kind of people you’d want to keep in touch with long after you left. Even the jocks were intellectuals. I loved it.

PGN: Any sports for you? JA: I rowed. PGN: Who was your first crush? JA: I dated two girls before I came out. The first one turned out to be a lesbian and the second one had five of her exes turn out gay.

PGN: The real-life Grace! JA: Exactly. She actually helped me come out my sophomore year in high school. I had a crush on a guy in my Latin class and she encouraged me to talk about it, thinking I was bisexual. When I finally decided that I really only liked boys, she wasn’t quite so much of a fan.

PGN: Were you out out? JA: Yes, within a few months I came out to everybody. My parents, friends, everyone. My parents weren’t totally on board with it, but they supported me.

PGN: Best thing and toughest thing about coming out? JA: I went from having no idea what was going on with me to coming completely out, which was amazingly liberating. My mother didn’t take it too well. Right after I told her, she got on the phone with her sister and was sobbing hysterically. I thought, Gee, couldn’t you at least have called from the other room? I wasn’t torn up about it, though. I got on the phone with a friend and was joking, “No, she’s having an awesome reaction!” But it all worked out.

PGN: You don’t fit the gay stereotype Were people surprised? JA: People are still surprised. At Woody’s I get asked if I’m straight on a regular basis.

PGN: Higher learning? JA: I went to undergrad at Lehigh University and did a dual-degree, triple major in biology, philosophy and political science. I did two studies abroad for political science. I was in London my sophomore year and Ireland my senior year. They’re great places to study poli-sci because it’s an analogous political history to the U.S., rather than going to a place that has a system completely alien from ours. I’m at Penn now working on my master’s in bioethics.

PGN: Explain bioethics. JA: It started in the medical and research areas, deciding what’s allowable and what’s not when doing research.

PGN: Like cloning people? JA: Well, yes, but that’s a little on the sensational side. There are other more realistic things to consider, end-of-life issues and the ethical side of new drugs. They are developing all these drugs to make people more focused and aware, so where do you stop and what is fair? They’re actually working on a drug right now to create a lack of remorse in soldiers. It would block the development of emotionally charged memories so that soldiers can go out and do the things that they ostensibly have to do, which is a whole other ethics debate, and not have horrible Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after doing them.

PGN: That’s crazy. And when they come home and don’t feel remorse for any of their actions? Or when the drugs show up on the black market, that’s all we need is more people robbing, raping and embezzling without remorse. JA: Well, it’s not a permanent thing. And ethically, maybe we shouldn’t be asking people to do these things in the first place. I take a broad approach to the subject, whereas if you spoke to our professor, Art Caplan, he’d say it’s about research, medicines and vaccines. But to me, it’s applied ethics and any question you have is going to involve people, animals or the environment, some aspect of biology.

PGN: Something silly: I read a murder mystery and the villain ran a fertility clinic. He had a woman who’d fertilized identical twins but didn’t want to raise two toddlers at once, so she had one implanted immediately and then waited to implant the other a few years later, resulting in identical twins who were four years apart. Would that qualify as a bioethical dilemma? JA: I guess you could have a Brave New World-esque scenario where that could actually happen, though I don’t know the science of it. It’s not necessarily diabolical, but it is a question of should you do it just because you can. The field of bioethics started with the Nuremberg Trials. A lot of the Nazi scientists were doing what they thought was legitimate research and actually made interesting discoveries and produced results that they felt were important for their military and country, but that’s where the allies had to show that while the scientists might have thought there were good reasons to do that type of research, we felt there were better reasons not to.

PGN: Like the Tuskegee Experiments where, for years, they were studying poor black sharecroppers who had syphilis and didn’t bother to tell them that a treatment had been found because they wanted to continue the study. JA: Yes. [It’s about] how does technology interrelate with ethics and how should we behave as people in an ambiguous world.

PGN: Back to you: how do you like Philadelphia? JA: It’s the first time I’ve lived in a city and I really like it. When I first moved here, I got hilariously lost every time I got off the blue line trying to get to Woody’s. I’d walk in circles until I found it.

PGN: How did you get the job? JA: I attended a Boys of Summer party at Voyeur and won the “Hot Body” contest. [Laughs.] I’d already put in an application to be a barback, but I think winning the contest helped me get the job at Woody’s.

PGN: Had you bartended before? JA: No, never. I was a resident’s assistant in college, which was a people-person job, but that was it. I really enjoy the job. I work as a barback and sometimes as a bartender.

PGN: What’s your best drink? JA: I can make a Red Devil, which has seven or eight different kinds of liquor. It’s kind of asinine.

PGN: Do you get hit on a lot? JA: No. The crazy thing is people always assume I’m straight!

PGN: What drives you crazy? JA: When we have college night and you get kids pulling out crumpled dollar bills, one at a time, while you have a line of people waiting. I just want to scream, “What are you doing?”

PGN: I bartend on occasion and I hate when people order a drink, wait until you finish making it and then ask for a second one of the same drink. JA: Oh yeah, I hate that, especially with a complicated drink like the Red Devil. And then they don’t tip!

PGN: Outside of work and school, any hobbies? JA: I like to run and I love to read. I have one book, “Invisible Cities,” that I read over and over. It’s by an Italian author, Italo Calvino, and it was assigned reading for a poli-sci class called “The Politics of Authenticity.” Every time I reread it, I discover something new. I’m a little bit of an evangelist with it: I buy several copies and give them away.

PGN: I’m like that with “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood. I must have given away 10 copies. It’s an amazing book about what could happen if we’re not careful and let extremist factors take over our government. It was written in 1985 and is very relevant today. JA: Really? From the cover design, I thought it was med-ieval, but it sounds very dystopian. That’s what I get for judging a book by the cover! If you’re a reader, I actually have a copy of “Invisible Cities” with me now if you want it …

PGN: Cool! Speaking of judging a book by the cover, I bet seeing you carrying buckets of ice behind the bar, most people have no idea what an intellectual you are. I might have thought you were more of a muscle boy myself. JA: [Laughs.] That’s a relatively new thing. I was scrawny and uncoordinated growing up. Phys-ed class was my worst nightmare for years. Now I really enjoy using my body for doing things. It’s one of the reasons I like being at the bar: being physical, using muscle. It’s like working on a farm, only instead of lifting bales of hay, it’s cases of beer!

PGN: I like it when people surprise me. It’s one of the fun things about doing the column. JA: It makes life more interesting when you talk to someone and there’s something more to learn beyond what you see.

PGN: Tell me about your tattoo. JA: It’s the band logo for VNV Nation, a techno/industrial band from the U.K. I like them because their music is dynamic, and they don’t fit into any one genre. My favorite songs of theirs are the instrumental pieces. And some of their harder songs, which combine thoughtful lyrics with bold rhythms. I wanted to get the tattoo for what the “VNV” stands for: Victory Not Vengeance. It’s a motto and an ideal that I try and struggle to live by. To me, it means fighting hard but not looking for revenge when things don’t go my way. I’d thought about getting it for four years and, every few months, I would float the idea past my mom, who of course reacted violently each time. Perseverance paid off in the end and when she eventually didn’t say “no,” I got it in the spring of 2009 on a meaningful Friday.

PGN: Which talent would you most like to have? JA: I’d really like to be musically inclined, maybe a great guitar or fiddle player. My favorite instrument is the electric violin. I really like folk/fiddle music because of its speed and intricacy. It involves an amazing amount of focus and artistry.

PGN: If you could un-invent any past invention, what would it be? JA: The notion that we should patent genes? I’m trying to come up with something that’s done a lot of ecological harm, but I feel like a lot of those things were necessary steps in progress. I don’t know, CFCs or DDT?

PGN: If you could journey into the land of any book, where would you go? JA: Wow, lots of good places to go. It would be pretty inhospitable, but Arrakis from “Dune” would be amazing. Frank Herbert created such a complex world. Maybe I’d go after the political strife of that novel, but before the political strife of all the other novels.

PGN: What was your most dangerous stunt? JA: I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve done anything conventionally dangerous. Other than moving to the city, not knowing anyone here. My first set of roommates were a disaster, but things have worked out well. I sort of take pride in my ability to adapt and find what I need in any circumstances.

PGN: If you could become fully enlightened on one subject, what would it be? JA: I think the only answer to this would have to be philosophy, because it’s the field of meta-understanding of all other topics. I love learning and reading philosophy, but I know my history of philosophy is pretty patchy. And beyond that, philosophy has so many sub-disciplines that I’ve only brushed on but that I think are incredibly interesting: philosophy of science, language, mathematics, government, aesthetics …

PGN: Well, you’re only 23. You should be able to fit a few more Ph.D.s in before you’re finished!

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